Whenever there is an outcry about an unarmed black person being killed by a white person or by a police officer, there are those who downplay its significance by pointing out two facts.
- More black people are killed by other black people than are killed by white people or killed by police.
- More white people are killed by black criminals than black people are killed by white criminals.
So why the outcry over the relatively small number of innocent black people killed by police?
My answer is that, of course, we the people should be concerned about all violent crime, no matter what the race of the perpetrator and no matter what the race of the victim. All lives do matter.
There are two reasons to focus on police killings of unarmed black people. One is that these tragedies occur against a background of abuse of black people. The other is that, in general, police are not unaccountable for their exercise of deadly force.
I can see how police officers in certain circumstances might mistakenly think they are in mortal peril, and take an innocent life. What’s troublesome is the apparent lack of remorse for taking innocent life, especially when it is the life of a black person.
Eric Garner, a harmless black man accused of illegally selling individual cigarettes, was choked to death by New York City police while saying “I can’t breathe.” New York City police held a demonstration saying, mockingly, “I can breathe.” I are willing to believe this callousness is not universal. But it is certainly not limited to NYC police.
As to crime in general, it is a statistical fact that white people accused of killing black people are on average treated more leniently than black people accused of killing white people. This is especially true in parts of the South where, within my lifetime, it was taken for granted that a white person had a right to kill a disrespectful black person.
I can easily bring to mind cases of innocent black people sent to prison on charges of killing white people. The Central Park jogger case comes to mind, as does the Betty Tyson case here in Rochester. Now maybe there is a case of an innocent white person who was executed or sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a black person, but if so, I don’t know what it is.
Death Penalty Focus reported that statistically a killer of a non-Hispanic white is three times more likely to get the death penalty than the killer of an African-American.
Police abuse of civilians, like violent crime, would be a serious problem even if there were no racial disparities. All lives matter. But it is a statistical fact that black people are singled out for abuse, and that blacks more than whites are treated as if their lives do not matter.
The fact that black people are killed by police in disproportionate numbers may have any number of explanations. But I see no explanation other than racial prejudice or racial fear for the fact that a disproportionate number of unarmed blacks are killed, and that a disproportionate number of those are killed by being beaten to death or some other means slower than pulling a trigger.
Nor is it a fact that African-American preachers and community leaders are silent about crime in general. Just because their words are not routinely reported in the press doesn’t mean the words are not spoken.
I remember Jessie Jackson’s visits to Rochester, NY, and his inspirational speeches to high school students to study hard, keep out of trouble and make their parents proud of them. I’m pretty sure these speeches weren’t reported outside Rochester, but they were as much a part of his message as his denunciations of corporations for not hiring black people.
Some people say that poor black people are prone to crime because of poverty and racism. Maybe so and maybe not. Probably there would be some crime even with full employment, high wages, good schools and equal opportunity. I think it is worth making that experiment to see what happens.
A final thought: More Americans are killed by American-on-American crime that ever were killed by Islamic terrorists, but we take terrorism seriously just the same. Our actions and feelings are not determined by statistics alone.
Death Penalty Focus: Racial Disparities by Death Penalty Focus.
The Death Penalty in Black and White by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Fatal shootings by on-duty police officers: An analysis by Kimberly Kindy and Kimbriell Kelly for the Washington Post.
Let’s retire the term ‘black-on-black’ crime, focus instead of gang culture by Lincoln A. Blades for Chicago’s The Griot.
Chicago Moms Take to the Street to Prevent Violence, Doing a Better Job Than Cops and Gun Control by Matt Agorist for the Free Thought Project.
NJ admits police killed Jerame Reid with his hands up, but he moved a bit, so, you know, no charges by Shaun King for Daily Kos.
Ferguson: Police still killing unarmed black men one year later by Sondhya Somashekhar, Wesley Lowry and Keith L. Alexander for the Washington Post.
The Short, Hard Life of Freddie Gray by Nicolás Medina More for Buzzfeed.
Now will we act? The killings on Genesee Street by Mary Anna Towler for City newspaper in Rochester, NY.