Do American cops have a race problem? Or a class problem?
Have you heard of the police's war on black people?
Of course you have. In the year since Ferguson, the media has focused relentlessly on cases of seemingly egregious police overreaction against unarmed African Americans. On the whole, that attention is a very good thing, as I've argued on numerous occasions.
But, as always, we need to beware of confirmation bias — the tendency of the mind (including the minds of journalists) to take note of evidence that confirms our preconceived ideas and filter out what threatens to complicate or falsify them. Racism may be America's singular sin, but it's also something that makes intuitive sense to us. If cops are misbehaving, of course it's a racial issue, of course it arises from racial prejudice, on both structural and individual levels.
But what if something else, something more widespread, something harder to make sense of in familiar American categories, is going on?
That's what I think an important, ongoing Washington Post investigation of police shootings in 2015 strongly suggests, though the paper does nothing to point it out explicitly.
The first thing everyone should notice about the compilation of data is the raw number: 570 people dead in just over seven months. That's a huge number. For comparison, consider a statistic that's been making the rounds on social media for the past few months: In March 2015, 111 people died at the hands of the police in the United States. (The Washington Post, which highlights only shooting deaths, puts the number at 90.) In the United Kingdom, by contrast, the police have killed 52 people — since the year 1900! (And no, the U.K. is not drastically less prone to violent crime than the U.S.)
What to conclude? One inflammatory option is that, for all our talk of "freedom," we actually live in something that resembles (quite literally) a police state — with our country overseen by an often ruthless, militarized occupying army.
But that's too simple.
Where I live, in the upper-middle-class western suburbs of Philadelphia, there is little to no sign of police intimidation. I've heard no stories about cops busting down doors of homes or apartments in the neighborhood, randomly harassing (stopping and frisking) pedestrians, drawing their weapons and shooting at suspects when they turn and run. I would personally feel no fear in calling the police for help if I became the victim of a crime. This is based on four decades of experience living in New York City, Connecticut, upstate New York, Michigan, Utah, and now Pennsylvania — and on the experience of dozens of friends living all over the country. (I've heard of only a handful of bad experiences with the police in all of this time.)
This would seem to imply that police violence is happening somewhere other than where my friends and I live and work. Now if the preponderance of media reports over the past year reflects reality, the key variable in explaining my absence of bad experiences with the cops would be the fact that I, like most of my friends, am white, while most deadly interactions with the police take place in predominately black urban neighborhoods. There's certainly some evidence for this. Just a few miles from my home, in heavily African-American Philadelphia, the police have an awful track record.
Yet the Washington Post data significantly complicates this story.
Of the 531 victims identified by race (39 are listed as race "unknown"), 282 are white (53 percent), 140 are black (26 percent), and 89 Hispanic (17 percent). (Twenty people are listed as "other.")
That translates into a considerable overrepresentation of blacks — at roughly twice their share of the population as a whole (13 percent) — and a modest under-representation of whites (who make up 63 percent of the total U.S. population). (Hispanics appear to have been shot and killed by police in rough proportion to their 17 percent share of the population.)
Is this evidence of racism? I'm sure it plays an important role. This is especially so in the category of unarmed assailants. Of the 58 unarmed people killed, 24 (or 41 percent) where African American, pointing to a possible tendency of the cops to be more trigger happy with black suspects than others.
But that can't be the whole story: 282 white deaths in just over seven months is a lot. And yet, once again, in my overwhelmingly white neighborhood, there's no sign of it at all.
Where, socioculturally speaking, is it happening?
Move your cursor over the images of each victim to get a feel for the stories: a man (nearly always a man — just 4.2 percent of the victims are women) armed with a gun, armed with a knife, armed with a machete, armed with a metal stick (!), armed with a flagpole (!!) — with each shot by the police. I confess, once again, never in my life to have I encountered something like this — someone brandishing a weapon in a threatening way, leading him to be shot by the cops. Is it just a fluke of luck?
No, it's not luck. Or not simply that. Rather, it's a near inevitability for an American who's well-educated and relatively well-paid. For nearly my entire life I've lived in places with people like me: professors, lawyers, doctors, corporate middle managers, other professionals. The violence, or threat of violence, that sparks a deadly confrontation with police, typically doesn't happen among such people. It happens elsewhere, among other people.
Among what people? Poor people. Working-class people. Of any and every race.
America has a serious problem with police violence — but its victims are not just African Americans. The victims are those — whether white, black, Hispanic, or "other" — who reside far from the top of the socioecomonic pyramid. Precisely how far down is hard to say; the Washington Post investigation contains no such data about the victims. We nonetheless have ample reason to surmise that, however bad our race problem is and remains, our class problem may be even bigger. (Overrepresentation of blacks among the victims of deadly police violence can be at least partially explained by high rates of black poverty (27 percent) in comparison to the rate among whites (10 percent)).
A class-based policing problem is an unsettling prospect, and not only because class (far more than race) has tended to be a dimension of social life that Americans are resistant to examining and confronting. It's also troubling because police officers typically come from a similar class as many of their victims: the working class.
Far from the lives and neighborhoods of the nation's elite, America's cops are operating a militarized police state within the United States, enforcing order with an iron fist among the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Race is an important story. But it's not the only one.