I acknowledge there is a lot to unpack with that headline so in advance, please forgive me if it goes astray.

For the 21st century, racial tensions are at an all time high. Accordingly, police departments across the country are under the microscope for what some call systemic and widespread racism. The latest example cited is the tragic death of George Floyd, where there was a clear use of excessive force. But does this equate to wide-spread racism and targeting that spans across all state boundaries?

The media’s take on systemic racism is wrong

The media’s depiction of our current state suggests that in some way there is a coordinated and conscious attempt to perpetrate acts of racism, disproportionately targeting the black community. How they arrive at this conclusion, in my view, seems overly simplistic and outright suspect.

Consider it in terms of how science moves forward with proposed theories. Why do clinical trials and studies take such a long time in order to bring new medicines to market? Why can’t we just develop an instant cure for COVID-19? The simple answer can be stated in one concise statement:

Correlation does not equate to causality

This is where most research studies and articles get things wrong, as they operate in a vacuum. A single data point establishes a trend, but it takes much more data to support the hypothesis that the United States is systemically a racist country.

If you have a moment, have a quick scan of a research study by prisonpolicy.org focused on the risk of being killed by police use-of-force in the U.S.

…a substantial body of evidence shows that people of color, especially African Americans, are at greater risk for experiencing criminal justice contact and police-involved harm than are whites…

prisonpolicy.org

That’s their underlying stance. To prove it, they found some per capita data trends, which help support their arguments. The information is broken down by race, gender and age. All aspects point to excessive force reinforcing their hypothesis. From there, they generate probabilistic outlooks on the chance of one race vs. another being killed by an officer over a lifetime. It’s a fairly dark outlook, but also one that simplifies a complex social issue.

Credit: Prisonpolicy.org research study – Risk of being killed by police use-of-force in the U.S. by age, race/ethnicity, and sex

The key factor omitted by the study, which in my view would lead to different results, is the omission of social class in understanding the data. This gap is a major omission in liberal attempts to connect race to excessive force related homicides.

FE does not currently collect data on variables that may be as- sociated with variation in risk within racial/ethnic groups such as skin tone, multi-racial identity, or social class.

prisonpolicy.org study

Social class drives behavior, culture and many other aspects of daily life, including the level of engagement with law enforcement. I’ll explore this concept further in a future post, but for now, suffice to say that nothing will stop the media from sensationalizing stories that put COVID-19 on the back burner. The 24/7 focus on riots in the past few weeks has only added fuel to the fire. This is especially true with the excuses justifications given for violent acts by the media. They even quote Dr. Martin Luther King in saying that, “… a riot is the language of the unheard.” Have a look at the video and consider the context of that statement:

We are in an endless cycle of remorseless retribution

Good people, leading ordinary lives are being called out for having what is termed as Privilege. The simplest definition of white privilege that I’ve found comes from tolerance.org.

Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

Tolerence.org‘s definition of white PRIVILEGE

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, but the concept of “built-in advantage” is yet another topic that should be explored further. It’s the underlying sentiment that drives the endless search for retribution and moral superiority.

The police shooting data

The Washington Post started a data collection project to identify and categorize all police shootings. Following the Michael Brown incident, the Post’s intent was to address what found to be incomplete FBI data. The primary driver for the FBI’s data quality issues was that they relied on voluntary reporting by police departments. The WaPo staff scraped articles across the internet and social media to assemble this data. Some of the content is incomplete, but likely due to insufficient time and detail from police reports. For example, not all incidents have the race defined or if there was a potential mental illness issue.

That database has been used by WaPo and many others to support the assertion of systemic racism throughout the police force.

I’ve the liberty of downloading the database (thank you for making it available on GitHub) and doing a little analysis. It should also be noted that I’m intentionally using the WaPo data so there are no questions on the data source being unreliable by detractors. Also, given their efforts to manually add incidents that were not collected by the FBI, it may provide new data points that we didn’t have. However, there is a danger that incidents could be cherry picked to push a specific view point.

Some observations from the data above in the tree map:

  • California has the most police shootings in 2020, followed by Texas and Florida, where victim or suspect was unarmed.
    • Since 2015, California leads the pack with 58 incidents involving unarmed victims or suspects
  • The count of unarmed black individuals shot by police is 6 vs. 10 for racially white individuals in 2020
  • Since 2015, 67 of the 350 incidents were noted as being unarmed and having mental illness issues of some kind.
  • Illinois only has 5 incidents – I point this out given the disparity with California over the 2015 – 2020 period. Additionally, with the level of murders ongoing in the city, one might have expected a higher rate of issues, but that just proves to be an invalid assumption.

The graphic above, however, is already filtered on individuals who were unarmed. If someone is armed with a gun, knife or other weapon, I’m going to assume that you’re asking for trouble if you don’t drop it when asked by the police. Of course, this shows absolute counts, which will show disproportionately higher incidents with individuals identified as racially white. Per capita is a key metric, but you have to take into account the circumstances around the incidents. If someone is unarmed and there is a police shooting, there should definitely be more scrutiny around it, but as the data shows, the actual numbers are not that high (even though one life is too many and our goal is ZERO).

A second graphic I wanted to share is a trend over time for fatal police shootings with filters race = Black, and Unarmed. Over time you can see there is a downtrend, with this year so far continuing the trend. What would really be interesting is to obtain this data prior to 2015, but the data collection process has been manual by the Washington Post. Perhaps in a follow-up article, I’ll compare the FBI database with WaPo, and leverage FBI data prior to 2015 to observe if there is a trend.

The missing link

It’s not a simple task to link data to behaviors, bias and other social issues. It’s also a disservice to claim being woke, while relying on only a single data point (such as incidents per capita) to support an assertion like systemic racism in our police force. If this were valid, why is the most liberal state in the country showing the highest incident rate? The easy answer is that it’s a function of population, but then why is the second largest state (Texas) showing a 45% lower count of incidents since 2015?

The bottom line, the data can be leveraged to promote any idea or political motivation. If one were to really get to the bottom of everything, there would be more focus on social class, not race. Again, a topic to be explored more fully in a future post.

But what exactly is race? Why are we so focused on it? It’s not really an attribute that anyone holds – it’s an artificial designation that has persisted over time.

The best explanation I’ve had defining how we categorize individuals was provided to me by my Black Studies professor in college:

  • Race = Skin color – something people invented to set divisions
  • Ethnicity = Cultural or ancestral origin
  • Nationality = Where you hold citizenship

The latter two have a place in society, but the first one should be done away with altogether. As a matter of fact, have you looked at the Census document for 2020? The definition of race continues to evolve because it’s arbitrary.

In closing

The downward trend of incidents over time should be recognized and applauded to help promote the culture we are after. We ask a lot of police officers. These professionals put their lives on the line each shift to take care of the public, regardless of personal danger. It’s not to say there aren’t any bad actors in the mix, but that would be true of any profession.