Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University.
In the United States, by most estimates, African-Americans are at least twice as likely as other populations to be killed by police. Nearly two times a week, a white police officer kills a black person.
So white policeman Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., because Michael Brown is African-American. Right?
Wrong. We know nothing about Mr. Wilson’s state of mind or decision-making on Aug. 9, when he shot and killed Mr. Brown. When we assume the worst about Mr. Wilson, we echo one of the worst forms of American bigotry: inferring individual action from group statistics.
And nobody is more victimized by that error than African-Americans, of course. Proportionately, blacks in the U.S. engage in certain violent crimes more often than other people do: Between 1976 and 2005, for example, African-Americans – who make up about 13 per cent of the population – committed more than half of all murders in the United States.
But it hardly follows that every black man is a violent criminal, or should be suspected as one. That’s the cardinal sin of racial profiling and of so many other anti-black prejudices that infect American criminal justice.
In Ferguson, Mo., where African-Americans make up less than two-thirds of the population, they accounted for 86 per cent of all traffic stops last year. And when stopped, they were almost twice as likely to be searched as whites and twice as likely to be arrested.
Meanwhile, the police department of St. Louis County – where Ferguson is located – fired a white lieutenant for ordering officers to target blacks in shopping areas. The department also enlisted researchers at the University of California to study whether other officers were engaged in racial profiling.
Was Darren Wilson doing that, when he accosted Michael Brown? That’s the question of the hour, of course. But we can’t answer it by citing statistics, which speak to group behaviours rather than individual ones.
Nor does it matter whether Mr. Brown stole a pack of cigars a few moments before he was killed. In an apparent attempt to exonerate Mr. Wilson, the Ferguson police department released a video that seems to show Mr. Brown stealing the cigars and shoving a store clerk.
But the department itself has acknowledged that Mr. Wilson wasn’t aware of the theft – and wasn’t looking for its perpetrator – when he accosted Mr. Brown.
Officials have said that Mr. Brown pushed Mr. Wilson into his police car, where there was a struggle over Mr. Wilson’s weapon; a friend walking with Mr. Brown says that Mr. Wilson reached out of his car and grabbed Mr. Brown by his neck.
On Monday, a preliminary autopsy revealed that Mr. Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. The autopsy was conducted at the request of Brown family lawyer Benjamin L. Crump, who said that it showed Mr. Wilson’s “brazen disregard” for Mr. Brown and other members of the Ferguson community. “This case is about a police officer executing a young unarmed man in broad daylight,” Mr. Crump said.
Yet the medical examiner who performed the autopsy stressed that he could not assign blame for the shooting. One of Mr. Brown’s wounds suggests that his head was bent downward, which could indicate that he was surrendering. But it could also mean that Mr. Brown was “charging forward at the officer,” the examiner said.
Let’s be clear: Law enforcement authorities should not have delayed releasing Mr. Wilson’s name, which merely fed African-American suspicions of a white officer’s motives. Nor should police have posted the video of Mr. Brown stealing cigars, which reinforced society’s worst stereotypes of thuggish black behaviour.
But Mr. Wilson and Mr. Brown aren’t stereotypes; they’re people. Reducing them to props in a political drama deprives them of their humanity. Pending a full and complete investigation, all we know is that one man killed the other one. And if you think you know why, think again.