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The Protests Are Not About Police Violence

Racism and racial inequality are barriers for many non-whites, but viewing these disparities as a morality play between powerful whites and enraged minorities is a recipe for untold conflict.”

Waves of riots and protests swept across the nation in response to the death of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—the most horrific in a string of viral incidents involving gross injustices against black Americans. While the political, social, and cultural outcomes of the upheavals hang in the balance, two separate narratives seem to be emerging as to their meaning. 

The first and prevailing view is that Floyd’s murder was symbolic of the broader oppression of blacks in the country, precipitated by the unearned privileges and unconscious biases of the white population that remains unwilling to come to terms with its unconscionable history. This is the position espoused by virtually every mainstream news organization in their assessments of the current goings-on. In this telling, police brutality is just one manifestation of systemic anti-black racism in the United States and, until the majority comes to accept this uncomfortable reality, we cannot move forward as a nation. Even after officer Chauvin had been arrested and charged for murder, the harm wrought by the protests is the justifiable reaction to centuries of mistreatment. 

In an article for The New York Times, opinion columnist Charles Blow writes, “The protests are not necessarily about Floyd’s killing in particular, but about the savagery and carnage that his death represents: The nearly unchecked ability of the state to act with impunity in the oppression of black bodies and the taking of black life.” In a Vox piece entitled “George Floyd’s killing has opened the wounds of centuries of American racism,” Emily Stewart argues just that: “Beyond the debates about the tactics demonstrators are using and who is and isn’t involved, there is a much deeper issue here that must remain in focus: the way black people are treated in the United States.” Writing for The Atlantic about the protests, Arnold Schwarzenegger (of all people), says that “We can’t ignore the issues of inequality in this country. No one can claim with a straight face that black and brown kids in the inner cities get an education equal to what kids in the suburbs receive. No one can deny that minorities find themselves on the wrong end of our justice system in unequal numbers. No one with a heart can watch these murders and not feel deep sadness, anger, and even guilt.”

The uncomfortable truth is that police are almost 20 times more likely to be killed by a black person than vice versa.

But another, less covered narrative has formed which contends that, though Floyd’s death was clearly an injustice and racial inequality remains an issue in America, the excesses of the riots and the violence that has ensued have been fueled by a toxic amalgam of racialized grievance and white liberal guilt that will likely result in conservative backlash. This line of thinking has been articulated by commentators including Christina Hoff Sommers and Bo Winegard.

In this view, the rush to reflexively blame racism and react as such arises from a need to form a moral identity as against the sins of America’s past and to make sense of recurrent disparities between racial groups. But notions of collective guilt and retributive justice bring out the worst in all races. As the economist Thomas Sowell spent an entire career relating, inequity of outcome between groups with different histories, cultures, and identities is the norm throughout human history and cannot exclusively be explained by injustice, oppression, or prejudice. The chasm between expectation and reality fosters a sense of cosmic justice and arouses hostilities between groups. Further, the underlying logic of anti-racism—that black people are primarily victims of racism and whites unconditionally benefit from their racial privilege—commits to the grimly condescending assumption that the fate of blacks is forever in the hands of whites. 

Moreover, though police culture is notoriously opaque—upholding a “blue wall of silence” that prevents a strong system internal checks and balances—these practices are a response to the larger problem of violence in America and the anxiety felt by officers in uncertain situations. Although black Americans are more likely to get stopped by police than whites, numerous studies have shown no significant bias in policing outcomes, and the disproportionate rate of incarceration among black Americans is largely a result of the disproportionate volume of crime in that community. The uncomfortable truth is that police are almost 20 times more likely to be killed by a black person than vice versa. Unarmed police killings of citizens is extremely rare, with only nine blacks and 19 whites killed in 2019, according to The Washington Post’s database. In a country of 330 million people and almost as many camera phones, there is a strong tendency to extrapolate a supposed crisis from relatively rare events, with the reaction being more a product of our own psychology than what is actually happening in most of the country. 

With different narratives comes a different set of solutions. If the problem is racism, then extracting racism from our institutions and our consciousness through inculcating anti-racist principles that put white privilege, systemic bias, and the pervasiveness of identity front and center would be the optimal approach. But if the killing of George Floyd is not interpreted as necessarily racist, with police violence having more to do with the entrenched distrust between cops and the communities they are oath sworn to serve, then it makes more sense to raise policing standards and improve internal affairs—perhaps beginning by reversing Qualified Immunity laws or addressing the insane fact that police officers often investigate their own murders of civilians. 

A critic might assert that both issues can be tackled at once. Police brutality and negligence is linked to the issue of racial inequality, so we can kill two birds with one stone by unearthing the racist roots of policing practices. But this assumes that the problems are intertwined, which the relevant data does not suggest. There is no shortage of white Americans who get unfairly treated or killed by police, such as the horrifying police shooting of Daniel Shaver and the death of Tony Timpa, which eerily resembled that of George Floyd. The idea that removing institutional bias from police departments—assuming that is even possible—will resolve the overarching issues in policing rings hollow. More crucially, one side of the issue is getting much more attention than the other, as there is greater moral capital to be achieved in lamenting racism than discussing the policy issues in a colorblind way. And considering how the Black Lives Matter riots in Ferguson and elsewhere a few years back has not evidently changed policing outcomes, we are entitled to doubt whether the prevailing narrative yields the results most of us desire.

Although history repeats itself, it never does so in precisely the same way, and thus skepticism and uncertainty should be encouraged rather than pathologized.

A deeper concern with the protests is that, while passions run high, expressing doubt is stigmatized out of the conversation. I’ve seen countless posts among friends that staying neutral or agnostic aligns you with the oppressor, to the point where your own knee is seen as metaphorically crushing the life out of George Floyd and millions of black Americans across the country. Many people view this moment as a recycling of the valiant strokes of the Civil Rights era, when white moderates tolerating the status quo were perpetuating Jim Crow segregation. But this position commits itself to a form of historical determinism that can only perceive the present as a reiteration of the past. Although history repeats itself, it never does so in precisely the same way, and thus skepticism and uncertainty should be encouraged rather than pathologized. It is those who are religiously certain of their opinion and convinced of their own innocence who are capable of doing the most damage. 

In a country undergoing rapid demographic and cultural change—not to mention a pandemic that could alter how we live for years to come—staving off increased racial polarization is a moral urgency. Racism and racial inequality are barriers for many non-whites, but viewing these disparities as a morality play between powerful whites and enraged minorities is a recipe for untold conflict. It also ignores the fact that most Americans share similar problems. The majority of people in the United States live paycheck to paycheck, while the life expectancy rate has declined and rates of suicide and depression have shot up. Our vastly dysfunctional social and economic systems are not generating the human flourishing we want to see; our leaders represent the worst of ourselves instead of our highest ideals; and our cultural reaction has largely consisted of stoking grievance in the name of our respective Cause. Imagining that we stalk separate paths, whether in terms of our racial, political, or cultural identities, rejects our vital overlaps. 

None of us can know what the future holds in store, but maybe the chaos boiling over in the country at present will lead to new beginnings as a nation. Let’s hope for the best while girding ourselves for the worst.

Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.

6 thoughts on “The Protests Are Not About Police Violence

  1. President Obama spoke today about what’s going on in the country. I approved of most of his message.He has an excellent grasp how how the system of law enforcement works in America, and how local officials like county executives have the power to overhaul the system. He lost me when he did not sufficiently address the violence of the rioting all across the country. He compared and contrasted the riots of the 60’s and our current situation, and he implied that although the violence of the 60’s was summarily rejected, today’s enlightened young generation in many ways is ok with it. I’m not. I guess that’s why i’m a conservative

  2. What is racism ? Rasicim is the belief that particular race is superior or inferior to another .
    Prophet Muhammad S.A.W emphasized in the last sermon.No one can claim superiority over the based on race ‘colour ‘ language or wealth and this is emphasized Arab no superiority over non Arab also white has no superiority over black nor does a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.above the quoted and islam condemned racim.

  3. This is absolutely fallacious. Black people comprise 12.4 percent of the population according to the last census, while non-Hispanic whites represent 60.4 percent of the population. So, when 9 unarmed black people are killed in a given year, they are being killed at a much higher rate than whites due to their smaller demographic share of the population. Not to mention your same source lists 8 black people as ‘unknown’ if they had a weapon and 18 black people are listed as being in a vehicle (I guess a vehicle being a potential weapon). Even though numerically there are more white people listed as killed by the police, there is a much greater chance of a black person being killed.

    Another question that is pertinent to the protests is: Were the officers that killed those black people charged and prosecuted at the same rate the officers that killed white people were? You omitted one of the most crucial questions.

    “Although black Americans are more likely to get stopped by police than whites, numerous studies have shown no significant bias in policing outcomes, and the disproportionate rate of incarceration among black Americans is largely a result of the disproportionate volume of crime in that community.” I would like to remain pleasant and I don’t mean to be combative, but this is one of the most thoughtless statements I’ve ever seen. If blacks are more likely to be stopped than whites, then they are put in a position to be more likely to be incarcerated. The likelihood of being stopped presupposes the likelihood of being arrested for a nominal crime, such as possession of cannabis, which whites and blacks consume at the same rate but blacks are much more likely to be incarcerated for.

    Your entire argument is predicated on the notion that black people commit more crimes so they have to policed more, but what are these crimes? Jaywalking, riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, possession of cannabis, consuming alcohol in public, ‘disturbing the peace’? And if police are more likely to profile and stop a black person could that contribute to their likelihood of committing a crime? (Since a crime is effectively committed—or known of—when a police officer is present)

    This isn’t some liberal outrage reactionary response to your article either, no one is freaking out at your ‘expression of doubt’. There are just substantive issues with your article and your doubt doesn’t seem qualified. Please, when you want to comment on a highly contentious issue put more time and effort into it rather than just being a contrarian.

    1. Thanks for your comment and your points are well taken. Black Americans make up about 13% of the population and over 50% of the homicides (the percentage is even more significant if you’re just considering black males) in America according to FBI statistics. Moreover, according to the CDC, homicide is the number one cause of death for young black men. Further, the majority of state prisoners (which harbors more people than private and federal prisons combined) are in prison for violent offenses. If you don’t think such disparities in crime won’t result in a higher incarceration rates and more engagements with police, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Also, I’m open to the idea that bias plays a role in the disparity in incarceration and police shootings, I m just unconvinced that it’s a central role.

      1. You’re circumventing the main issue: Non-violent black people are killed at a higher rate than non-violent white people. I also think that it is clear that black people are not a monolithic group, but rather autonomous individuals, so just because some black people do commit violent crimes (putting aside the possible systemic and socio-economic causes for that violence, as well as the cyclical nature of prison-apparatus) does not mean that black individuals should be more likely to be pulled over. You have already conceded in your article that black people are more likely to be stopped, and normally those stops are due to broken window policing (some nominal offence such as a broken window, jay walking, loitering, etc.). Profiling and bias in turn contributes to the incarceration rates for small, non-violent offences, which is why a black person is 3.4 times more likely to be incarcerated for possession of cannabis.

        These protests are about the superfluous violence against black people and the uneven distribution of ‘justice’.

        I’m seriously wondering though: Are you really saying that racial profiling and discrimination is justified due to the statistical disparity in violence?

        I also think that you’re not familiar with the Black Lives Matter’s policy proposals such as Campaign Zero that advocate for comprehensive police reform, such as limiting the use of force, external investigation (rather than internal) and ending broken window policing.

        I really think you should read this and become familiar with what Black Lives Matter protesters are really advocating for:

        1. Frankly, Teddy, I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree here – we’re talking past one another. I don’t know what you mean by “non-violent” white people vs black people being killed (you mean unarmed?), it should go without saying that some police shootings are justified in a country with such high rates of violence. Blacks are disproportionately killed by police, as I’ve readily conceded. I don’t think racial profiling is “justified” by violent crime in the black community, but it helps explain the distrust between blacks and police. No, I don’t think profiling is always irrational, but it’s indicative of a deeper problem of course. My point, which I hope you would acknowledge without ascribing mercenary motive to me, is that any policy solution will have to consider a) the reality of violent crime and its relationship to law enforcement in black communities b) the reality of violent crime as it pertains to black homicide and how to prevent it. Yes, I’m more concerned with unjustified murders of blacks by other blacks than by the police since it happens so much more often (7600 to 260). Sue me! As far as not understanding BLM, their central message is that it’s open season on young black men by the police and that’s just not true – police reform is not a fundamentally racial issue even if blacks are disproportionately impacted. I’m open to the other policy initiatives, as I generally feel the police are not transparent and held accountable anywhere near enough. But it’s difficult for me to see how much good can come from a movement that is based in a lie. I hope I’m wrong!

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