Race and Policing: Data Confirms What Black Americans Already Know
“At some point you will get pulled over, and here is how you act.”
That’s how one woman described “the talk” parents inevitably have with their Black sons.
“He is going to turn into a large, scary Black man,” said one mom of her son. “And that’s not who he is, but that’s how he will be perceived.”
Unfortunately, research backs up her intuition. Study after study shows that Black men are seen as larger, stronger, and more threatening than white men of a similar size and build.
“You can put your hands up, and cooperate, and say that ‘I’m choking,’ and still be killed, and there’s no repercussions,” said another woman—her words a stark reminder of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.
Racism and anti-Black bias are deeply embedded in the fabric of American society. It’s not limited to the institutions of policing and criminal justice. Racism is baked into education, employment, housing, healthcare—all the systems that underpin society.
At the individual level, racism occurs on a spectrum, as this explainer shows. Most people have racial biases, even if they don’t know it.
Harvard’s implicit bias test on race uses split-second decisions to reveal the unconscious biases people harbor against “outgroup” members—and sometimes even their own group members.
But bias is not the same as racism or prejudice, and none of us is born racist. We develop prejudices from our environment.
Why would police officers be any different? The short answer is, they aren’t.
The Numbers Paint a Stark Picture
Mounting research shows what Black Americans know all too well when it comes to racism in policing.
Black adults are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity (44 percent vs. 9 percent), according to a Pew Research Center survey. This is especially true for Black men, who were much more likely to say they’ve been unfairly stopped versus Black women (59 percent vs. 31 percent).
Studies also clearly show that police are more likely to use violence against Black citizens.
A large-scale review of 1.2 million 911 calls found that white officers were more likely to use a gun than Black officers—and were more likely to do so in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Another study found that Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, even though they are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed than white people.
And there’s almost no police accountability. Between 2013 and 2019, 99 percent of killings by police did not result in a charge against the officer(s).
When it comes to incarceration, Black people are hugely overrepresented. In 2017, they made up just 12 percent of the United States population but 33 percent of the prison population. By contrast, whites accounted for 64 percent of adults in the US but only 30 percent of prisoners.
And while a slight majority of white people say Black people are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police and by the criminal justice system as a whole, white people still overwhelmingly have favorable views of the police. In a Pew Research survey, 75 percent of white respondents said police in their community did an “excellent” or “good” job in using the right amount of force.
This disparity in experience leads to complacency among white Americans about police brutality. It took the undeniably brutal killing of George Floyd to get large numbers of white Americans into the streets to protest racialized police brutality.
While it seems like we’re making progress, the idea that large numbers of white Americans have finally committed to sustained antiracism work may be wishful thinking.
Modern Policing Is a Legacy of Slavery
To understand policing today, you have to go back to colonial times. It started with slave patrols in the early 1700s, which were used not only to apprehend escaped enslaved people, but also to instill fear, maintain discipline, and deter revolts.
The second form of policing evolved in Boston in the 1830s to deal with the growing problems of public intoxication, gambling, and issues related to population growth. Both forms of policing were brutal.
It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to connect the dots between modern policing and slave patrols. When slavery was outlawed, slave patrols were disbanded. But their mandates remained in place and were quickly adopted by the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized newly freed Black people and their descendants for decades.
Local police departments often turned a blind eye, while individual officers sometimes condoned or even actively participated in racial terror, a problem that continues to this day.
What the Police Think
The images of police in tactical gear firing rubber bullets and hurling cans of teargas at unarmed protestors last summer are forever seared into our national memory. The fact they used such unrestrained brutality against protestors fighting racialized police brutality says a lot about how they view the movement for Black Lives.
Once again, the data don’t lie.
In an extensive survey of nearly 8,000 police officers, Pew found that most officers think they treat Black people fairly.
Sixty-seven percent said they thought the deaths of Black people in encounters with the police were isolated incidents, compared with 31 percent who said those deaths were part of a broader pattern.
This is in sharp contrast with the public’s view. Sixty percent of those surveyed said police killings of Black Americans were part of a broader pattern.
Almost all the officers (92 percent) said protests against police brutality reflected bias against the police.
What does it mean when officers won’t even acknowledge systemic issues in their own ranks? Can modern policing work under those conditions?
Police abolitionists have long answered that question with a resounding “no.”
Reimagining Community Safety
We’ve tried reforming the police. Despite countless measures to tackle police brutality—like diversifying police forces and requiring officers to wear body cameras (which have been shown to be ineffective at changing officer behavior)—little has changed.
A recent study found that not a single police department in the country’s largest cities are compliant with international human rights laws.
Implicit and explicit bias along with a culture of toxic masculinity have led to a deeply flawed policing system. More technology and training aren’t going to solve the problems we have around race and policing.
So, what will?
We could start with diverting a good portion of the $180 billion a year we spend on repressive policing and incarceration and reinvesting it in communities.
Militarized cops should not be responding to mental health crises. They should not be breaking up homeless encampments. They should not be getting involved in petty fights between neighbors.
These are problems whose solutions are beyond the authority and expertise of law enforcement officers. We see day after day, year after year, how people wind up dead or traumatized when police get involved.
With thoughtful planning and investment, we can revitalize and strengthen communities and put an end to racist and repressive policing and incarceration.
Want to hear more about issues surrounding race in law enforcement ? DCP Entertainment is your destination for all things affecting the Black community. We tell stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Start with Make It Plain, a podcast covering breaking news, social justice, human rights, and more.
And continue with Say Their Name, a Podcast of the Year nominee that delves into the assault and killing of unarmed Black people by police and in ‘Stand Your Ground’ states, highlighting incidents throughout the United States.