I wrote a post a few months ago that generated a lot of controversy and was heavily criticized. I wrote it after the officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted, which prompted everyone to lament the so-called epidemic of unarmed black men being killed by the police. Using data about police shootings in the US compiled by the Washington Post, I showed that a black man who isn’t carrying a weapon was literally more likely to be struck by lighting than killed by the police. My point was that, given how incredibly rare these shootings are, it’s completely irrational to be afraid that you’re going to get killed by the police if you’re black and just going about your business. Yet, as I also pointed out, it’s something you often hear people say, although it’s usually hard to tell if they’re sincere or just virtue signaling. I also noted that liberals often make that very point when people are freaking out because of terrorism, but that somehow they don’t see the same thing is true about police killings of unarmed black men. It was a pretty limited point, but after I posted it, all hell broke loose. I was called a racist, people faulted me for not listening to what black people were saying, etc.
Most of the criticisms I received were really bad, so I’m not going to waste my time responding to those. For instance, one person claimed that, by the kind of logic my argument rested on, since it’s very unlikely that one is going to be struck by lightning, one might as well dance outside during a storm. But nothing I said implies such a ridiculous thing and it’s not my fault if people think it does. My argument is that if something is overwhelmingly unlikely, such as being struck by lightning or killed by the police while just going about your business, then you shouldn’t be afraid that it’s going to happen to you. Saying that does not in any way imply that, if something is overwhelmingly unlikely to happen, then it makes sense to do something that will make it more likely, such as dancing outside during a storm or brandishing a gun to a cop’s face. There is no doubt that, if people are so rarely struck by lightning or killed by the police, it’s partly because they don’t do that kind of things.
Other people raised objections that were explicitly addressed in the post, which apparently didn’t deter them. It seems that, when it comes to race, people are not only incapable of thinking rationally, but they can’t even read anymore. For instance, people claimed that my comparison with people who are struck by lightning was fallacious, since it makes it sound as if police killings were a force of nature and not something that resulted from human decisions. But I anticipated this objection and explained why it wasn’t a problem for the point I was making. My point wasn’t that we couldn’t do anything to reduce the number of people who are killed by the police, but that given how incredibly rare it already is, it’s completely irrational to be afraid it’s going to happen to you. Again, when someone makes the exact same point about terrorism, you don’t hear liberals screaming for blood. In fact, not only are they not screaming for blood, but more often than not it’s them who make that argument and, with one qualification I plan to discuss in another post, they are absolutely right.
Before I talk more about the reality of police violence in the US, I want to briefly discuss another objection some people have raised against my post, which I have to admit I didn’t anticipate when I wrote it. Indeed, some people said that, while it’s true that black people are overwhelmingly unlikely to be killed by the police, the kind of hyperbole I criticized in my post is useful to generate support for the broader cause of fighting racism in the criminal justice system. It’s amazing that people apparently can’t see the double standard this response illustrates. If a conservative said that people risk their life every time they go out because of crime, liberals would rightly criticize that hyperbole, even if the person in question objected that he only resorted to it to shed lights on the problems created by crime, which by the way are far worse than those created by police violence. Perhaps more importantly, this argument ignores another point I made in my post, namely that even from a liberal point of view, the energy spent fighting police violence against blacks would do a lot more good if people spent it on other causes, because racism in the criminal justice system doesn’t explain nearly as much as people think. On the other hand, it would not leave as much room for virtue signaling, which may be the real issue here.
But the more interesting criticism of my post is that it focused exclusively on uses of force by the police that proved lethal, but ignored other, less extreme forms of police brutality. Several people claimed that, although I had shown that unarmed black men were overwhelmingly unlikely to be killed by the police, it was still rational for them to fear it, because they are kicked, punched, etc. on a regular basis by the police. I say it’s the most interesting criticism of my post I have encountered not because it has much merit, but rather because it will allow me to dispel some widespread misconceptions about the prevalence of police violence against blacks in the US. As this reaction to my post illustrates, many people in the US, especially on the left but not only, are convinced that blacks are constantly stopped and routinely brutalized by the police. But, as the rest of this post will show, this is demonstrably false. The reality is that, even if you look at every type of police violence and not just cases in which it proved lethal, police violence against black people is overwhelmingly rare. Of course, it’s not as rare as being struck by lightning, but it’s still rare enough to make the amount of attention this issue gets and the hyperbolic statements it prompts completely irrational.
In order to show that, I’m going to use the data from the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), which provides detailed information about contacts between police and the public. It’s conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), as a supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), based on a nationally representative sample of US residents age 16 or older. As the NCVS, the PPCS aims to collect data directly from the population, instead of relying on data provided by law enforcement agencies. Respondents are asked whether they had a contact with the police during the past 12 months and, if they did, have to answer a battery of questions about the nature of their interaction with the police during the last contact. In particular, they are asked questions about whether the police used or threatened to use force during that contact and, if so, what the police did or threatened to do exactly. Since the respondents are also asked questions about their age, race, gender, etc., it makes it possible to calculate the prevalence of police violence for various demographic groups. Moreover, since it’s entirely based on what respondents say and doesn’t rely on police reports, it eliminates the possibility of bias from law enforcement agencies.
The most recent survey was conducted in 2011, but they changed the questionnaire in a way that makes it difficult to compare with previous years, so I’m only going to use the data from the surveys conducted in 2005 and 2008. (The data are freely available online and you can find the R code I used for my calculations here.) In total, for 2005 and 2008, more than 150,000 people were reached by the survey (including 16,078 blacks, 107,915 whites and 20,274 hispanics) and the sample was weighted so as to take into account that not every demographic group had the same probability of being reached, which makes it by far the best source of information we have on police violence in the US. But the picture it paints of police violence, especially against black people, is completely at odds with the dominant narrative. Since the narrative in question claims that it’s mostly black men who are the victim of police brutality, I will restrict my discussion to males, who are more often targeted by the police no matter their race. (This is already what I did in the post where I showed that unarmed black men were more likely to be struck by thunder than killed by the police.) If you make the same calculations for black in people in general, regardless of their sex, the results are essentially the same, except that police violence comes out as even more uncommon.
For instance, the media is full of stories about black people who are stopped dozens of time a year by the police, for no other reason than because they’re black. However, as you can see on this graph, the probability that a man, regardless of his race, has at least one contact with the police in any given year is quite small.Thus, among men, only 20.7% of whites, 17.5% of blacks and 17.1% of hispanics have at least one contact with the police in any given year. White people are actually more likely to have a contact with the police than black/hispanic people. There are plenty of possible explanations for this, e. g. perhaps it results from the fact that white people are less reluctant to call the police for help, but it’s still at odds with the dominant narrative.
As you can see on this graph, the same thing is true if you look at the average number of contacts per year. White men have on average 0.35 contacts with the police every year, compared to 0.32 for black men and 0.27 for hispanics. Thus, despite how ubiquitous stories about black people who are constantly stopped by the police are in the media, they are not representative of reality.
It could be that, while on average black men have less contacts with the police than white men, they are significantly more likely to have a large number of contacts with the police. As this graph shows, this seems to be the case to some extent, but the difference is hardly impressive.Among men, the probability of having more than 3 contacts with the police per year is only 1.2% for whites, 1.5% for blacks and 0.8% for hispanics. So black men do seem to be more likely to have frequent contacts with the police, but the difference is not very large. Moreover, for reasons I will explain later, it’s unclear that bias has anything to do with it.
Of course, not every contact with the police results in the use of force, so we turn to this issue next. This graph shows the probability that, for men who had at least one contact with the police during the past 12 months, it used force or threatened to use it against them.Among men who had at least one contact with the police, the probability that force was used or threatened is 1.9% for whites, 5.5% for blacks and 3.8% for hispanics.
It should be noted that, although there are substantial differences between groups, they are exaggerated by the fact that, with the method I used for the calculation, the probability for white people is lower than it really is. Indeed, when the PPCS is administered, interviewers only ask respondents whether force was use or threatened during the last contact. Since some people had more than one contact with the police during the past 12 months, using the data from the survey to calculate the probability that force was used or threatened presumably results in underestimating it. Now, you would think that it would do so equally for every group, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, according to the BJS (see p. 7 of this report), asking respondents whether they had experienced threat or use of force during the last contact or during any encounter with the police in the past 12 months didn’t make any difference for blacks and hispanics, but it did increase the probability that force was used or threatened against whites by approximately 35%. If I applied this correction to my estimate for white men, the probability would be approximately 2.5% instead of 1.9%. However, since I want to err on the side of caution, I decided not to correct any of the estimates I computed for white men. Beside, even if I did, there would still remain substantial differences between the groups. However, I want to insist that it’s unclear to what extent these differences result from bias on the part of the police, for reasons that will be discussed below.
I just gave the probability for each racial group that force was used or threatened against men who had at least one contact with the police in this group. As we have seen, although there are differences between groups, the probability is not very high no matter what group we consider. But they are still much higher than the probability that force was used or threatened against a random man, because as we have seen, most people don’t have any contact with the police. This graph shows the probability that force was used or threatened against a random man for each racial group.The probability that force is used or threatened against a random white man is approximately 0.4%, whereas it’s approximately 1% for black men and 0.6% for hispanic men. Again, we observe differences between groups, but the probability that force is used or threatened against a random person is very small no matter his race.
The figures I have just given include not only the actual use of force, both verbal and physical, but also the mere threat to use it. Verbal force is defined as cursing or shouting, while physical force is defined as pushing/grabbing, kicking/hitting, using a pepper spray or pointing a gun at someone. Let’s have a look at the probability that purely verbal force was used against someone who had at least one encounter with the police. Among men who had at least one contact with the police, purely verbal violence was used against 1.3% of whites, 4.2% of blacks and 2.8% of hispanics.
If we calculate the probability that a random man was victim of purely verbal force, this is what we get.Thus, the probability that purely verbal force was used against a random white man was approximately 0.3%, while for a random black man it was 0.7% and 0.5% for a random hispanic.
Now let’s have a look at the probability that physical force was used against men who had at least one contact with the police in the past 12 months.For white men, the probability is approximately 0.9%, compared to 3.4% for black men and 1.6% for hispanic men.
When you calculate the probability that physical forced was used against a random man, here is what you obtain.In this case, the probability was approximately 0.2% for a random white man, 0.6% for a random black man and 0.3% for a random hispanic man. As you no doubt noticed, we keep observing the same pattern. The rate is highest for blacks, intermediate for hispanics and lowest for whites. The temptation to infer that bias is responsible will probably be irresistible to many people, but as I already noted, it should be resisted for reasons that will soon become clear.
Now, as we have seen, the use of physical force includes relatively mild forms of violence such as pushing or grabbing. To be sure, this can be really unpleasant, but it’s a far cry from being kicked in the ribs or punched in the face… So we should also try to find out how common serious uses of force by the police are. One way to do that, which is made possible by the PPCS, is to calculate the probability that a man who had at least one contact with the police was injured as a result of it.As this graph shows, the probability in question is approximately 0.39% for white men, 0.46% for black men and 0.19% for hispanic men. In that case, the probability is higher for whites than for hispanics, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in that result, because injuries resulting from a contact with the police are so rare that it could easily be measurement or sampling error.
Now, this is already not a lot, but keep in mind that it’s the probability that a man who had at least one contact with the police during the past 12 months was injured as a result of it. Since most people didn’t have any contact with the police, the unconditional probability is even smaller.According to the PPCS, the probability that a random white man is injured by the police in any given year is approximately 0.08%, which is about the same as for a random black man, For a random hispanic man, on the other hand, it’s only 0.03%. Again, I wouldn’t make too much of the exact figures, because those rates are so low that measurement or sampling error make the estimates very imprecise.
However, if it’s possible that measurement or sampling error play a large role, it’s precisely because the probabilities are incredibly low. For instance, despite the fact that it interviewed 3182 black men in 2005, the BJS only found 2 who had been injured in a contact with the police during the past 12 months. By comparison, according to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), in 2014 (the last year for which data were publicly available), the emergency department visit rate for motor vehicle traffic injuries was 3.7% for black men. (The data are freely accessible online and you can find the R code I used for my calculations here.) Assuming no one had to go to the emergency department more than once for this type of injury, which presumably is approximately true, it means that a random black man is almost 44 times more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to be injured by the police.Moreover, although there are no doubt injuries that are not justified and for which the officers responsible should be punished, that’s probably not the case for most of them. Even if we assume that 1/3 of the injuries caused by the police are unjustified, which strikes me as implausible, it would mean that a black man is almost 131 times more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to be injured without justification by the police. Just let that sink in for a minute.
Again, my estimate is probably very imprecise because of measurement and sampling error, but whatever the real figure is, there is no doubt that it’s ridiculously low. We can make a similar comparison with the rate at which the police use physical force against black men. (Remember that physical force includes something as mild as pushing and grabbing, which is why most uses of physical force by the police don’t result in any injury.) Since this is significantly more common, the estimates are more precise, because measurement and sampling error have less influence. My calculations show that, even though most of the times, the use of physical force by the police is pretty limited and doesn’t result in any injury, a random black man is still 6 times more likely to suffer a traffic motor vehicle injury than to be on the receiving end of physical force from the police.Thus, if we assume that 1/3 of the uses of physical force by the police are unjustified, a random black man is approximately 18 times more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to be a victim of unjustified physical force by the police.
Now, it’s possible that, while on average police violence against black men is extremely rare, there is a subset of black men, presumably those who live in heavily policed areas, against whom the police routinely uses force. By looking only at the average, I might have concluded that police violence against black men is uniformly rare, when in fact there are places where it’s pretty common. As we shall see, there is some truth to this hypothesis, but not a lot of it and not enough to save the dominant narrative. Before I show that, however, I want to point out that, even if I had only shown that police violence is overwhelming rare for the vast majority of black men but relatively common for a subgroup of this population, it would already be a serious blow to the narrative. Indeed, if you listen to what the sophisticates say, the mere fact of being male and black puts you at risk of experiencing police brutality no matter where you live, how much you make, etc. So if you’re trying to resist my conclusions and defend the narrative against my criticisms by arguing that, although police violence is overwhelmingly unlikely for most black men, it’s quite common for a subset of them, you’re in effect moving the goalposts. It doesn’t mean that what you say could not be true, but we should still take note of this fact. In any case, as I will now argue, this isn’t really what’s going on anyway.
The data from the PPCS don’t include any information about the areas where the respondents live, but there is a way around the problem, which I think makes it possible to test the hypothesis that, while for most black men police violence is extremely rare, it’s still pretty common for a non-negligible subset of them. Presumably, the people who live in heavily policed areas and are most at risk of experiencing police violence are also those who have the most contacts with the police, so we can just look at them and see how common police violence is for people in that subset of the population. For instance, we can look at black men who had more than 3 contacts with the police during the past 12 months, which as we have seen is only 1.5% of them. The probability that physical force was used against a black men in that subgroup was only 3.4%, which is about the same as for black men who had any contact with the police. (Since interviewers only asked respondents about the use of force during their last contact with the police, it’s probably a bit higher, but remember that when the BJS tried to ask respondents who had at least one contact if the police used force against them at any time during the past 12 months, it found no statistically significant difference.) In other words, even among the 1.5% of black men who are most frequently in contact with the police, one is still more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to experience physical force on the part of the police, although the difference is probably not significant.
In fact, since the probability that physical force was used conditional on contact seems to be the same for this subgroup as for black men who had at least one contact with the police, we may as well focus on the latter subgroup. As we have seen, only 17.5% of black men have any contact with the police in any given year, so what this means is that, even among this group, one is about as likely to experience physical force at the hands of the police as to suffer a traffic-related injury.Thus, the probability of experiencing police violence is significantly higher among the subset of black men who have at least one contact with the police, but it’s still relatively low and we’re talking about a small minority of black men.
Now, you may think it’s not so rare and that it’s not such a small minority, but there are several things to keep in mind here. First, there is no doubt that many of the 17.5% of black men who have at least one contact with the police in any given year are not people who live in disadvantaged, heavily policed areas. Surely, there must be plenty of middle-class black men who interact with the police not because they live in such a neighborhood, but for the same reasons that middle-class white men do, i. e. because they were victim of a crime and called the police, were stopped by the police for speeding on their way to work, etc. Even if we assume that half of the black men who have at least one contact with the police in any given year live in disadvantaged neighborhoods that are heavily policed, which strikes me as utterly implausible (it would mean that middle-class black men are ridiculously less likely than their white counterparts to interact with the police), it would mean that only 8.8% of the black men who have at least one contact with the police in any given year live in that kind of area.
But the proportion of black men who live in heavily policed areas is no doubt much higher than that. Just consider that, according to the US Census Bureau, more than 25% of black men live under the federal poverty level. The vast majority of them probably live in areas that are heavily policed and so do many black men who don’t live under the federal poverty level. Indeed, it’s a well-established fact that, even among white and black people with similar income, the latter are significantly more likely to live in bad neighborhoods. (I plan to explore the reasons for this state of affairs when I review Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s excellent book on housing segregation in the US.) Even if we assume that only 25% of black men live in disadvantaged areas with a heavy police presence, it would still mean that, in any given year, 2/3 of them don’t have any contact with the police. Thus, according to this back-of-the-envelope calculation, a random black man who live in such a neighborhood is 3 times more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to experience physical force at the hands of the police. To be sure, this is just a back-of-the-envelope calculation and it would be nice to have better data, but I think it’s more than enough to establish that, even if we focus on black men who live in heavily policed areas, unjustified police violence is still very rare.
Moreover, remember that physical force includes a lot of pretty mild stuff, such as pushing and grabbing. As we have seen, even among black men who had at least one contact with the police in the past 12 months, only 0.46% were injured by the police, which is 8 times less frequent than traffic-related injuries among black men in general. (Again, don’t take the exact figure too seriously, for it’s so rare to be injured by the police that measurement and sampling error probably make the estimate very imprecise.) Perhaps more importantly, a lot of that is no doubt justified, especially against the people who are most often stopped by the police. Presumably, many of them, if not most of them, are people the police has good reasons to stop and who often behave in ways that justify the use of force. Keep in mind that, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were about 1.68 million black men under state or federal justice supervision in 2014, which is approximately 9.5% of the black male population. So we’re talking about a population where criminal behavior is relatively common. Thus, I think it’s safe to conclude that, even among black men who live in disadvantaged areas where the police is heavily present, police violence is extremely unlikely.
Of course, I know that even one case of unjustified police violence is one too many, but let’s be honest for a second. I don’t think anyone can look at these figures and tell me that the amount of attention this problem receives in the media is even remotely justified given how rare police violence actually is. (To be clear, this claim doesn’t rest on the assumption that a police-induced injury is no worse than a traffic-related injury of the same type, only that it’s not so much worse that it justifies the amount of attention police violence against black men receives compared to other problems that have far worse consequences but receive only a fraction of that attention. Some of these other problems, such as poverty, disproportionately affect black people but also plenty of other people.) The truth is that, if there is so much hysteria about this, it’s because the American sophisticates live in a parallel universe where blacks are routinely abused by the police. Back in the real world, however, blacks are almost never victim of police violence. This myth is kept alive by a bunch of demagogues such as Al Sharpton, who derive power and money from perpetuating it, as well as by the media, which regularly turns up the heat on this issue by publicizing cases before the facts are known and almost systematically assume the worst about the police.
For instance, as I pointed out a few months ago, the Department of Justice investigation about the death of Michael Brown proved beyond a doubt that Darren Wilson’s decision to shoot was justified and that early witness accounts which had been uncritically repeated in the media were mendacious. But almost nobody knows that, because the media almost completely ignored the conclusion of the investigation, as it systematically does when the facts contradict the narrative. For another example of the way in which the media often distorts the truth in order to make incidents fit the narrative better, although in that case the police wasn’t directly involved, just remember how NBC dishonestly edited the tape of George Zimmerman’s 911 call in a way that made him sound racist. To be clear, I’m not saying that journalists don’t really believe that police brutality against black is routine, I’m sure most of them do. But it affects the way in which they cover that kind of incidents and, even when they don’t lie about what the evidence shows, they will often not give a lot of publicity to the fact that contradict the narrative about the prevalence of racism in the criminal justice system and the frequency of police brutality against black people. The fact that black men are very unlikely to be victim of unjustified police violence is a good news. If people really want to help black people, they should focus their energy on more pressing issues that disproportionately affect them, such as poverty, segregation, etc.
Now, although police violence against blacks is extremely rare, it’s true that it seems to be more common than police violence against whites. (Again, I want to caution against taking the comparison that can be made from the figures I calculated too seriously, because the rates are so low for some types of outcomes that measurement or sampling error presumably results in a small signal-to-noise ratio. Moreover, as I explained above, my calculations probably underestimate the rates for white people and therefore exaggerate the racial disparity.) I already know that, in order to save the narrative, people who are committed to the view that white supremacy is a defining characteristic of the US will claim that it proves cops are biased against blacks. In a sense, this is not a very interesting claim, because there obviously is some bias against blacks in the police. A more interesting question is how much of the disparities we observe in the rates I calculated above can be explained by such a bias. I can’t answer that question precisely here, but I can explain why it’s very likely that bias only explains a relatively small part of the difference.
The reason is that, although many people can’t help equating disparities between groups with bias, this inference is fallacious because, for whatever reasons, there are large behavioral differences between groups. For instance, men are much more likely than women to be arrested for violent crimes, yet it doesn’t occur to anyone to say that bias plays anything other than a minor role in that disparity. Everybody understands that men just commit violent crimes at several times the rate of women. This probably explains why, as this graph shows, the police is also also far more likely to use physical force against men.To be specific, the probability that physical force was used by the police against a random man is approximately 0.24%, whereas it’s only 0.07% for women. But you’re never going to hear anyone blaming that disparity on bias. It’s not that bias doesn’t play any role in that disparity, which it probably does to some extent (although it’s not obvious such a bias is irrational, for reasons I explained elsewhere), but differences in behavior no doubt play a much larger role. Similarly, according to the NHAMCS, black men are almost 3 times more likely than white men to suffer a traffic-related injury, but I don’t think anyone is going to say that cars are racist.
Thus, while there seems to be differences in the rates at which force is used by the police against people of different races, part of those disparities probably have nothing to do with bias. Indeed, it’s just a fact that hispanics and, even more so, blacks commit violent crimes at much higher rates than whites. This can be shown by using the NCVS, which is another survey conducted by the BJS every year to assess the reality of victimization rates among US residents, without having to rely on police data that could be biased. The latest data currently available are from 2015, when the BJS reached more than 189,000 people for the NCVS. Interviewers ask respondents if they have been victim of a crime in the past 12 months and, if they have, they ask them a lot of questions about the nature of the incidents. In particular, for violent crimes, they ask them about the race or ethnicity of their offenders. This makes it possible to get a pretty accurate picture of differences between the rates at which people of different races commit that kind of crimes. Any difference that we observe cannot be ascribed to bias in the criminal justice system, since the data come directly from the victims.
According to my calculations, in 2015, black men were 3 times more likely to commit violent crimes than white men, while hispanic men were just 1.1 more likely to do so. (The data are freely available only and you can find the R code I used for my calculations here. I didn’t take into account crimes that were committed by multiple offenders, because the way in which the data were recorded make it difficult if you’re only interested in crimes that were perpetrated by men, but doing the calculations for both men and women suggest it would increase both the black/white and the hispanic/white disparity.) To the extent that cops are more likely to use force against people who commit violent crimes, which they surely are, this could easily explain most if not all of the disparities we have observed above in the rates at which the police uses force against people of different races. Again, that’s not to say that bias plays no role, which I’m sure it does. But it’s unlikely to explain a very large part of the discrepancy. Similarly, as I have argued elsewhere using recent meta-analyses of studies about bias in the criminal justice system, discrimination probably explains only a small part of the black/white disparity in incarceration rates, which is mostly the result of the fact that black people offend at much higher rates than white people. As I have argued in the post where I criticized people who talk about the so-called epidemic of unarmed black men shootings by the police, if liberals really want to help black people, they should focus on changing the conditions that explain why black people are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
Note that, even if bias explained the entire difference in the rates at which the police uses force against people of different races, it would still not justify the hysteria on that issue. Indeed, while this would be a problem, it would still be the case that police violence is overwhelmingly rare even against black men. Black people in the US, at least a large segment of that group (don’t forget that most of them are doing pretty good), are without a doubt the victim of injustice. Nobody chooses to grow up in a ghetto and I often wish conservatives showed more understanding for the impact this can have on someone’s life and took issues such as housing segregation more seriously. But liberals need to understand that we are no longer in 1921 and that racism doesn’t have the explanatory power it used to have. Right now, they basically live in a fantasy world, where momentous developments such as the end of Jim Crow and the advent of civil rights were only superficial changes that didn’t really affect the fabric of the country, which remains based on white supremacy. This is the kind of quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo that makes you popular among the sophisticates, who constantly remind everyone how much they love Ta-Nehisi Coates’s deranged nonsense, but it bears no connection whatsoever to reality. Black people in the US have many problems, but with a few exceptions, police violence is not one of them.
Finally, I want to respond to one last objection, which I know is going to be raised against me because it always is. People will say that, as a white man (who to make things worse is a foreigner and didn’t grow up in the US), I should just shut up and defer to what black people have to say about this, because they’re supposed to have some kind of privileged epistemic access to facts about police violence and how it affects them. It’s really one of the most disconcerting fact about the contemporary intellectual landscape that such patently obscurantist nonsense has become so popular on the left. The issue of how prevalent police violence against black people is cannot be settled by listening to what black people have to say about this. We can only figure this out by looking at systematic evidence, such as victimization surveys, which is what I have done in this post. By doing that, I am listening to what black people have to say about police violence, but I’m doing so in a scientifically responsible way. There is no doubt that, as this poll shows, black people are much more likely than white people to think that police violence against minorities is very common. (However, as the same poll shows, they are also significantly more likely to say they wish the police were more present in their neighborhood.) But we can’t infer that, just because they’re black, they are more likely to be correct. In fact, as we have seen, white people are closer to the truth, although even them probably overestimate the prevalence of police violence against minorities.
Black people don’t have a magical radar in their head that allows them to know how common police violence is across the country or even in their neighborhood. Since they have direct knowledge of what happened to them personally, you can trust them about that. But not when it comes to larger social phenomena, for their beliefs about that are influenced by far more than just their personal experience, such as the media which constantly hypes police violence against black people. The fact is that, if you ask them about how often the police uses force against, not them personally but black people in general, many of them (though by no means all of them) will tell you that it happens all the time. But as we have seen, if you draw a representative sample of the population and ask each black person in that sample how often the police has used force against them personally, then use their answers to determine how common police violence against black people is, you find that it’s extremely rare. Black people are just wrong about how common police violence against minorities is, not in spite of the fact that they’re black, but probably because they are. Sometimes being more directly concerned by a phenomenon makes you less, not more, likely to be right about it.
Note that, on many issues, liberals have no problem recognizing that fact. For instance, there is a cottage industry of articles deploring the fact that, although crime has fallen spectacularly in the US since the 1990’s, most Americans mistakenly believe it has increased. (Incidentally, in order to show that, these articles typically rely on figures derived from the NCVS, so you should think twice if you’re inclined to criticize me for using it.) Liberals are absolutely right to point out this misperception of the evolution of crime in the US, but if people of any color can be wrong about this, there is no reason to think black people can’t be wrong about the prevalence of police violence against minorities. In fact, as we have seen, they clearly are. It’s also not the only example of this phenomenon. For instance, a recently published study based on a representative sample of US adults showed that approximately 68% of black people never or rarely experienced discrimination, while about 26.5% sometimes did and only 5.5% declared experiencing discrimination often. Yet I have no doubt that, if you asked black people how common discrimination against people in their group is, a much larger proportion of them would say that it’s very common. They just think it happens to other black people. The fact is that people of every color are often victim of misperception on politically sensitive issues. Liberals have no difficulty, on the contrary, accepting that fact when it comes to white people, yet they often talk as if black people were somehow immune to this phenomenon. But they are not.
EDIT: Some people have suggested that, although police violence against black men is extremely rare on average, it may be relatively common among a subset of black men, such as those who live in heavily policed areas. This point was made by Simon Penner in a comment below and several other people raised it on Facebook. The worry is that, by only looking at the rates at which the police use force against black men in general, I may have obfuscated the fact that, among a subgroup of black men, police violence is pretty routine. I replied to Simon in a comment, but I’m not sure it was very clear and, since I suspect most people won’t read the comments, I edited the post to add a discussion of this objection. I argue that, if we take a closer look at the data from the PPCS, we see that although there is some truth to that idea, there isn’t enough of it to invalidate my conclusions and salvage the dominant narrative about the prevalence of police brutality against black men.
ANOTHER EDIT: I just realized that I had made a mistake in the calculation of the probability that a man had more than 3 contacts with the police in the past 12 months, which resulted in a significant overestimation of that probability, so I edited the post to give the correct rates and replaced the graph with one that is accurate.