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Race and Policing: Data Confirms What Black Americans Already Know

View on side mirror of a Police car with lights

“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