A few days ago, former police officer Jason Stockley, who is white, was acquitted of first-degree murder; he had fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, in 2011. Protests started in St. Louis, where the shooting took place and Stockley was judged, immediately after the verdict was announced. Although they were initially peaceful, they soon turned violent, and dozens of protesters were arrested while several police officers were injured. Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis, in 2014, this has become a familiar pattern. This article is not about whether Stockley should have been acquitted. Instead, I want to talk about the underlying narrative regarding the prevalence of police brutality against black men in the U.S., which is largely undisputed in the media.
According to this narrative, black men are constantly harassed by the police and routinely brutalized with impunity, even when they have done nothing wrong, and there is an “epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men.” Even high-profile black celebrities often claim to be afraid of the police because the same thing might happen to them. Police brutality, or at least the possibility that one might become a victim of such violence, is supposed to be part of the experience of a typical black man in the U.S. Events such as the death of Brown in Ferguson are presented as proof that black men are never safe from the police. This narrative is false. In reality, a randomly selected black man is overwhelmingly unlikely to be victim of police violence — and though white men experience such violence even less often, the disparity is consistent with the racial gap in violent crime, suggesting that the role of racial bias is small. The media’s acceptance of the false narrative poisons the relations between law enforcement and black communities throughout the country and results in violent protests that destroy property and sometimes even claim lives. Perhaps even more importantly, the narrative distracts from far more serious problems that black Americans face.
Let’s start with the question of fatal violence. Last year, according to the Washington Post’s tally, just 16 unarmed black men, out of a population of more than 20 million, were killed by the police. The year before, the number was 36. These figures are likely close to the number of black men struck by lightning in a given year, considering that happens to about 300 Americans annually and black men are 7 percent of the population. And they include cases where the shooting was justified, even if the person killed was unarmed. Of course, police killings are not the result of a force of nature, and I’m not claiming these are morally equivalent. But the comparison illustrates that these killings are incredibly rare, and that it’s completely misleading to talk about an “epidemic” of them. You don’t hear people talk about an epidemic of lightning strikes and claim they are afraid to go outside because of it. Liberals often make the same comparison when they argue that it’s completely irrational to fear that you might become a victim of terrorism.
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