Black Lives Actually Don’t Matter: Crime and Punishment in the United States

Nowhere in the United States has rioting on the scale of the 1992 South Central Los Angeles riots accompanied reaction to the recent (but seemingly unending) police killings of black Americans. This non-barking dog matters to how we assign meaning to these events, as the recent response has occurred in direct reaction to substantially higher levels of police violence than the whupping visited upon Rodney King in 1991 (also notable as the occasion for one of the first citizen videos to record such violence in real-time).

Police unions and politicians of the Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump ilk have demonized the Black Lives Matter movement. In reality, this movement has provided a coherent way for African-Americans (and others) to think about, communicate about, organize, and act upon national policing problems. Without Black Lives Matter, we simply do not have the conversation which is occurring right now. Frustrating and daunting and dispiriting as this conversation may be, the option to emote and erupt and shout and holler through the framework of Black Lives Matter has almost certainly precluded the more spontaneous, reactive, and brutal response to the jury verdict acquitting the Los Angeles police officers of applying excessive force against Rodney King.

But our horror at the transpiration of events in recent days does continue unabated. This horror almost literally a form of evaporation disclosing our unending national torment as a racially divided and racially opposed people. And while the weirdness of social media continues (mostly unhelpfully) to distort and weaken our responses within echo chambers of despair and anguish, the Internet does offer us one significant compensatory alternative to cacophonous online shouting.

Data

(Mark Twain aside) when mistrust and anger and political implacability consume our rhetoric, statistics and data may offer our only hope for transcending the moment and constructively imagining a path forward that can reasonably interpolate a future between our dreams and our realities. Here are some brief statistical observations about crime and punishment in the United States that can perhaps form a basis for a conversation going forward.

Homicide

  • In 2014, Black Americans were 5 times more likely to die from homicide than whites. In single victim-single offender homicides, whites killed other whites 82.4 percent of the time. Blacks killed blacks 90.0 percent of the time. Blacks killed whites 14.8 percent of the time. Whites killed blacks 7.6 percent of the time.
  • Blacks (especially black males) are proportionately far more likely to die from homicide than law enforcement officers are likely to die in the line of duty. In other words, being an African-American is significantly more dangerous than being a law enforcement officer.
  • Between 2002 and 2011, the murder rate for African-American males in their early 20s was nearly 9 times higher than for white males of the same age (peaking at 100 homicides per 100,000 black males).
  • Between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate for African-American males in their early 20s significantly exceeded the combat death rate for active duty U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Making it reasonable to say that African-Americans have been living in a war zone.
  • In the first 11 months of 2015, police killed twice as many whites as blacks in the line of duty. But viewed as a proportion of the national population, police killed blacks at a rate 3 times higher than police killed whites.

Incarceration

  • In 2014 the United States imprisoned over 2.2 million people, a rate of 698 people per 100,000, ranking 2nd in the world (after Seychelles, with a total population of 95,000, and an incarcerated population of 735), and a rate at least twice as high as every nation in the world with a population exceeding 15 million people (with the exception of Thailand and the Russian Federation).
  • In 2011, African-American males were imprisoned at a rate of 2,724 per 100,000, a rate 6 times higher than for white males, 4 times higher than every nation in the world, and nearly 100 times higher than India (with 33 imprisoned per 100,000).

These are facts. They are not the only facts, but they are certainly facts that matter enormously. If one accepts this data, even in its broadest outlines, then the conversation quickly turns to questions about interpretation and meaning, and to investigations about what is to be done and how it is to be done. These are larger questions about environmental conditions for remediation and reparation. But those are also specific and clear questions of politics and policy. They are manageable.

So there is a lot we can do with this data, and probably the most immediately salient and useful argument one could make on the basis of this data, considered in its entirety, is that one cannot separate police violence against blacks from black-on-black violence. The political divisions on this point, and the strident claims that one must choose, are obfuscations.

Both kinds of violence are aspects or dimensions of the same difficult environment, in which chaos, mistrust, anger, and despair create on the streets of our nation the fog of war. This is the sense in which black lives clearly do not matter. The situation is a betrayal of everything we imagine ourselves and claim to be as a nation. It is a tragedy of epic proportions, and truly, only such awareness alongside a determination to redress these horrifying inequities can redeem us and secure us as a nation.

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