The Error of Racializing Police Killings

How viewing police violence solely through the lens of race is misinformed and problematic.

The public perception, driven by multi-billion dollar media outlets, is that race is the most crucial factor to consider when discussing police killings. This is generally supported by comparing the percentage of people of color killed by police to their relative percentage of the overall population. However if we start from an assumption that socioeconomic status is the most primary common factor, the racial discrepancy between black and white people killed by police nearly disappears.

Areas high in poverty have an average of 3.5 police killings to every 1 in other areas. That means that 77.77% of police killings happen in poverty zones. This suggests that nearly 4 out of 5 people killed by police are living in poverty. However it could be even more than that, since not everyone who is poor is killed in their own neighborhood. Of course it could also be less. Either way I am comfortable suggesting that an overwhelming majority of those killed by police were living in poverty, or close to it, which is also borne out from my personal experience researching these incidents over the years. 

WhiteBlackHispanicOtherTotal
Average deaths per year 2017-202016839086541474008*
Percentage of deaths per year 2017-2042%22.62%16.32%3.67%
Percentage of total population 201961.5%12.7%17.6%8.2%
Number of individuals in poverty 201917,328,2008,244,00010,174,2003,636,80039,383,200
Percent of race represented to total number of those living in poverty 201944%20.93%25.83%9.23%

*616 (15.37%) race unknown

When we adjust for socioeconomic circumstances, white and black people are killed by police at a rate almost identical to their makeup of the total number of people living in poverty. In this equation poor Hispanic people experience less police killings than other Hispanic people, while people of other races who are poor experience the most disproportionate amount of homicides by law enforcement. In fact Native American women are the most vulnerable to deadly police shootings. 

Of course black people are disproportionately poor, relative to the overall population. This is a direct consequence of systematic historical racism. Because the system is socioeconomically stacked in favor of the upper class, it has been incredibly difficult for black people to escape poverty in the relatively few generations they have participated in our society as legal equals. As I will argue further later on, solving class issues automatically solves a good deal of race issues.

The question then becomes, why is the race narrative so prominent?

There are two answers. The most probable cause is that a legitimate sense of compassion and empathy for the plight of people of color, historic and present, drives the consumption of media content that appeals to those good intentions. This, in turn, drives media to focus on issues through that racial lens. Not just to sell more content, but because it is rewarding for journalists to get high numbers of readers and an affirmative response. However these good intentions can create blind spots, or narrow the picture down too far for a comprehensive understanding of social problems. Most of the reasons why the racialization of police narratives happens is people trying to authentically be good, and unknowingly creating unintended consequences. However there is nothing nefarious about it.

Yet there might also be more nefarious reasons. The corporate conglomerations that own almost all of our media platforms in one way or another are owned by the upper class. The upper class has a vested interest in keeping us distracted, or confused, since a united front among the lower classes would be big trouble for their ever-increasing monopoly on wealth and power. Keeping the police narrative limited to racial considerations is a way of minimizing the coverage of police killings, while simultaneously keeping the white majority from feeling fully invested in these issues by seeing them as irrelevant to white people.

One clear indicator of this is that the racialization of police killings is evident in both left and right wing media outlets. While left wing outlets focus on the alleged racial disparity of the killings, right wing outlets use the same perception to frame people of color as deviant and dangerous. Neither of these narratives consistently report on police killings regardless of race, but both take advantage of the racial perception to fulfill their agendas, whether malignant or benign.

When I discuss these issues online or in public, there are always people who are giddy to see me erode the perception of police killings being driven primarily by race, not because they challenge police killings overall, but because they want to disregard them in order to deny any problems exists. To these people I say – we are not on the same side. Unless you absolutely oppose 100% of senseless police homicides, you are an even bigger part of the problem than people who have been misled to racialize the issues.

Discussing racism is a landmine, and it becomes more difficult when we do not even agree on a definition of what racism is. Historically, and then again recently, ‘racism’ is colloquially defined almost exactly like ‘bigotry’ or ‘prejudice’. In the late 20th century, left-leaning academics sought to deconstruct the idea of ‘reverse racism’ by specifically defining ‘racism’ apart from ‘bigotry’ and ‘prejudice’ as institutionalized bigotry and prejudice. However in recent years the colloquial definition has become more prevalent, and the lines have been blurred.

Those who still use the term racism to mean institutionalized also seem to make a big mistake. Using policing as an example, no laws exist which require or excuse bigotry or prejudice by police, and there are already laws to prohibit that. In this sense, racism is not really institutionalized. No doubt there are specific law enforcement officers who explicitly or implicitly have and apply biases. And since people of color are more likely to be living in poverty than any other race, they are that much more likely to have regular interactions with police. This is definitely problematic, but it is not racism. It is a product of how class restraints mixed with the circumstances of historical racism have prevented black families from having an honest chance of escaping their circumstances over generations, dooming them to areas in which crime and police are prevalent.

There is no doubt whatsoever that bigotry and prejudice still exist to a degree that is unforgivable. It exists among the general public, and it exists within the hearts and actions of our representatives and social servants. It exists because it is an attitude, and it is almost impossible to change attitudes. Centralized, structured hierarchies are easily exploitable systems which empower the kind of people who are motivated to do real harm with their hatred or greed or pride.  

It is critical that we identify the central issues, that the police state is the front line of the class war. We cannot add new rules and fix this. We must fix the fundamental class inequality which racists exploit to oppress minorities and straight white men alike. We need to be as inclusive as possible and strike to the heart of the problems. It is not enough to convince police to kill us in demographically equitable numbers, we need to abolish that institution altogether and start from the ground up building localized solutions to local problems which begins with eradicating poverty and disentangling our justice system from a civic funding scheme which uses police to rob the poor by criminalizing them with endless victimless crime laws and sending them into a spiral of poverty and disadvantage. As long as the system profits from crime, it has no incentive to stop it.

Here is an example of a community that exists without policing and learns to independently support itself without compromising the lives of its citizens – Welcome to Chillville.

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