Both Black and Blue Lives Matter.

This is ill-timed, so it is probably ill-considered.  Probably mealy-mouthed as well.

Generally, crime rates in America are down markedly from two decades ago.  (This is not true if you live in Chicago.)  The drop has not entirely been explained.  One explanation, advanced by the police is that aggressive street policing (e.g. “stop-and-frisk”) has taken criminals off the street, deterred many others, and stopped a downward spiral of civic demoralization.[1]

Effective or not, the policy had unhappy consequences that were not, but could have been, anticipated.   First, African-Americans are victims of crime at much higher rates than are whites.  Since we live in a still-segregated society, this means that most crime is intra-racial, rather than inter-racial.  African-Americans are disproportionately both victims and victimizers.  Concentrating policing on high-crime areas inevitably assumed a character that could easily be construed as “racist.”

Second, the vast majority of people living in high-crime areas are not criminals.  As a result, “stop-and-frisk” involves stopping and frisking lots of innocent people in order to catch a few guilty ones.  All those innocent people have every right to feel that they are being harassed merely because they fit some demographic profile.  Not much effort seems to have been committed to trying to ease this feeling, if it even would be possible.

Third, policing appears to be a “coarse art,” instead of a “fine art.”  Ordinary fallible and flawed human beings have to figure out how to carry out the strategies defined by their superiors.  Often they have to carry out these policies while in contact with difficult, non-compliant people.  Moreover, America is awash in firearms.  Far too often, these interactions end in violent death.   Often, but not always, the circumstances are gray rather than black and white.  Afterwards, prosecutors, judges, and juries are more inclined than not to reject condemning the police.  Politicians pile-on, affirming that the laws are applied in a discriminatory way, or voicing platitudes, or asserting an unquestioning integral defense of police conduct.

If you stay at this policy long enough, you’re going to anger an awful lot of people.  It’s like building up the “fuel” for a forest fire.  All that is required for a conflagration is a lightning strike or a series of them.

Trayvon Martin.  Michael Brown.  Eric Garner.  Laquan McDonald.  Walter Scott.  Freddy Gray.  All were lightning strikes that set off a conflagration.  On the one hand, the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement sprang up.  On the other hand, American views on the state of race relations shifted from optimistic to pessimistic.  Recently, Baltimore prosecutors have suffered a series of stinging defeats in the effort to prosecute police officers in the arresting-to-death of Freddy Gray.  Then, police in Minnesota and Louisiana shot to death two black men in what should have been minor incidents.  More lightning strikes.

Protests erupted in many cities.  In Dallas, a black sniper used the occasion of one such peaceful protest to kill five police officers.

It has been difficult to hold an intelligent conversation about these matters.  For one thing, the subject is both complex and painful.  For another, it coincides with other complex and painful controversies.  The white populist revolts in both major parties.  The mass shootings and terrorist attacks.  Are these issues inter-related, with a common solution, or is it just our bad luck that they arose at the same time?

[1] See Barry Friedman, “Thin Blue Lines,” NYT Book Review, 3 July 2016.  Friedman reviews Heather Mac Donald, The War on Cops:, and Malcolm Sparrow, Handcuffed.

It ain’t necessarily so 4.

“There are more than 1,000 fatal shootings by police in the US each year, and those killed are disproportionately African-American.”


What does “disproportionately” mean?

In 2015, police officers shot to death 662 whites and Hispanics and 258 blacks.[1]  Thus, with 14 percent of the American population, blacks accounted for 28 percent of deaths at the hands of police.  Leaving aside the small number of Asian-American deaths at the hands of the police, whites and Hispanics accounted for about 85 percent of the population and 72 percent of the deaths at the hands of the police.  So, yes, obviously blacks are over-represented among those killed by police.

However, the police are not the only danger faced by blacks.  In 2014, there were 6,095 black homicide deaths.  There were 5,397 white and Hispanic homicide deaths.  That is a total of 11,492 homicide deaths.  Black homicide deaths amounted to 53 percent of the total, while blacks amount to 14 percent of the population.

The 662 whites and Hispanic shot to death by police in 2015 amounted to approximately 12 percent of all white and Hispanic homicides.  The 258 blacks shot to death by police in 2015 amounted to approximately 4 percent of all black homicides.  In comparison to the over-all danger of a violent death, black homicide victims were: a) less likely to die at the hands of the police than were white or Hispanic homicide victims; and b) less likely to die from a police shooting than from a non-police shooting.  According to one study of New York City by a University of Pennsylvania criminologist, black officers at a shooting were 3.3 times more likely than were other officers to fire their weapon.  Perhaps they’re less worried about being called racists for smoking somebody who gestured at them with a weapon?

According to the EffaBeeEye, between 2005 and 2015, 40 percent of cop-killers were black, while about 14 percent of the population is black.  Blacks kill cops at 2.5 times the rate at which cops kill blacks.

The homicide rate in the United States is 3.8 per 100,000 people.  The homicide rate in Venezuela is 53.7 per 100,000.  The homicide rate in Honduras is 90.4 per 100,000.[2]  The homicide rate in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago is 116.7 per 100,000.  By late April 2016 more than 1,000 people had been killed in Chicago.  If this death toll stays on that track there will be at least 3,000 homicides in the city by Christmas 2016.  Most of the deaths are attributed to gang-related shootings.[3]  There were 2,996 dead in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The reality—and the glaring tragedy utterly ignored by white America—is that many blacks live in a cauldron of violence.  According to the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2009, in 75 counties, blacks were charged with 62 percent of robberies, 57 percent of murders, and 45 percent of assaults.  Blacks made up 15 percent of the population in those counties.  America remains a deeply segregated society, so these are a pretty good measure of the victimization rates among blacks.

What caused this disaster?  The war on drugs?  The unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs?  White flight from big cities to escape turmoil and violence—and integration?  How many of our problems run back to the Sixties and Seventies?  When America was “great.”

[1] Heather MacDonald, “The Myths of Black Lives Matter,” WSJ, 12 February 2016.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 16.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 6 May 2016, p. 16.

Race and Policing.

In August 2014, a police officer shot to death Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In August 2014, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[1] Among African-Americans, 80 percent believed that the shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” and 37 percent of whites agreed. In contrast, 47 percent of whites believed that “race is getting more attention [in the media] than it deserves.”[2] In December 2014, after the failure of a grand jury to indict police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad, and 36 percent thought race relations were getting worse. In January 2015, 40 percent of Americans thought race relations were “fairly good” or “very good.”[3] In March 2015, 38 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[4] Then, in April 2015 came the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and the death of Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots. Soon afterward, 61 percent of Americans said race relations were bad; 44 percent thought that race relations were getting worse.[5]   In sum, less than a year ago, a large minority of Americans, but a huge majority of African-Americans, thought that race relations were bad. Broadly, this pattern continued until Spring 2015. Then the deaths of Walter Clark and Freddie Gray triggered a lurch toward seeing race relations as bad.

Clearly, this growing sense that race relations are bad is related to police use of force. In December 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, 48 percent approved the decision, and 45 percent disapproved it, including 85 percent of African-Americans.[6] When, on 3 December 2014, a grand-jury refused to indict New York police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 57 percent of Americans saw this as an error, 22 percent saw it as the correct decision, and 21 percent weren’t sure or didn’t know. Within the majority believing the decision to be an error were 90 percent of African-Americans polled, but only 47 percent of whites.[7] Again, there is a consistent majority of African-American opinion holding one opinion. White opinion seems to have shifted as case after case of grand juries refusing to indict police officers came to their attention.

In December 2014, 40 percent of Americans believed that deadly force was more likely to be used against an African-American.[8] In April 2015, 44 percent of Americans believed that the police are more likely to use deadly force against an African-American.[9] At the same time, 37 percent of whites and 79 percent of African-Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans. A hair over 50 percent of Americans didn’t believe that race is a factor in police officers’ decision to use force.

There are at least two possible explanations for the divergence of views between African-Americans and Caucasian Americans. One explanation is that intense media attention to an unusual series of controversial cases has allowed African-American activists to foment anger. In this interpretation, the passage of time will heal wounds. Another explanation is that American society remains deeply segregated, so Caucasian Americans have no sense of the range of real experiences of African-Americans. In this interpretation, African-Americans are broadly correct in their perception and Caucasian Americans are living in a dream world.

By December 2014, a huge majority of Americans–some 87 percent–wanted body cameras on police so that contested incidents can have some kind of documentary record. (The racial divide on the issue was virtually non-existent: 90 percent of African-Americans and 85 percent of whites favor the cameras.)[10]

Which interpretation is more nearly correct? In early June 2015, a Washington Post effort to quantify police shootings found that US police had shot and killed at least 385 people in the first half of 2015. Two-thirds of the unarmed people killed by the police were African-Americans or Hispanics.[11] So, apparently, the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and Hispanics as well.

According to the 2012 census, 63 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white; 17 percent was Hispanic-Latino; 12.4 percent was African-American; 4.4 percent was Asian-American, for a total of 96.8 percent. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Arab Americans made up the remainder.[12]

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans.[13] If African-Americans make up about one-eighth of the population, then they are massively over-represented among the ranks of those liable to be murdered. Many African-Americans live in a violent place that white Americans cannot or will not bother to imagine. Moreover, use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, but 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[14] Without wanting to argue for a wider use of the death penalty, can this be read as a subtle affirmation that “Black Lives Don’t Matter”?

Are African-Americans more likely to use deadly force against police officers? In January 2015, the Washington Post reported that 511 police officers had been killed between 2004 and 2013. Of the 540 people identified as having been involved in the killings, 43 percent were African-American and 52 percent were white.[15] Thus, it appears that Hispanics and Asians aren’t likely to kill police officers; whites are statistically somewhat under-represented in the killing of police officers; and African-Americans are dramatically over-represented.

These statistics just add another layer of complexity to understanding the violent police-community interactions that have so deeply troubled America in the last year.

The discussion shouldn’t stop there however. Race relations aren’t just about policing. In the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore attending the arresting-to-death of Freddie Gray, 50 percent of African-Americans believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting.[16] To take just one example, in the wake of the “Great Recession,” white people are dramatically better off than are African-Americans. An average white household possesses 13 times as much “wealth” (assets, not income) as does the average African-American household.[17] In contrast, 39 percent of whites believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting. That means that 61 percent of whites and 50 percent of African-Americans either did not believe that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting or they “didn’t know.” You don’t have to believe that the rioters in Baltimore were driven by poverty and a lack of opportunity to believe that the focus on policing is a way of avoiding taking about other, more troubling and difficult dimensions of race relations.

[1] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 January, 2015, p. 17.

[4] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[5] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 12 December 2014, p. 19.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19.

[8] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[9] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[10] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19. There is something very American and contemporary about believing that the solution to a problem is to be found in technology.

[11] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.   About a quarter of the people killed were subsequently identified as mentally ill. Harder to organize the mentally ill, march on city hall, chant “No sanity, no peace.”


[13] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[14] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[15] “Noted,” The Week, 23 January 2015, p. 16.

[16] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 17.

[17] “Noted,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 16.