Heather Mac Donald has spent a good portion of her career assuring people white cops aren’t racist. In 2010 she wrote a book entitled “Are Cops Racist?” Here’s the quick summary: No.
Mac Donald’s most recent book explores similar themes, and she’s written multiple articles in the same vein, including this one, penned last February but reprinted this past weekend by the Wall Street Journal. A fresh missive reiterating the same themes appeared in the Journal on Tuesday.
I agree with Mac Donald: Very few cops (of any race) are bigots. Here’s my concern, though. I’m not sure this is an answer to the questions many Americans are asking right now.
Mac Donald clearly wants this to be the question. Her article in the Journal begins with four quotes from the major Democratic presidential contenders, all related to criminal justice. Hillary Clinton is quoted as saying “too many encounters with law enforcement end tragically,” and “we have to face up to the hard truth of injustice and systemic racism.” Bernie Sanders is on record promising “no one will fight harder to end racism and reform our broken criminal justice system than I will,” and “It is not acceptable to see unarmed people being shot by police officers.”
Now we get Mac Donald’s summary: “Apparently the Black Lives Matter movement has convinced Democrats and progressives that there is an epidemic of racist white police officers killing young black men.” Wait. Which of those quotes mentioned racist white police officers?
Bad Outcomes Don’t Necessarily Imply Evil Intent
Go back and read them again. Both candidates lament racism, and both decry a “broken system.” Neither one says anything about bigoted cops.
Perhaps you think this is hairsplitting, and that it’s perfectly obvious what Sanders and Clinton both meant. You should reconsider. The Democratic candidates are saying two distinct things. First, our criminal justice system has some problems that particularly (“systemically”) disadvantage blacks. Second, we’re seeing far too many tragic incidents in which police shoot or kill citizens.
It’s entirely possible for these assessments to be accurate for reasons that have little or nothing to do with police bigotry. Actually, there are many reasons these things could be true, which would in no way reflect personal prejudice among law enforcement.
Police officers enforce laws other people make. They deliver offenders to courts they don’t control to receive punishments others decide. They’re regularly subject to bureaucratic pressures to make this or that an enforcement priority, and their resources are perpetually limited. In short, there are innumerable reasons the system could be “broken” that would have nothing to do with racist cops.
Undoubtedly, some radical members or associates of Black Lives Matter do levy egregiously unfair charges against (especially) white cops. Last week that resentment spilled over into horrific bloodshed, which is why the WSJ decided it was an appropriate time to reprint Mac Donald’s piece.
Was that a healthy response, though? It might be if there were a chance cop-hating black radicals would read Mac Donald’s piece and be convinced. Realistically though, I don’t think the Wall Street Journal has much influence in that crowd. Its readers are conservatives, who should at this moment be looking for common ground and viable solutions, not radioactive buttons to push. Unless and until particular Democrats personally decry an “epidemic” of racist white cops, we shouldn’t saddle them with such inflammatory views. We also shouldn’t interpret their words in ways that are maximally injurious to the honor of white cops.
Are Cops Trigger-Happy, Or Are Black People Violent?
Lethal police shootings are controversial for a reason. It’s hard to blame “the system” when an officer shoots a suspect; presumably the blame lies with the officer, or the suspect (or possibly some combination of the two). But if we are indeed witnessing “an epidemic” of lethal police shootings, that surely says something about the police as a group, or about the people being policed.
Obviously, Mac Donald’s money is on the latter. Her argument, though, is decidedly odd. Drawing on the Washington Post’s meticulously kept data on police shootings in 2015 (The Guardian has engaged in a similar project), she points out that “fatal police shootings make up a much larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths than black homicide deaths.”
Come again? It’s strange how Mac Donald skips right past the obvious questions and focuses on a very specific detail of the Post’s broad-ranging project. Shouldn’t we maybe start by considering whether we have a worrisomely high number of lethal police shootings in general, and whether (and by what ratios) young black males are disproportionately victims?
There is also some recent evidence blacks are disproportionately likely to be stopped and harassed by police but not disproportionately likely to be shot in a police encounter. (Interestingly, Mac Donald does reference this study in Tuesday’s article, but only the portion relating to shootings. She doesn’t mention the disproportionate use of non-deadly force.)
Given all these interesting details, it’s odd how quickly she races to a rather specific question: If a particular person is the victim of a homicide, how likely is it that a police officer pulled the trigger? We can anticipate the answer. Given the fact of having been killed by another person, whites and Hispanics are more likely to have been shot by the police.
The stress Mac Donald places on this one weird statistic should itself make us wary. It’s clear she doesn’t want to discuss the alarmingly high number of police shootings. She wants to talk about the violence of dysfunctional black subcultures. After discussing her ratio-of-homicide-victims stat for two whole paragraphs, she bolsters her point by observing blacks also represent a disproportionate number of police assailants, and are disproportionately charged with robbery, murder, and assault. At last, she puts a bow on her “blacks are violent” argument by citing evidence black officers are more trigger-happy than their white counterparts.
We get the point. Don’t blame the white guys. They’re just trying to do their jobs.
Asking the Right Questions
This would be a solid argument if our main interest were in holding a moral magnifying glass to the hearts of white police officers. Mac Donald can build a strong case that police departments are not a breeding ground for white bigots. In fairness, that point holds some legitimate interest in light of the wild allegations flying through the virtual world and threatening the peace of several American cities.
Having said that, it might still be worthwhile to broaden our range of questions. I humbly suggest most people are less interested in the racial attitudes of cops than in questions like the following:
Are our laws, and the means by which we enforce them, burdensome to honest and (at least mostly) law-abiding black citizens, especially those who live in poorer neighborhoods?
Are law-abiding black citizens more likely to be harassed, detained, or shot by police than law-abiding non-black citizens? Are petty (black) lawbreakers more likely to provoke a disproportionately forceful response from law enforcement?
More generally, do black citizens have non-fanciful reasons to mistrust or resent law enforcement?
Mac Donald’s statistics give us reason to think white cops probably aren’t, in general, racist. But that could easily be compatible with a world in which law-abiding black citizens (especially in high-crime neighborhoods) very reasonably view the police as a threat.
Some Helpful Hypotheticals
There is actually an upside to civic unrest over police shootings: it’s precipitated a push for better data and increased study of policing patterns. Hopefully, this will enable us to generate new strategies for training and deploying police effectively. In the meanwhile, some hypotheticals might help to illustrate why Mac Donald’s data, although not wholly irrelevant, really doesn’t answer the crucial questions.
Let’s suppose that certain predominantly black neighborhoods, for a range of historical reasons, have high crime rates and a pervasive mistrust of law enforcement. Solving major crimes in such neighborhoods is challenging. There are lots of murders, but a dearth of willing witnesses or informants. Still, the residents aren’t the type whose personal problems get reported on CNN, so standards for due process start to slip. That in turn poses dangers to the law-abiding, undermining further the relationship between local residents and police.
In such a scenario, proportionate numbers (of police shootings to crime stats) wouldn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Even honest, non-bigoted police are going to get the wrong man occasionally. You’re far more likely to be the victim of such an error if you live in a high-crime, low-trust neighborhood with a lax attitude towards due process. Roland Fryer’s much-celebrated recent study, although admirable in the scope of its data, wouldn’t necessarily reflect those sorts of problems.
We could add another wrinkle by supposing some cities might (historically or in the present day) have viewed the safety of impoverished, predominantly black neighborhoods as a relatively low priority. A rash of break-ins in the mansion district provokes panic, a press conference, and the threat of new management if the police don’t address the problem. By contrast, stacks of unclosed homicides from poor black neighborhoods just don’t make the mayor’s agenda.
In such a world, we might see homicides raging largely unchecked in certain neighborhoods, driving up black homicide rates. The associations might then lead blacks in gentrified neighborhoods to be viewed (somewhat reasonably) with greater suspicion. Meanwhile, the overall black homicide rate could still seem to justify the disparities, while in reality, honest black citizens might be right to suppose they’re at greater risk. More importantly, black citizens in such a world would have some reason to think society at large was lamentably indifferent to their well-being.
We should note that hypotheticals like the above could all be broadly true even if America had not a single racist cop.
Pointing Fingers Versus Seeking Solutions
The most discouraging thing about Mac Donald’s coverage of this topic is the dearth of suggested solutions. Both Journal articles imply public outrage should be directed towards black crime and not police misconduct. This is also a curious argument. Of course black homicide is a terrible thing. Still, social movements normally aim their messages at those who are interested in public opinion. That doesn’t include murderers. If widespread social disapproval were sufficient to deter violent crime, it’s fair to say our homicide rate would be close to zero.
We shouldn’t try to bury the realities of social breakdown, but we also shouldn’t use them as a de facto excuse to do nothing. It’s important to support good cops, but one way to do that is by seeking real solutions. Both cops and residents suffer when relations between neighborhood residents and law enforcement break down.
What sorts of measures might help to alleviate the problem? Better transparency? Improved training procedures and attention to mental health? Changes in the way we allocate our resources? As a longtime expert in policing, Mac Donald could be addressing these questions instead of focusing relentlessly on answering a question that relatively few are asking.
Most cops aren’t racist. It doesn’t follow, however, that black citizens have no real grievances.