The contentious issue of police violence, crime and race dominated a good chunk of the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday. The candidates’ positions were a study in contrasts. Clinton spoke of the tragedy of police shootings of African-American men and of the need to tackle “systemic racism” in law enforcement and criminal justice. Trump spoke of “law and order” — a traditional Republican theme — and stressed that the biggest threat to the black community is out-of-control crime.
Unsurprisingly, Trump often lapsed into fact-free demagoguery, wrongly claiming that homicides in New York City are rising (they went up slightly last year but the latest numbers show an overall drop) and suggesting that immigrants here illegally are major contributors to street violence (they are not). But Clinton’s answers stayed within a political narrative that has its own shaky facts and falls short of genuine solutions.
Take the claim that police shootings of blacks are a result of deep-seated societal racism. Clinton endorses this view, reflecting the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters are a major force in the Democratic base. Yet, reality is far more complicated. A study published this year by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer Jr. (who is black) found that black suspects in police encounters are no more likely to be shot than white suspects. Relative to the population, blacks are still shot and killed by the police at higher rates than whites, but this partly reflects the demographics of crime. Left-wing blogger Will Shetterly also points out that the racial makeup of police killings is very similar to the racial demographics of poverty, suggesting that class, and not race or ethnicity, is the dominant factor.
While Black Lives Matters addresses real issues, its rhetoric and rush to judgment can stoke racial tensions — as the recent events in Charlotte, North Carolina, have shown. This rhetoric also ignores white victims of police killings. How many people have heard of Keith Vidal, the mentally ill North Carolina teen killed in 2014 after his parents called the police for help? Or of David Kassick, the unarmed 59-year-old shot dead by a Pennsylvania cop last year after being stopped for an expired inspection sticker?
This doesn’t mean racial bias in policing does not exist. Fryer’s study, which some conservatives have touted as proof of colorblind policing, actually found that blacks are more likely to experience nonlethal force when arrested — such as being handcuffed, thrown to the ground, pushed against a wall or pepper-sprayed — than whites. These experiences are far more common than police shootings, and they certainly breed resentment and mistrust. Clinton is correct to say that trust between police and communities is essential.
But we also need to look beyond color. There is a need for more police training that promotes nonlethal ways to defuse potentially dangerous situations (particularly ones involving the mentally ill), as well as respectful treatment of civilians. Addressing racial bias is only one part of this task.
Finally, we need to grapple with the reality of urban crime. While Trump’s claim that inner-city blacks and Hispanics are living in “hell” and can barely step outside without being shot is dramatically exaggerated, crime is a very real problem for those communities. Liberals who downplay the problem of black-on-black crime are doing African-Americans no favor. (The rate of homicides involving offenders and victims of the same race is five times higher for blacks than for whites.)
Once the depressing political theater of this campaign is over, perhaps we can start talking about the issues.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.