For many years, I was skeptical about accusations of racism in the criminal justice system.
Yes, I knew that Blacks comprised only about 12% of the population yet represented 33% of the prison population. But those data alone did not prove that police are racists or that courts are tougher on Blacks than others. The relevant criterion is not the percentage of the population, but the percentage of the criminal population, and when you consider the higher rates of offending among African Americans, the seemingly disproportionate rates of incarceration make sense.
Well, some countered, if you look at who winds up on death row, you can see the racism at work. Less than half of murder victims in the U.S. are white, yet a 2003 study found that 80% of inmates on death row had killed white people.
I wasn’t convinced. It might be evidence of racism, or it could be that when people kill others of their same race, they are more likely to know them. These could be crimes of passion and therefore less likely to draw the death penalty. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2005, nearly 78% of Blacks were murdered by other Blacks, and nearly 70% of whites were killed by other whites.
I thought Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a cop in Ferguson was tragic, but the Obama Department of Justice investigation found that the forensic evidence supported the officer’s version of events.
My views have changed though, bit by bit, over the past half-decade.
Was it the sheer accumulation of cases? Eric Garner was choked to death. Yes, he was resisting arrest, but for what? For selling “loosies” — untaxed cigarettes. Freddie Gray, 25, was taken into custody in Baltimore. Handcuffed but not belted to his seat, police took him for what they called a “rough ride.” Somehow, he snapped his spine in the police van. He lapsed into a coma and died a week later.
Walter Scott was stopped for a defective taillight. After initial questioning and a quick scuffle, Scott fled the officer (perhaps fearful because he owed back child support). Officer Michael Slager shot Scott in the back, killing him. He filed a police report saying that Scott had grabbed his Taser, but a bystander video showed that after the shooting, Officer Slager ran back to the site of the initial scrap, picked something up and dropped it next to Scott’s body.
Laquan McDonald was a 17-year-old with PCP in his system and a knife in his hand. But contrary to the police report suggesting that McDonald was shot after lunging at police, the autopsy showed that he was hit 16 times, nine of them in the back.
Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging and was tracked and trapped by a two-car posse that included a former law enforcement officer. The last words Arbery heard before he died were “f------ n-----.”
And, of course, there’s the depraved murder of George Floyd, crushed to death under the knee of a pitiless cop while three others stood by.
I know there are videos of whites being shot by police. And as John McWhorter argues, it’s likely that we haven’t seen those videos because they don’t fit the narrative of racist white cops.
And yet, I think of the testimony of Black men that they are routinely pulled over and hassled for “driving while Black.” Is that their imagination? Can we dismiss Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who recalls a meeting at which one man after another recounted his experiences of being stopped by police, only to reveal that it was a conference of Black physicists? What about Senator Tim Scott? He was stopped seven times in one year driving in his own neighborhood.
There’s data about those traffic stops. A study looked at 95 million traffic stops by 56 different police agencies between 2011 and 2018. They found that Blacks were far more likely than whites to be pulled over — but the disparity declined at night, when it’s harder to detect the race of the driver.
A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in February 2020 looked at responses to 2 million 911 calls in two cities. It found that white officers were five times as likely to use force, including deadly force, in minority neighborhoods than African American officers.
There’s a lot more where that came from.
Some conservatives object that African American men are far more likely to die at the hands of other African American men than at the hands of police and demand to know where the outrage is about deaths in Chicago. But criminals are criminals. The police, by contrast, are hired, trained and armed by all of us. They are sworn to protect and to serve.
There is no equivalence between the acts of Derek Chauvin and a Chicago gang member.
I’ve long believed that police have a difficult job and deal with the worst of the worst on a daily basis. I’m grateful for their protection. And there’s a lot of crying wolf in the race business. See Smollett, Jussie. But I’ve come to believe that mistreatment of African Americans is not a myth and is not uncommon.
I’m glad that so many Americans are signaling their dismay at these outcomes. People’s minds can change. Mine did.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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