Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. It goes on and on. The killing of black Americans by police seems to have become numbingly routine. Too many young black men, dead for no good reason.
Then came Dallas. The protest in Dallas began on a hopeful note – a peaceful demonstration in a city where the protesters were protected by one of the most progressive police forces in the country. It ended, as we know, in blood.
Yet instead of uniting Americans in grief, the tragedy only split them even further. Activists on the left insist there's a war on black Americans. Rabble-rousers on the right want us to believe that the inflammatory left has declared open season on the cops. Both sides are playing fast and loose with the truth.
One fact is certain: The U.S. is a violent society. The cops are heavily armed, but so is the citizenry. In Dallas, the weapons on display by protesters made it hard for police to distinguish suspects from marchers. The other certainty is that America's police kill an alarming number of people – nearly a thousand a year. Too many young males of all races are stopped for minor or suspected offences and shot dead by trigger-happy cops. Too many people die for the crime of being mentally ill. By contrast, unofficial databases suggest Canadian police kill about 20 people a year.
The most comprehensive statistics on police killings are kept not by the federal government, but by The Washington Post. Of the 990 people who were shot dead by police in 2015, 494 were white and 258 were black, according to its data. (The rest were Hispanic, other, or unknown.) The vast majority of the total – 782 people – had a deadly weapon. A quarter – 250 people – showed signs of mental illness. Ninety-three were unarmed, and 34 had toy guns that police mistook for real ones.
It's widely believed that black Americans are disproportionately gunned down by the police. The raw numbers seem to bear this out. Black Americans make up 13 per cent of the population but accounted for 26 per cent of the people killed by police in 2015. That sounds awful. Yet blacks are also far more likely to be criminally involved, as both victims and perpetrators. "As residents of poor black neighbourhoods know too well, violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks," Heather MacDonald writes in The Wall Street Journal. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black crime rates are three times the national average. Ms. MacDonald, a leading critic of the war-on-blacks narrative, argues that the biggest threat to young black men today comes not from killer cops, but from other young black men.
Even Roland Fryer, a widely respected black professor of economics at Harvard, finds no racial bias in police shootings. He reached this conclusion after he and his team conducted a major investigation of their own. "It is the most surprising result in my career," he told The New York Times. What he did find is that there is bias in police stops. Cops are more likely to use force when the person they stop is black. And many police forces are heavily overmilitarized. The images from Baton Rouge of cops going at protesters with riot shields and batons are truly sickening.
Some quarters of the right are blaming Black Lives Matter, as well as Barack Obama, for whipping up violence against the police. But there's no evidence for a war on cops either. During the Obama years the number of officers who were victims of fatal shootings remained steady, at about 53 a year, according to The Washington Post's Eugene Volokh. (In Canada in 2015, the total number of gun fatalities was two.)
In this bitterly polarized culture, I guess it's too much to expect that Black Lives Matter will be marching shoulder to shoulder with the police any time soon. Yet I do believe that the vast majority of people, white and black, want the same thing: fewer deaths and less violence for everyone, regardless of race. So let me end with the story of Shetamia Taylor, a black woman who took her four sons to see the protest in Dallas, "so they could see unity and how we can come together to make a difference," as she said in an interview with ABC News. When the sniper opened fire, a bullet hit her in the leg. She fell to the ground to shield one of her kids. Police officers surrounded the pair to protect them, and two of them were shot too. She calls them heroes. "We all have so much more in common than I think we want to admit," she said.
Words to remember, especially now.