On Black and Blue Lives Matter: Breaking Down the Data

In the wake of the recent shootings, people have asked me a bunch about my opinions on Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and race relations.

I think for me it is all pretty complex and my views about specific aspects of the movements and what's the state of race relations in the US compared to some other time is pretty muddled. I think most people would agree that we don't want unarmed people of any color killed by police, we don't want shootings, we don't want police getting murdered. So I wish we could have a kumbaya about that, but I know we're not there as a nation right now.

All I can really provide are facts that can hopefully help us to think about policy. So below I'll provide my excerpt on some of the facts about killings of and by police from Wedged.


The Excerpt

The Washington Post points out that as of August 8th, 2015, 24 unarmed black men had been shot and killed by police in the year, and that they are killed at a rate 7x higher than whites.64 Each of these is of course a tragedy and each should have a thorough, independent investigation and prosecution in order to make sure justice is served. But the oversimplified reaction to these incidents distracts the country from addressing their root cause or the greater issue of racial inequality in the United States. 

For example: blacks are killed by police at a rate 2x higher than whites, and black men are killed by police at a rate 2.5x higher than white men. It can be easy to conclude that police are more trigger-happy when interacting with black men. But the arrest rate (by population) for black men is about 4x that of white men.  It’s difficult to track the simple “interaction rate” across the nation, but these statistics suggest that per incident with police, blacks and black men are less likely to be killed than whites. This changes when black men are unarmed, in which case they’re killed at a frequency 7x that of white men, or a little less than 2x as likely per interaction. But the sample size is so small (27 black men and 20 white men in the first 9 months of 2015) that basic statistical analyses say we don’t have strong confidence in that number. 

Should we conclude that black men are actually generally safer than white men per arrest-worthy incident? Or perhaps black men are just targeted for arrest more often than whites for trivial reasons, and therefore most police interactions with black men are less likely to escalate? It’s tough to say.68 Knowing these statistics can lead us to more complex and messy, but more useful, questions: what is causing the higher rate of arrests for blacks and black men in the US? How much of it is related to poverty, to the war on drugs, to population density, or to criminal activity? Blacks are convicted of violent crime at a rate five times higher than that of whites: how much of that is due to higher criminal activity and how much due to racial prejudice in the justice system? How much might be due to the poverty rate among blacks resulting in on average less competent lawyers working in their defense? Can that question be accurately answered? Probably not with the average attention span of a modern media outlet. 

Quickly, the issue becomes murky and complicated. Such an analysis does not provide an obvious enemy group or a simple solution, so it does not receive the same kind of media and political attention as one-line slogans. The “Blue Lives Matter” framing is also overly simple. This response to Black Lives Matter suggests that police are at a disproportionate or growing risk of violent death or murder than other people. But the data suggests otherwise. 2015 has seen a decrease in killings  from 2014, and with the exception of spikes in 2010 and 2011, the number of police killed per year has been on a steady decline since 2000.  In 2013, 27 police officers were feloniously killed; in 2014, the number was 51 (a temporary spike in an otherwise-steady decline). This puts them at an average victimization rate of about 4.373  per 100,000 officers per year, which is slightly lower than the overall US murder rate of 4.7. In other words, it’s slightly safer to be a police officer than a regular citizen. This seems unexpected, as police are in harm’s way far more often. But it appears that any seeming crisis in the safety of police officers is overstated.

We must also note that black men are about 23 times more likely to be murdered by a citizen than killed by a police officer.  It’s likely that most Americans would agree that every time a black man is killed, or anyone else for that matter, the country should strive to conduct a full investigation and provide justice. For the preservation of the lives of black men, the data suggests that the bigger impact will come outside of police reform. But a dispassionate examination of the data does not engage an audience the same way that sensational incidents do, and thus the former takes a back seat to the latter in the political discourse. The wedge tactics that make us focus so exclusively on the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and police at the hands of citizens, distract the country from having the important conversations around the state of racial inequality and race relations that the majority of us want to tackle. The Black Lives Matter movement is just one of several wedge sub-issues in the umbrella of race relations. But taking notice of the tactics being used in the national dialogue helps us take a step back and focus on the bigger issue at hand.

(Note: sources are in the book itself.)

1 Comment

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.