Amid the anger and soul-searching sparked by the wrenching video of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, dying while pinned down with a white police officer’s knee on his neck, a few people have asked a heretical question: Should police brutality be framed only as a racial issue, and, if so, are police killings of white people getting too little attention?
Those asking include black commentators such as Columbia University professor and author John McWhorter, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, and City Journal columnist Coleman Hughes.
Hughes writes that he once accepted the standard view of police killings as racist, shared the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter, and wore a T-shirt with the names of notable black victims. Then, he says, his mind was changed by “stories and data”: numerous examples of unarmed white people being killed by cops, as well as research by scholars including Harvard’s Roland Fryer, a leading African American economist, suggesting that the race of neither the civilian nor the officer is a factor in whether a police encounter results in deadly force.
Because African-Americans are more likely to be detained, they still face disproportionate risk: According to the Mapping Police Violence database, black males are about 2.5 times more likely than white males to die at the hands of law enforcement. Yet in total numbers, almost twice as many unarmed whites as blacks (99 versus 56) were killed by the police in the last two years. Unlike some conservatives, Hughes and McWhorter don’t dismiss racism in policing: Many studies find African-Americans are more likely to experience nonfatal physical abuse during an arrest even when fully compliant. There is also considerable evidence of racial bias in police stops and searches, even accounting for differences in crime rates. (New York’s drastically reduced stop-and-frisk program overwhelmingly targeted black and Hispanic males — partly because it concentrated on high-crime neighborhoods, but also due to profiling.)
Given the long history of brutal racism in law enforcement in the United States, it’s quite understandable that police killings of black Americans elicit a stronger reaction. And yet the near-exclusive focus on race creates the impression that blacks are being wantonly killed by racist cops and that whites are shielded from police abuse.
Floyd’s death was tragic and outrageous. But how many have heard of Tony Timpa, a mentally ill white man who died in Dallas in 2016 while pinned down by several police officers and pleading for his life? The officers in that case, who cracked jokes when Timpa became unresponsive instead of checking on him, faced no consequences.
Yes, racism still affects policing, but other factors are involved in police brutality, too — lack of accountability; a “wall of silence” that shields bad cops; a too-common mindset that treats a badge as a license to bully; training that teaches officers to respond to even a remote potential threat with deadly force.
Many Black Lives Matter supporters who acknowledge that police violence is not a race-specific problem say that despite its racial focus, the movement seeks reforms that will protect everyone: banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, expanding avenues for prosecutions and civil lawsuits against perpetrators, and so on. Today, the outcry over Floyd’s death, rooted in outrage over racism, may finally spur serious reform efforts in many states and on the federal level.
And yet the racial focus has pitfalls. It diminishes white (and Latino and Asian) victims and leads many people to feel that police abuse is not their problem. A nonracial human rights movement against police brutality — one that would not necessarily replace but supplement Black Lives Matter — could build a broader, more successful coalition and even move toward overcoming racial and political polarization. “All Lives Matter” was a cliché used solely as a rejoinder to Black Lives Matter. But a call for human rights for all would resonate widely.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.