What about police violence against white people?
The ongoing national protests against police brutality have focused for the most part on black victims, for the obvious reason that black Americans are disproportionately abused by police. The horrifying video of George Floyd being slowly strangled to death hit a raw nerve in the black community, which has endured decades of these kinds of atrocities, as well as an exponentially greater amount of less-lethal abuses.
This has led some conservatives to claim that the protesters are deliberately ignoring white victims. Commentator Matt Walsh pointed to videos of two white men, Tony Timpa and Daniel Shaver, being brutally killed by police as evidence that only black killings get attention and that police brutality is not a reflection of systemic racism. At Townhall, Mike Adams wrote an article entitled "White Man Can't Breathe," noting that there had not been "George Soros-funded protests" or "Antifa riots" in response to the Timpa killing, and implied a lack of them would show "political opportunism."
These are disingenuous arguments. However, it is true that white people are not at all immune to police violence. Instead of crying hypocrisy, there is every reason for white Americans to join the movement to overhaul policing in this country, and to attack the inequality at the root of so much police abuse.
In the first instance, it isn't actually true that white victims of police violence get no attention. One of the biggest explosions of outrage over the last week was over video of Buffalo police shoving Martin Gugino — an unarmed 75-year-old white man — to the ground, where he cracked his head on the sidewalk. The cops let him lie there unattended for minutes, bleeding from the ears. (Eventually he did get taken to the hospital, where he is reportedly recovering.)
Similarly, the Shaver killing got a ton of attention when it happened in 2016. The shocking video of the Timpa killing only came out last year after a multi-year lawsuit from local news organizations. Somehow conservatives are only now raising a fuss about it almost a year later.
Still, there may be a tiny grain of truth in what Walsh and Adams are saying. White Americans genuinely are abused and killed by police at grotesque rates compared to other rich countries, and they probably do get relatively less media attention on net than black victims. The Prison Policy Initiative has collected international data for the following chart comparing overall rates of police killings across countries:
Do the police in other countries kill civilians as often as they do in the U.S.? We look at the data. (Short answer: No. Not even close.) https://t.co/L99mT9eGfq
— Prison Policy Init. (@PrisonPolicy) June 5, 2020
Here I have plotted 2019 data from the Washington Post to break out the rough rate of police killings by race. Some killings did not record a race, so these figures are only approximate, but they are surely in the ballpark:
So again, it is unquestionably the case that black Americans have it worse than whites when it comes to police violence — something like three times as bad, in fact, which surely accounts for the focus of media coverage and obviously destroys Walsh's larger argument that policing isn't racist. But white Americans are still being killed by police at an abominable rate. The white American rate of 20.4 killings per 10 million population is more than twice as high as the overall Canadian rate, more than 10 times the New Zealand rate, more that 15 times the German rate, and more than 100 times the Japanese rate.
What conservative media are doing here is obvious — tendentiously bringing up white victims of police violence they would ordinarily ignore in an effort to derail the efforts of black protesters. But white people, especially poor ones, really do have cause to protest police brutality. White Americans ought to join up with their black fellow citizens not just in solidarity to eradicate the racism that saturates American policing, but also to overhaul the whole social structure that uses police and prisons to politically suppress the lower class.
As I have written before, one reason America has so much police violence is our extreme inequality. Both political parties have endorsed a modest rate of taxation of the rich, and a wretched, skinflint system of welfare and social services. Hence we have the highest inequality and the highest rate of poverty among rich nations. Inequality tears at the legitimacy of the political order, and poverty creates pockets of what amount to state collapse in the poorest locations. High poverty is associated with spectacularly higher rates of both committing and being victimized by crime, as well as being incarcerated (and almost certainly being killed by police).
More unequal countries dedicate a far larger proportion of their workforce to guard labor — private security, police, and other law enforcement, who protect the hoards of the rich from the disgruntled poor, and stuff social dysfunction out of sight in prisons. That, not solving crimes, is essentially the current function of American police and prisons. Conservatives like Walsh and Adams would sow division between American racial groups to accomplish the same end of protecting the mostly-white rich from taxation. Indeed, that is the main reason why our welfare state is so rotten in the first place.
If we want to end police violence in this country against people of all races, white folks should join hands with their black fellow citizens — indeed, a great many are doing so in cities all across the country, even poor and rural ones. Attacking police brutality should start with, at a minimum, a total overhaul of police departments, but it should also include a drastic reorientation of state spending away from violent political repression and towards a generous system of social benefits. Only by resisting the poisoned chalice of race prejudice can American whites help bring the United States up to a minimum standard of civilized decency.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.