Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

A Racial Reckoning

Checking the Maths Behind the Police Racism Panic

Posted in: Politics

Two Kinds of Reckoning

Throughout much of 2020, the media were awash with calls for ‘a racial reckoning’. The phrase studded news reports and editorials. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — said to be one of the most influential think tanks in the world — declared on its website that ‘The United States is in a profound moment of public reckoning with its history of racial injustice.’ Various universities and Law Schools published similar statements. Meanwhile, down in the street — across the USA and around the world — tens of thousands of people were marching to demand a reckoning for racial injustice suffered by non-white minorities, especially black people.

The spur for all this was the death of a black man on a Minneapolis street on 25th May. George Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck, in full public view, for some nine minutes. Such incidents of excessive force had happened before — most of them, in fact, to white people. But several factors combined to make Floyd’s death an antiracist cause célèbre. For one thing, it occurred in the age of the phone camera. A passer-by videoed the episode, and the footage went viral. Another factor was the growing influence of an activist network built on the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

The protestors wanted a restructuring of society

The hashtag had been coined in 2013 by a group of activists who later that year founded an organisation with the same name. Under the influence of that organisation and others with similar views, a large section of the public was persuaded to see George Floyd’s death as the last straw in a history of racial persecution: the latest in many instances of the use of lethal force by white police on innocent black people. The protestors therefore demanded a reckoning. They wanted to bring the guilty officers to justice. But that was the least of it. They also wanted a much bigger reckoning — a restructuring of society. Top of the list was defunding the police – something that the leaders meant quite literally. But Floyd’s death also fuelled a wider campaign for racial ‘equity’: an enforced redistribution of wealth and power between racial groups.

The demands of the activists, the marchers and the media all hinged on one sense of the word ‘reckoning’: that of ‘redress’, ‘repayment’, or even ‘retribution’ (as in the phrase ‘a day of reckoning’). But that is not the root meaning of the word. Basically, to ‘reckon’ is ‘to count, so as to ascertain the number or amount’.1 We ‘reckon’ when, for example, we add up a bill. The secondary meaning (that of ‘retribution’) derives from, and logically depends upon, the first. In other words, calls for retribution may be justified if, and only if, a reckoning in the basic sense of ‘calculation’ has been carried out accurately.

In various places, and to varying degrees, American society has already capitulated to BLM’s demands for a racial reckoning. Some cities, for example, have made substantial cuts in policing. And across the whole country police forces have backed away from pro-active policing strategies of proven effectiveness in reducing crime. Before capitulating any further to the demands of the protesters, or setting in stone the concessions already made, it would be wise to re-assess the justice of those demands – just as, before paying any big bill, checking the adding-up is a good idea. In the case of the police racism panic, the fact is that the bill has been grossly inflated – as we will see in this article.

But before getting down to the sums, I need to deal with some questions that are hovering in the background. Firstly, if the bill has been inflated, how and why did that happen? Secondly, why should readers of Apramada, or western Buddhists in general, be concerned about all this? Thirdly, why is it necessary to emphasise quantitative data in assessing BLM’s claims?

How the Bill Got Inflated

In the USA – which is the focus of this series of articles2 – protests against racism have an honourable lineage. The Civil Rights marches of the 1960s were iconic events in a long struggle for racial equality under the law. Victory in that struggle was possible because of a broad liberal consensus that rejected racial discrimination in favour of ‘colour-blind’ non-racism. To some extent, the antiracists of today escape close critical scrutiny because they shelter under that consensus. But their definition of racial justice is very different from that of the old liberal non-racism. Their principles, aims and strategies are in fact profoundly illiberal, deriving instead from neo-Marxism and postmodernism. I have explained the distinction between non-racism and antiracism more fully in another article here in Apramada.

If you are black, says BLM, the cops are out to kill you

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter (BLM) — the network of organisations that grew out of the hashtag — sprang to worldwide prominence as the new spearhead of antiracism. BLM’s role within the broader antiracist movement is to focus and exaggerate concerns about the racial dimension of police brutality. It claims that the very lives of black people are ‘systematically and intentionally targeted for demise’ by the police (with assistance from white vigilantes). We must not fail to note the gravity of that allegation. If you are black, says BLM, the cops are quite literally out to kill you. What is more, it is not just some renegade elements of the police who are doing the targeting. No, the violence, which is ‘rampant and deliberate’, is inflicted on black communities ‘by the state’. And the state merely represents the will, conscious or unconscious, of the privileged white majority.

To an unclouded eye, BLM’s claims, together with the media hysteria and public disorder that have accompanied them, are extreme. Far from promoting racial harmony, BLM’s rhetoric is polarising and vindictive. What is more, its use of evidence is shallow and manipulative. Indeed, as I argued in the first part of this series, the whole phenomenon of BLM is akin to what sociologists call a ‘moral panic’. Despite this, it has received support from prominent figures in the political mainstream. Celebrities and famous corporations have donated substantial funds to it. Swathes of the media have echoed its rhetoric uncritically. But, if one recognises BLM as a moral panic, none of this is surprising. Indeed, it is all characteristic of the phenomenon. BLM is the main vector for the propagation of what can fairly be called a racial genocide narrative. This article aims to examine how much truth is in that narrative by submitting it to a ‘reckoning’ in the primary sense of the word.

Perhaps you think I am overemphasising the extremism of BLM. If so, take a moment to mull the implications of the slogan ‘black lives matter’, especially the middle word of the three. The phrase perfectly encapsulates the idea of a white society that is intent not just on subordinating the black minority, but on destroying it. The slogan only really makes sense in the context of the genocide narrative. There are well-meaning moderates who attempt to give it a more innocuous spin. Who say, for example, that they use it to encourage recognition of black people’s contribution to white-majority societies. But if a slogan or symbol has been tailor-made to propagate a divisive lie, it cannot simultaneously serve harmony. Attempts to use it for that purpose will simply give further currency to the lie. Those with truly benevolent intentions should take the trouble to invent some truly benevolent slogans – or perhaps avoid slogans altogether.

Buddhism and the Genocide Narrative

Among those who try to turn the slogan to softer uses, there are quite a few western Buddhists. One such well-intentioned optimist has publicly declared that the BLM movement ‘…is very much around people saying that as a nation, a human race, we want to begin to acknowledge and value black lives in a way that we haven’t done before. That’s the way I use [the BLM slogan].’ Let us assume that the speaker, if pressed, could justify such a sweeping generalisation and explain plausibly the meaning of ‘acknowledge and value’. Even so, the notion that the BLM movement is ‘very much around’ that aspiration is erroneous. Nobody who has investigated BLM’s history or attended to its leaders’ discourse could believe it for a moment.

Indeed, there are western Buddhists who do not try to soften the slogan. Instead, they embrace it on its own extreme terms. One article (in a Buddhist online forum) appealed for Buddhists’ solidarity in protests against ‘a world of policing that terrorizes black people’ and against ‘an increasing project of criminalization and surveillance and othering of non-white bodies’. The vocabulary of this appeal is lifted straight from the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Antiracism and the genocide narrative are therefore gaining ground in the western Buddhist community. We seem to lack an effective immune system. I know there are western Buddhists who sense the dangerous excesses of the narrative. The trouble is that, to my knowledge, hardly any of them have mustered the clarity or the courage to challenge it publicly. This is, to put it mildly, disappointing. As I have pointed out before, Buddhism is a religion – a philosophy, if you prefer – that is dedicated to the truth, and to seeing things as they really are. Buddhism also places special importance upon the morality of speech. Out of a canonical list of ten moral principles (kammapatha), no less than four are concerned with speech. According to those precepts, Buddhists should refrain from speech that is untruthful, unkind, useless (or unhelpful), and slanderous (or divisive). Conversely, they should strive to make their communication truthful, kind, helpful and conducive to social harmony.

Rates of violent crime have spiked alarmingly since the BLM protests

BLM and its genocide narrative therefore pose an ethical problem for any Buddhist who takes those speech precepts seriously. Firstly, the genocide narrative is a lie, as this article will demonstrate with mathematical rigour. Secondly, it is not just any lie, but a lie that has done serious damage to society, so it can hardly be classed as either kindly or helpful. It is an indisputable fact that rates of violent crime in the USA, including murder, have spiked alarmingly since the BLM protests. Although antiracist activists and swathes of the news media deny or ignore the fact, this spike is linked to the success of the protests in cutting police budgets and forcing the police to back off from pro-active policing practices. There is solid evidence for this assertion, which I mean to present in a future article.

And what of the precept that enjoins harmonious speech, or at least the avoidance of speech that promotes disharmony? In general, antiracist discourse promotes a profoundly cynical view of whiteness – a view that can only serve to entrench mutual suspicion and dislike between whites and ethnic minorities in white-majority societies. The poison is working. In the early 2000s, surveys showed that most Americans (of any colour) had a much more positive and optimistic view of race relations than they do now.3Within the broad field of antiracist cynicism, BLM ploughs a single, deep furrow: it misrepresents the problem of police brutality (a genuine issue, though not of the magnitude claimed) as if it were the battlefront of a race war waged by white upon black. Instead of uncritically absorbing and repeating this lie, or remaining silent while it implants itself among us, Buddhists would do better to scrutinize it and speak honestly of what they find.

Numbers Versus Stories

The rest of this article will attempt a genuine ‘racial reckoning’ of the truth or otherwise of the genocide narrative. It will pose questions that can only be answered in numerical terms. We can boil the relevant questions down to a list of three:

  • How large does police violence really loom — as compared to other factors — as a cause of death in the USA?
  • Do black people suffer disproportionately from such violence, as BLM claims?
  • If black people suffer disproportionately, is that disproportion due to racism in the police? Or is there some other reason for it – a reason that can be measured and quantified?

These questions are quantitative in nature, so there will be a lot of numbers in what follows. No doubt that will be off-putting to some readers, but I urge you to stay with me for the simple reason that the truth is important.

One reason BLM has so easily deceived the public is our human preference for stories over numbers. I am by no means hostile to stories. In all places and times, stories have served to preserve cultures and transmit the values that make a society cohere and develop. But those stories are resonant myths and time-honoured classics, not ephemeral items of news, or worse, fake news. Of course, stories are more fun than numbers: they offer drama and arouse our emotions. But unfortunately, our natural preference for stories helps activists and biased media to mislead us with a handful of cherry-picked and sensationalised tales, such as that of George Floyd. On hearing such stories, it seems not to occur to us (or to most journalists) to ask quantitative questions of the kind I am posing here. The story moves us, but we fail to ask how typical it is, or whether there are stories of an opposite tendency that we are not being told.4

To some degree, this indifference to quantitative measurement reflects a change – or to be frank, a decline – in education. In bygone days, students were taught about the danger of building generalisations upon ‘anecdotal evidence’ – which is to say, upon stories. Educated people used to understand that stories may helpfully suggest or illustrate, but cannot substantiate, general truth-claims about social behaviour. In opposition to that idea, antiracism avowedly puts ‘storytelling’ at the heart of its method. It awards itself a licence to build ‘truth’ upon stories of its own choosing, and refuses to recognise any universal standard by which that truth might be assessed. This article, in contrast, rests upon the old-fashioned view that some things are true (or untrue) irrespective of one’s racial or cultural identity and the stories associated with it. As compared to the antiracist position, this view seems to me more compatible not only with science but also (in a different way) with Buddhism.5

Whilst we are on the subject of numbers, you might reasonably ask where I have got the numbers used in this article. My overall perspective is indebted to certain scholars and journalists who have taken a stand against the exaggerations of antiracism and BLM. Their writings are well supported by statistical data.6 However, I want to do more than just quote other people’s work. Sceptical readers might dismiss my chosen experts as politically biased. Consequently, for the raw data of my reckoning, I have gone directly to three national statistical sources in the USA (the only exception is in the section immediately following). Of course, it is always possible to question the accuracy of official statistical data. But in the present case, we will see that the patterns that emerge from the three sources are so marked and so mutually consistent that only the most dogmatic antiracist could claim to detect the hand of white supremacy pulling strings. And as all the sources are available to the public online, sceptical readers can check the numbers for themselves.7

Violence and the Police

Before addressing the racial aspect of the issue, we need to start by looking at the broader question of police violence in the USA. What is the actual number of people — of any colour — killed by the police? In 2015, the Washington Post newspaper created a database to answer this question. The Post is a ‘liberal’ paper that is sympathetic to antiracist views. Suspecting that police reports understated the number of deaths, Post journalists supplemented them by scouring local news from all over the country. By using the Post’s database, I should avoid any accusation that I am downplaying the full measure of police violence.8

America’s gun laws create a society in which police need to carry firearms

Over the period of almost eight years that the database covers at the time I write this, there were on average about one thousand incidents of fatal shootings by the US police every year. For British readers, that number may seem shockingly high. But in the context of the USA, it should not really come as a surprise. America is a country of 333 million people. The members of that vast public are said to have about sixty-one million encounters with the police in each year. And a lot of them are armed. According to a recent survey, 32% of US adults personally own a gun, and 44% live in a household where there is a gun.9We can safely assume that the percentage will be higher among those involved in violent crime. Whether you approve of America’s gun laws or not, they undeniably create a society in which police need to carry firearms and sometimes use them to protect themselves and the public.

Next, what is the racial breakdown of those thousand Americans killed by the police every year? Of the total of nearly 8,000 people killed since 2015, the biggest racial group by far is white, with 3,277 deaths (about 41% of the total).10Blacks come next at 1,758 (22%).11In a commentary prefacing the database, the Washington Post points out that black Americans are killed disproportionately. What it means is that the percentages just mentioned do not match each race’s share of the overall population. We will return to this point.

For good measure, the Post’s commentary adds that Hispanic Americans are also killed at a higher rate than whites. Yet it remains oddly silent on a further racial datum, which nevertheless emerges clearly from its own database. This is the fact that Asian Americans are killed at a much lower rate than whites. Here we get our first glimpse of something that occurs frequently in antiracist discourse: the bias of selection. Racial comparisons are highlighted when they support the theory of white supremacy but ignored when they undermine it.

Still, there are two important things that the Post’s commentary gets right. The first is that the great bulk of the people killed by the police — no less than 95% — are male. (Strange how nobody claims this disparity reveals bias against men!) Secondly, most of them are also young. It is not so much black lives in general, but overwhelmingly the lives of black young men, that are at issue here.

The next question is how many of those one thousand shootings per year are either justified or unjustified. In other words, how many are necessary because of an imminent life-threatening danger to police officers or to the public, and how many are not? A full answer would require an examination of each case. But to get the best available proxy, we can ask a simpler question: what percentage of those who were shot were unarmed when they died?12

The answer is that just under six percent of the eight-year total (460 out of 8,000) were unarmed, and therefore might have presented no immediate threat. Of these, 180 (2.25%) were white, and 146 (1.8%) were black. So here again, there is a disparity. On the one hand, it is whites who form the biggest group of unarmed victims of police killing, as you would logically expect from their bigger share of the population (over four times greater than that of blacks). On the other hand, black victims, though fewer overall, are present in a larger proportion than you would predict from their share.

Racial Disparities in the Deaths of Young Men

To state the obvious, when young people die, they mostly do not die of natural causes. What then are the main causes of death among young men? Are there significant racial differences in the impact of those causes?

For answers to these questions, a reliable source is the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC). The CDC collects data recorded on death certificates, including causes of death, across the whole USA. The database allows us to analyse data in a wide variety of ways.13 One way that is simple and relevant to this article is by the category ‘injury and non-injury’. In order to focus on young (and youngish) men, we can apply filters for ‘male’, and for the three ten-year age bands covering the range of 15 – 44. This allows us to avoid clouding the picture with either infant mortality or old age. As a representative year, we can look at 2019. It is recent but precedes various complications that arise from the Covid pandemic or the George Floyd affair.

The first thing that stands out is the difference between racial groups in overall death rates (from all causes) of young American men. White men (non-Hispanic) in the 15-44 age band died at a rate of 178 per 100,000.14 The equivalent rate for blacks was significantly higher at 256. But the rate for Asian Americans was strikingly lower at only 71. Asian American men, it appears, are much better at making it through to middle age than either blacks or whites. 

Are there any significant racial differences in the causes of death? Indeed, there are. The most notable difference is the rate of death by homicide. For whites, this was 5 per 100,000. For Asians, it was even lower at 3 per 100,000. But for black young men, the rate was through the roof. In 2019, no less than 72 out of 100,000 African American men aged 15-44 were murdered, making homicide the most significant single cause of death by injury for this group.15 (In contrast, the biggest cause for whites was ‘unintentional injury’, meaning accidents.) Sadly, 2019 was a typical year.

Black young men are thirteen times more likely to be murdered

We need to let this sink in. The CDC data show that black young men in the USA are over thirteen times more likely to be murdered than white young men, and twenty-three times more likely than Asian young men. If the slogan ‘black lives matter’ is relevant anywhere, it is relevant here — in relation to homicide. The scale is truly appalling, and all people of goodwill must surely desire a remedy for it. But the question inevitably arises: who are the perpetrators? Who is doing the killing? It is certainly not the police because the CDC data count ‘legal intervention’ (together with ‘operations of war’) in a separate category, and the numbers are very small. Could it be those white vigilantes accused by BLM? The short answer is no, but we will save a fuller answer to this question until later.

The question I want to focus on at this point is how the scale of deaths by homicide compares with that of deaths at the hands of the police. The answer will help us to decide whether BLM and its allies are focussing our minds on the most serious problem facing black people or are distracting us with a sideshow. From the Washington Post, we know that 197 young black men were killed by the police in 2019. The number that died by homicide (7,211) is, therefore, thirty-five times greater. But we can go further. Out of that 197, only nine were unarmed when shot (meaning that their deaths were possibly unjustified). Thus, the number who died by homicide was a staggering 933 times higher than the number who were killed unjustifiably (perhaps) by the police.

From these facts alone, we can see that the genocide narrative of BLM and its allies in the mainstream media is a gross distortion of the truth. I am far from suggesting we should dismiss police brutality as a negligible problem, but the plain fact is that, in the grand scheme of things, the harm done to young black people by criminal violence is vastly greater than any harm done to them by the police.

Before moving on to the next question, there is a further interesting comparison we can draw from CDC data on causes of death. White (non-Hispanic) young men are much more likely than other racial groups to die at their own hands. The comparative data for suicides per 100,000 are as follows: whites 32; blacks 18; Asians 14. Here we see a disparity that is unfavourable to the white racial group, yet we hear next to nothing about it. What drives young white men to kill themselves at a much higher rate than other racial groups? Why don’t we hear calls for compassionate social action to address it? One thing we can be sure of: if the rates were reversed (with black young men committing suicide at a rate 78% higher than whites), we would be hearing a great deal more. It would be cited as further and weighty evidence of ‘systemic racism’.

Racial Disparities in Police Killings

Do the police kill black people disproportionately? The question takes us to the heart of the topic of this article, but it is complicated by ambiguity. What does ‘disproportionately’ mean? Does it simply mean ‘more than you would predict from the black share of the population’? If so, then the answer is undeniably ‘yes’. Black people (which means Americans of specifically African descent, not including any other minority ethnicity) currently comprise about 13% of the total population of the USA. And the Washington Post database shows that they comprise considerably more than 13% of people killed by the police — about 23%, in fact. This disproportion is the foundation of BLM’s claim that black people are ‘systematically and intentionally targeted for demise’ by a police force that is the tool of ‘white supremacy’.

But we must put the data in context. The first thing to bear in mind is that the function of the police in any society is to protect the community against crime. The charge of systemic racism levelled against the police rests on the assumption that there is no difference between ethnic groups in their propensity to break the law, and so to precipitate dangerous encounters with the law’s enforcers. But that assumption is simply wrong. The fact is that crime — just like wealth, power and privilege — is one of those things that are not distributed equally. In New York City, for instance, 25% of the crime is committed on just 1% of the streets (and 50% of it is committed on 5% of the streets).16 Only a corrupt or incompetent police force would fail to focus its attention on the places where crime occurs.

Homicide and Violent Crime

At this point, a note of warning is needed. Nothing in what follows should be construed as implying that ‘race’ (whatever that means) is a predictor of behaviour or a measure of morality. My only reason for focussing on the category of race is that BLM and all other antiracists insist on doing so. The simplest and most effective way to expose the falsehood of their arguments is to oppose them on their own racial terms. I will come back to this point later.

With that warning in mind, let us refresh our memory as to the racial mix of the US population. According to the 2020 census, it is as follows: 72% white (including most ‘Hispanics’), 13% black (‘African American’), and 6% Asian, with other groups (including mixed races) accounting for the remainder. Bearing these figures in mind, we can now look at statistics on crime. Data are publicly available online from the FBI.17 Let us start with the worst crime — homicide. The first point to note is that FBI data confirm what we have already learned from the CDC about the high proportion of black victims. According to the FBI, the racial make-up of homicide victims (both sexes and all age groups) in 2019 was: 44% white, 52% black, 1% Asian, with the remaining 3% accounted for by minor ethnicities, or unknown. There was nothing unusual about the year 2019. If we look at the whole of the ten years 2010-2019, the racial percentages of homicide victims were broadly similar: 46% white, 50% black, and 1% Asian.

So much for the victims. But what about the offenders? The FBI data for homicide offenders in 2019 were as follows: 37% white, 50% black, 1% Asian, 1% other minorities, and 11% unknown. If we split the ‘unknown’ group in proportion to the known ones, the percentages of white and black offenders come out as 41% and 56% respectively. Although the numbers vary year-on-year to some extent, these data are broadly typical, with closely similar figures for the whole ten years 2010-19.

So here is the bottom line: black people are only 13% of the population of the USA, but they typically commit (and suffer) at least half of the homicides on a year-by-year basis. That is roughly 3.7 times more than you would predict from their share of the US population. Demographic differences in the age distribution of the races (with younger people forming a larger proportion of black Americans than of whites) cannot explain more than a tiny fraction of this markedly higher propensity towards homicide.18

The FBI data also show that it is not just homicide where this racial pattern is visible. We see the same picture across all types of violent crime. For the ten years 2010 ­- 2019, the racial breakdown of victims of all violent crime (defined to include homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) is as follows: 61% of victims are white, 34% black and 1% Asian. The remainder is other minorities or unknown. And what races are the known offenders? White violent offenders comprise 45% of the total, blacks 46%, and Asians 1%. Despite their much smaller share of the population, African Americans commit as much violent crime as their white compatriots, or perhaps more. We must not imagine that these statistics conceal a racial war waged through the proxy of crime. The fact is that the great majority of crime is intra-racial rather than inter-racial. In other words, people mostly commit offences against members of their own racial group.

The people who most need to learn that ‘black lives matter’ are themselves black

From the data on homicide and violent crime we can conclude that the main threat to the lives and well-being of black people is not the police or white vigilantes. It turns out the people who most need to learn that ‘black lives matter’ are themselves black.

The evident truth is that the police are not killing black people disproportionately. Yes, it is true that blacks, while forming only 13% of the US population, account for 23% of those killed by the police. But this apparent excess of 10% is completely explicable in terms of the higher black rates of violent crime, including homicide, and the resulting higher frequency of interactions with law enforcement officers.

The Taboo

Some readers will be reluctant to believe what they have just read. It runs counter to all they have heard in the media furore over George Floyd. What is more, the mere mention of high black crime rates makes many people deeply uneasy, even angry. One is not supposed to mention such things. To acknowledge the link between crime and certain ethnic minorities is to break a taboo — one of several taboos around the subject of race. To test whether you are affected by this taboo, imagine how you would feel using each of the following sentences in a conversation: ‘there’s a lot more white crime than people think’ or ‘there’s a lot more black crime than people think’. Which sentence would you hesitate more to utter, regardless of the facts at your disposal?

Nobody has made this point more bluntly than the Sociologist Wilfred Reilly (who happens to be black). In his essential book ‘Taboo’, Reilly devotes a chapter to each of ten facts that, he claims, are ‘obvious’, but which nevertheless ‘you can’t talk about’. No less than nine of the ten facts are to do with race, and the first two are particularly relevant to this article. Reilly’s ‘Taboo obvious fact #1’ is ‘The Police Aren’t Murdering Black People’, and his ‘Taboo Obvious Fact #2’ is that ‘There Is No “war on POC”’ (people of colour).19

Where do these taboos come from? It is hard to give a short answer, but many blacks and many liberal whites fear that racists will use facts about racial disparities in crime to stigmatise black people as naturally predisposed to criminality. That fear is understandable. Yes, facts can be dangerous; they can be misinterpreted and abused. But trying to suppress or ignore them is even more harmful — to all races — in the long run. How can a genuine solution be found for any social problem, whether police brutality, black crime, or anything else, without first admitting the truth?

What produced this fear? For many educated white people, knowledge of the darker side of their history — of slavery, colonialism and the holocaust — weighs on them heavily. They are often under the impression that they alone, among all the races, have behaved in such wicked ways. They feel, perhaps without formulating the idea clearly, that the priority of social policy is to atone for the past: to eradicate racial disparities of all kinds, together with racism itself, once and for all. This has become an overriding moral imperative, reinforced by intense social anxiety. One must never say anything that might be construed as racist. Facts that reflect badly on whites are mentionable. Indeed, mentioning them has become a sort of praiseworthy penitential practice. But it is forbidden to mention facts that reflect badly on other ethnicities. The truth is forced to come a distant second whenever it seems to impede the great project of remaking society in accordance with a certain conception of racial justice.

The moral entrepreneurs of antiracism, including BLM’s founders, exploit this situation shamelessly. Together with their eager auxiliaries in the media, they rarely acknowledge the facts of racial disparities in crime. They only want to talk about its results in terms of lethal encounters with the police. When compelled to allude to high black crime rates, they interpret them as purely a function of poverty resulting from oppression. In this way, all the suffering caused by crime can be laid at the door of ‘white supremacy’.20 Liberal and progressive whites who support BLM may baulk at explicitly endorsing its wild claims of genocide committed by white police, but they mostly choose not to challenge such claims — sensing the exaggeration, perhaps, but turning a blind eye to it, viewing it as pardonable in the cause of righting the egregious wrongs of the past.

The only exception to this rule is a certain type of media report that focusses one-sidedly on black people as victims of crime, while skirting around the part they play in perpetrating it. Earlier this year, an article published in the Guardian (where else?) provided a perfect example.21 It was headed: ‘Why America overlooks those most hurt by gun violence: Black people are seen as expendable’. That title, with its distinct echo of the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, summarises the article’s content quite succinctly. The piece focusses exclusively on one side of black crime: that of the victim. The role played by African Americans in committing crime is not exactly denied but is banished from awareness. The word ‘victim’ in various forms (including ‘victimization’ and ‘victimhood’) appears fifteen times in the text, but words such as ‘offender’, ‘perpetrator’, or ‘killer’ occur not even once. A trusting reader might be lulled into forgetting that crime occurs through the individual agency of actual criminals, or into thinking that crime simply condenses like dew from a fog of ‘racist stereotypes’.

An Impartial Source

But perhaps you are still not convinced of the facts. The FBI database I cited above is sometimes criticised because it is incomplete. Not all local police forces contribute, though nowadays the vast majority do. It is true that fuller data might modify the picture slightly. However, with the racial disparity in crime rates so great, it is hard to see how sharper detail would change the picture fundamentally. But to argue in such ways carries no weight with BLM or other antiracist fundamentalists. To such people, all information from a police source (such as the FBI) is unacceptable because the police are the enemy. How then can we check the FBI’s picture of very high black crime rates?

The evidence shows that African Americans figure more as offenders than as victims

The picture is confirmed by an alternative source whose impartiality is hard to dispute. This is the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), part of the US Department of Justice. BJS data are compiled not from police sources but from direct surveys of the public.22 If black victims of crime, when surveyed, report that black offenders victimised them, there can be no reason to doubt they are telling the truth. Indeed, the BJS survey is one of the sources from which we know that most crimes are committed within, not across, racial or ethnic divides. Nevertheless, insofar as there is an imbalance, the evidence shows beyond doubt that, in the relatively small area of inter-racial crime, African Americans figure more as offenders than as victims.23 The only serious limitation of the BJS as a source is that survey data cannot include homicide (obviously, a murder victim cannot complete a survey return). But in its annual survey, the BJS collects data on ‘violent victimisations’, defined as all nonfatal violent and property crimes (a list including assault, rape, robbery and burglary).

The BJS survey data reveal a broadly similar picture to that of the FBI. For example, the 2018 survey showed that whites (non-Hispanic) committed less crime than you would predict from their share (60.4%) of the population.24 To be precise, whites (non-Hispanic) committed only about 44% of ‘serious nonfatal violent crimes’.25 By contrast, African Americans, who constituted only 12% of the population (by the BJS’s reckoning) managed to commit almost 40% of such crimes. This included 22% of rapes and sexual assaults, 51% of robberies, and 34% of aggravated assaults. And here, yet again, the contrast with Asian Americans is telling. Asians constitute just under 6% of the US population but commit less than 3% of serious nonfatal violent crimes.

White Vigilantes and Hate Crime

What about BLM’s claim that white vigilantes are assisting the police in a racial war on blacks? It might seem plausible on the face of it. An event that arguably falls in that category is the death of the young black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, a few months before that of George Floyd in 2020. Arbery died at the hands of three white men who had suspected him, with no substantial evidence, of being a burglar.

But despite the heavy press coverage of the trial and conviction of Arbery’s killers, that sort of crime (where an innocent person falls victim to an enraged mob that mistakes him for a criminal on grounds of his race or ethnic identity) is very rare nowadays. The concept of the ‘vigilante’ no longer captures the character of crime against minorities. The modern equivalent is ‘hate crime’. This is a complicated and controversial topic, for which an adequate treatment would require a lengthy essay of its own. Plausible arguments can be advanced to suggest that the true extent of hate crime is under-reported, but there are equally plausible arguments that it is exaggerated. But here are some facts that are relevant to the genocide narrative.

Firstly, hate crime is not a very big part of US crime. In the ten years 2010 -19, the FBI recorded 65,012 hate crime incidents – a rate of around six and a half thousand per year (in a population, let us remember, of around 330 million). The figure can also be compared to a total of over 3.1 million violent crime incidents. Blacks formed the largest group of victims at 30% of the total. Whites were victims in 10% of cases, but the figure rises to a total of 28% if Jews and Hispanics are also counted as ‘white’ (as they are for most purposes, such as the Census).   

Secondly, ‘hate crime’ covers a long list of different offences, of variable degrees of seriousness. Most of them don’t involve bodily harm.26 To keep matters simple, let us concentrate on homicide, which is the category most germane to the genocide narrative. When viewing the list of offence types, we must scroll down a long way to find ‘murder and non-negligent homicide’, in which category there were 151 offences throughout the whole ten years. Of these, blacks were the victims in just 26 cases – a rate of less than three per year in a black population of about 39 million people. Obviously, there can be no ‘good’ number, but to put this figure in its proper context, there were 22,340 African Americans who died by (non-hate crime) homicide in the same ten-year period – a rate of well over two thousand per year.

What were the races of the hate crime offenders? For all categories of hate crime, the total number of offenders whose race was known and logged in the system was 51,126.27 62% of those offenders were white or Hispanic (compared to their joint 76% share of the population) and 27% were black (compared to their 14% share, as calculated in this dataset).28 In other words, hate crime shows a similar pattern to violent crime in general. As an identity group, blacks suffer more from it than any other. But on a per capita basis, they also commit more.

The Exaggerated Significance of Race

Before concluding, I must again make it clear that nothing in my argument should be construed to suggest that ‘race’ is a category that determines or predicts behaviour. In this article, I have made extensive use of racial statistics, referring repeatedly to ‘white’, ‘black’ and ‘Asian’. I have done so solely because that is the most direct way to refute the claims of the antiracist genocide narrative, which is framed in just such racial terms. That narrative’s relentless and divisive insistence on race and racism as the driving forces behind different outcomes can be countered most effectively on its own chosen ground.

The real drivers of apparently ‘racial’ disparities are cultural

But as I have argued previously, the real drivers of apparently ‘racial’ disparities in social outcomes, including involvement in crime, are cultural (in the broad sense of ‘related to the typical values, attitudes and habits of a social group’) not racial. They are related to historically based cultural differences between groups, or subsets of groups. In particular, the high rates of offending among African Americans are associated with the ‘disconnected street people’ described by the Sociologist Orlando Paterson.29

Within each of the broad racial groups (white, black, Asian) that I have referred to in this article, there are ethnic divisions, and the ethnic groups are further divided by class. Between any two groups or subgroups that might be compared, one would find differences in socio-economic outcomes, including different levels of contact with the criminal justice system. For example, I have stressed the low crime rates of Asian Americans. But while this holds good for, say, Chinese Americans, it is not true of Vietnamese Americans, who have higher offending and incarceration rates. Comparable differences can be found between whites of different ethnic origins and likewise between blacks. Race, in the biological sense of a genetically distinct ‘population’, is involved in all this only as a marker that, in certain cases, serves to perpetuate cultural differences and tensions.

A Racial Reckoning

It is time to sum up our racial reckoning. The polarising belief in a war between races — in particular, of a war waged by white upon black — is at the heart of the ‘immoral panic’ I described in the first article in this series. Over the last ten years or so, the antiracist movement has striven with depressing success to make us all view society’s ills in terms of race and racism. Within the wider scope of that success, the year 2020 saw Black Lives Matter achieve a breakthrough in a narrow, but crucially important sector, namely public perceptions of racism in the police’s use of force. BLM’s propaganda has persuaded many of us that the American police are intent on exterminating black people. But it is not true.

Those who insist on treating racism as the key independent variable in the occurrence of police brutality, or in the sufferings of black people generally, should take note of the facts, which are as follows.

  • The use of excessive force by the police is a legitimate object of concern, but when viewed in the context of American society, and of other threats to the lives and safety of black people, the magnitude of the danger posed by the police is very small.
  • The main cause of death (by injury) of black people, especially of young black men, is homicide. That risk is several orders of magnitude greater than the risk of an unarmed black person being killed by the police.
  • The police kill more white people than black.
  • Although the police kill blacks in numbers disproportionate to their population share, that disproportion disappears when placed in its proper context of high black rates of homicide and violent crime — rates that are confirmed by a range of data sources. The tendency of the news and comment media to suppress this crucially relevant context is hard to explain other than as a taboo with complex historical and psychological roots.
  • Black people of both sexes and all ages suffer far more than other races from violent crime, but they suffer mainly at the hands of other black people, especially black young men. Statistically, black Americans themselves are the group most in need of hearing the message that black lives matter.
  • Despite some highly publicised cases, and despite the claims of BLM and other antiracists, the threat posed to black lives by ‘white vigilantes’ nowadays is vanishingly small – whatever the scale of ‘lynching’ might have been a century ago.
  • If there is a contemporary equivalent of vigilantism, it must be looked for in the category of hate crime. But hate crime is not a big element of crime in the USA. Most hate crime incidents do not even involve bodily harm, let alone homicide, which in fact constitutes only a tiny proportion of the total.
  • While African Americans suffer more per capita from hate crimes than other minorities, they also commit more per capita than other racial or ethnic groups. It is therefore inappropriate to represent them only as victims of bigotry.

The data I have presented falsify the genocide narrative not only in its strong form but also in any weak form that antiracist fellow-travellers might care to construct. The same data should also constitute a rebuke not only to the false claims of BLM, but also to the failure of the news and comment media, which in general have given a free ride to those claims, not to mention the politicians and celebrities who have promoted them.30

There are racists among all races

There undoubtedly are, and probably always will be, individual racist police officers, just as there are racists among all races, and just as every group contains malevolent individuals. It is also clear that the police sometimes use excessive force. Policy measures to mitigate these problems — perhaps by improving police training, weeding out unsuitable officers, or making it easier to hold renegade police to account — may well be required, and all people of goodwill should support such measures. But statistical evidence from a range of sources converges on the conclusion that the police force as an institution does not kill black people disproportionately when relevant variables are properly accounted for.

In terms of any dangers of death or injury, the threat presented to black people by either the police or white vigilantes is at the bottom of the list. At the top are homicide and violent crime, which are rampant within that community. How to solve those problems is too big a question to embark on here, but of one thing we can be certain: cutting police budgets and creating a climate in which police are afraid to do their jobs can only make the problems worse. In fact, this has already happened, as I intend to show in a further article in this series.

Footnotes

  1. Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. As I explained in the first article, this series deals with the police racism panic in the USA only, as it originated and is most influential there. By focussing on America, a complicated topic can be kept within manageable bounds. Moreover, it is difficult to understand the impact of the panic in the UK without a prior understanding of the American background. A discussion of the UK will therefore have to await another occasion.
  3. While an analysis of that decline would be relevant, there is no room for it here. Briefly, the causes lie in several social changes that have impacted the lives of the younger generation. One is the smuggling of Critical Race Theory into the education system. Another is a widespread frustration at the slowing of economic opportunities since the financial crisis of 2008. A third is the explosion of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, creating virtual communities ­– age-stratified social bubbles – in which that frustration can be amplified and turned in specific directions (such as ‘racial justice’) by activists.
  4. As I pointed out in the first part of this series, it is taken for granted in most public discussion that the killing of George Floyd was racially motivated. Yet neither Derek Chauvin nor any of the other three offending officers (two of whom belong to racial minorities) have ever been charged with hate crimes, despite the evident determination of the authorities to make them exemplary cases using every applicable law (murder, manslaughter and civil rights). What is more, comparable instances of excessive force against white victims receive only a small fraction of the publicity given to the George Floyd case (and others where the victim is African American). The case of Tony Timpa, a white man who died after police kneeled on his back for 13 minutes, provides a close analogue to that of George Floyd (Dallas Police body cameras show moment Tony Timpa stopped breathing – YouTube). At the time of writing, the officer in Timpa’s case has not been prosecuted. Even more disturbing is the case of Daniel Shaver (Mesa Police Release Footage of Daniel Shaver’s Shooting. He Was Unarmed. – YouTube), an unarmed young white man who had committed no offence but was shot five times. The officer in Shaver’s case was brought to trial but acquitted of all charges.
  5. This touches on a complex topic that will be explored more fully in Apramada in future. For the purpose of this article, we should note only that antiracism has assimilated the postmodern idea that any conception of truth must depend upon values. Because values vary with cultures, there can be no objective truth, only a plurality of ‘truths’, each of which is socially constructed by the culture that produces it rather than rooted in material realities. A form of knowledge based on stories is therefore no worse than any other. Indeed, for antiracism, stories best communicate the ‘lived experience’ of marginalised groups. By contrast, the approach to truth I adopt in this article – based upon the concepts of evidence, reasoning and mathematical quantification – is viewed by many antiracists as simply a tool of white supremacy and colonialism. As for Buddhism, it is not science, but like science it lays claim to a universal truth, not a merely local or culturally conditioned one.
  6. For readers interested in investigating in greater depth the case against antiracism and the genocide narrative, I would recommend the following three books: Heather Mac Donald, The War on Cops, Encounter Books, 2017; Wilfred Reilly, Taboo – 10 Facts [You Can’t Talk About], Regnery Publishing, 2020; Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, revised and enlarged edition, Basic Books, 2019.
  7. Obviously, another potential source is academic research on racial bias in police violence. However, the inclusion of a truly adequate discussion of that field would have made this article far too long. It may be possible to publish such a discussion on a future occasion. Meanwhile, the following summary will have to suffice. Firstly, it is easy to find research that appears to detect racial bias in police use of lethal force. A prominent example is a 2019 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (available online at Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex | PNAS). This paper appears in any Google search for ‘police killings and race USA’. At the time I write this, the paper has been cited by 367 news outlets, referenced in eight Facebook pages and thirteen Wikipedia pages, and tweeted thousands of times. Yet despite wielding such influence, the paper shows obvious weaknesses. Above all, it relies upon statistical racial disparities in police killings without allowing for contextual racial disparities in crime rates. Readers willing to engage with a more rigorous study could seek out the 2017 paper ‘An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force’ by Harvard economist Roland Fryer (available online at MergedFile (harvard.edu)). Fryer’s overall conclusion is that racial bias is present to some degree at lower-level uses of force, ranging from simply laying hands on the person to the use of a baton. Even after a range of statistical adjustments to allow for confounding variables, Fryer found blacks were 21.2% more likely to be subject to such force. The absolute likelihood of any such force being used upon subjects of any race decreased dramatically towards the upper end of the range (i.e. the baton), but the racial disproportion remained constant (and was not affected by the race of the officer concerned). But what about lethal interventions – which are of course, directly relevant to what I am calling ‘the genocide narrative’? Here Fryer’s data indicated — rather to his own surprise, apparently— that if anything, the police were less likely to use lethal force against a black suspect than a white one. However, due to uncertainties about possible bias in the raw data, he felt unable to assert this positively in his final conclusions. His last word on the matter is that ‘…on the most extreme use of force — officer-involved shootings — we are unable to detect any racial differences.’
  8. Washington Post subscribers can access the database at Police shootings database 2015-2022 – Washington Post
  9. What Percentage of Americans Own Guns? (gallup.com)
  10. Hispanic’ Americans – those with an ethnic origin in the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America – are not counted in this total. For other purposes, such as the US Census, the great majority of them are counted as ‘white’.
  11. Figures accessed on 26 November 2022.
  12. However, this comes with a caveat. It is perfectly possible for someone to pose a mortal danger to the life of an officer or a member of the public, even if that someone is not actually holding a gun or a knife at the moment he was shot. The point is well illustrated by the case of the teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death became the first cause célèbre for BLM back in 2014. Brown was indeed unarmed when he died, but a few moments earlier, he had been punching the officer and trying to wrestle his gun out of his hand. When the fatal shots were fired, Brown was running towards the officer (who was backing off) with fists balled, ignoring instructions to stop. For a full account of the case of Michael Brown, see the film What Killed Michael Brown?
  13. Readers who wish to explore the CDC database for themselves could start here: Underlying Cause of Death, 2018-2020, Single Race Request (cdc.gov)
  14. For ease of reading, I have rounded these and subsequent figures to the nearest integer.
  15. The absolute number of deaths by homicide was 7,211 out of a black male population in that age range of 10,037,149.
  16. Crime Hot Spots: A Study of New York City Streets in 2010, 2015, and 2020 (manhattan-institute.org)
  17. The FBI makes its data available to the public online via a service called the Crime Data Explorer (CDE). You can find it at CDE :: Crime (cloud.gov). However, to avoid confusing the reader with too many acronyms, I shall refer to the source simply as the FBI.
  18. Elsewhere in Apramada, I have pointed out that demographic differences between ethnic and racial groups, such as in their age distributions, can help to explain disparities in socio-economic outcomes. Could the racial disparities in crime be explained by differences in the age distributions? Young men commit the bulk of the violent crime, and young men constitute a bigger share of the black population than they do of the white. But the difference is too small to account for the huge differences in crime rates. Figures for 2018 cited by Pew Research (and based on Census Bureau estimates) indicate that people in the age group 22-37 constitute 24% of the black population, as against 22% of the total population, and 20% of all whites. In this age group, the proportions of male and female are similar. We would therefore expect the violent crime rate to be about one fifth higher among black than among whites. This is dwarfed by the real disparity.
  19. Wilfred Reilly, Taboo – 10 Facts [You Can’t Talk About], Regnery Publishing, 2020.
  20. My critique of this view (that relatively poor socio-economic outcomes of African Americans, including high rates of crime, are wholly attributable to ongoing white racism) is set out in Was the Buddha an Antiracist?
  21. Why America overlooks those most hurt by gun violence: ‘Black people are seen as expendable’ | US crime | The Guardian
  22. The actual title of the BJS survey is ‘the National Crime Victimisation Survey’ (NCVS). Once again though, to avoid burdening the reader with too many acronyms, I will simply refer to the data source as BJS.
  23. For example, we can look at violent crimes committed between blacks and whites (that is, white offenders with black victims, plus black offenders with white victims). According to the 2019 BJS report, there was a total of 562,663 violent crime incidents in these two categories combined. The distribution was as follows: 84% of the incidents involved black offenders with white victims (472,644 crimes), while just 16% involved white offenders with black victims (90,019 crimes). To grasp the full significance of these proportions, you must remember that blacks were estimated by BJS to be a little less than 13% of the population in 2019, and whites just over 60%.
  24. In BJS data, ‘Hispanic’ is counted as an ethnicity separate from whites.
  25. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics: ‘Race and Ethnicity of Violent Crime Offenders and Arrestees, 2018’. See Table 8: Percentage of offenders in violent crime incidents by type of crime and race or ethnicity compared to the U.S. resident population, 2018. Statistics in the source are given to the first decimal point, but I have rounded them to the nearest integer for ease of reading.
  26. In the decade 2010 -19, the total of hate crimes offences was 80,668 (one ‘incident’ may include several ‘offences’). Of these, the biggest categories were intimidation (23,415), destruction/damage/vandalism of property (20,625), simple assault (18,067), and aggravated assault (9771). We need to bear in mind that ‘simple assault’ is often a misdemeanour rather than a crime: it does not necessarily include actual bodily harm (for instance, somebody swung a punch, but missed). When we look at hate crimes specifically against blacks, we find roughly the same proportions.
  27. CDE :: Hate Crime (cloud.gov)
  28. In this comparison, I use 2010 census data, as it falls within the period specified. Percentages are rounded to the nearest integer.
  29. Was the Buddha an Antiracist? – Apramada. See the sub-section headed ‘racial inequity and culture’ in the main section headed ‘The Non-Racist Critique of Antiracism’.
  30. For examples, see the first part of this series.
Subhamati[1]

Subhamati has been a member of Triratna Buddhist Order for thirty-one years. He has led a varied career as a university administrator, a language teacher, and a teacher of meditation and Buddhism. He has worked as an editor or co-author (with Dharmachari Subhuti) on several books, including Buddhism and Friendship and Mind in Harmony: the psychology of Buddhist ethics.

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