I want to come back to accusations that my column discussing Ferguson, Missouri is animated by racism. I observed that young black males attract the “special attention” of law enforcement, and that any population focused on by people with guns—even law enforcers—will suffer a disproportionate amount of police violence. I also made the observation that this sad truth is hard to avoid, because young black males are often rightly the focus of police attention.
Some readers assume that to observe something is to justify it. And so, when I say that the current configuration of crime, law enforcement, and race in our society means that young black men will suffer police violence to a disproportionate degree as compared to the rest of the population, I’m somehow condoning or excusing this fact.
At work here is an overheated moral outrage that assumes that anything short of denunciation is commendation. Thus, when I take an analytic perspective that abstains from immediate moral judgment, I’m giving aid and comfort to injustice.
There are times when this mentality makes some sense. As Jesus once observed, “He who is not with us is against us.” But I don’t think we live in such a time, at least not with respect to the sadly familiar patterns of crime and police violence when it comes to race.
Other readers fix on my observation that there are good reasons why police focus on young black males. This is regarded as a racist view.
I’m not sure how to respond other than to make some very broad statistical observations strongly suggesting that, given their mandate to prevent crime, law enforcement agencies rightly focus on young black males.
The NAACP website reports that blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. I’m certainly willing to assume that this reflects racially targeted policing that sweeps up more black crime than white crime and a judicial system more likely to send blacks to prison than whites. Perhaps, therefore, a black criminal is twice as likely to be arrested and convicted than a white criminal committing the same crimes. That’s an extraordinarily large disparity, one I think unlikely given our extensive civil rights apparatus, but let’s assume it’s sadly true. Under that assumption, blacks are three times as likely as whites to commit the sorts of crimes that lead to arrest and conviction. This is an extraordinary difference that’s bound to influence policing.
I’m opposed to racial profiling, which we rightly reject in our society. But a police chief rightly focuses his forces on neighborhoods where crimes are being committed, which are statistically more likely to be black than white. (Though not necessarily so—these observations reflect statistical trends not local realities.)
And so we’re back to my basic analysis. Because of the distribution of crime by race—why that’s the case isn’t at issue here—there will be more policemen with guns in predominantly black neighborhoods than white ones. And given statistical likelihoods, those policemen will be especially focused on young black males. So, again, when those policemen fail to do what’s right, when they fail to be good policemen, those young men suffer the most.
The most egregious case was that of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant for Africa. In 1999 in the Bronx he died in a hail of bullets from the guns of four NYPD officers who thought he matched the description of a serial rapist and that the wallet he took out of his pocket was a gun. It was a senseless, unjust, and tragic death.
We can and should do everything we can to improve police practice, discourage racial stereotypes, and prevent any equation of black skin with violence and crime. Most young black men are not criminals. Amadou Diallo wasn’t. But they suffer from the fact that so many criminals in America are black. Therefore, as a society we won’t fully succeed in protecting young black males from police violence until we break down the statistical links between race and crime.
That’s going to require a change in culture. And not, I want to emphasize, black culture alone, but the dominant white culture as well. They are far more intertwined than our politically correct rhetoric would have us believe.