Even Statistics Can Be Racist: Breaking Down the Anti-BLM Narrative
Tomi Lahren’s much anticipated appearance on Trevor Noah became most heated when they began to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement. She vigorously defended her now-famous disdain for BLM as a mob of irrational black people adored by the mainstream media, at one point backing up her claims by saying that “a black man is 18.5 times more likely to shoot a police officer than a police officer is to shoot a black man.”
“Those are the statistics no one wants to talk about” she said defiantly.
Actually, I would like to talk about that. I would like to talk about why that statistic is bullshit. I would like to talk about how it was made, and why that matters when it comes to understanding the latent racism within anti-BLM sentiment.
One quick search for that that statistic- that a black man is 18.5 times more likely to shoot an officer than the other way around- reveals that it is plastered all over alt-right news outlets and conservative echo chambers. Most that care to cite sources credit it to Heather Mac Donald, author of the book “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe”. In an opinion article to the Washington Post Mac Donald delves into how she arrived at this figure:
And police officers are at greater risk from blacks than unarmed blacks are from police officers. If we accept at face value The Post’s typology of “unarmed” victims, which I discussed yesterday, the per capita rate of officers being feloniously killed is 45 times higher than the rate at which unarmed black males are killed by cops. And an officer’s chance of getting killed by a black assailant is 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black getting killed by a cop.
(The 36 unarmed black male victims of police shootings in 2015 measured against the total black male population [nearly 19 million in mid-2014, per the Census Bureau] amounts to a per capita rate of 0.0000018 unarmed fatalities by police. By comparison, 52 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 2015 while engaged in such duties as traffic stops and warrant service, according to the 40 percent of all cop-killers were black would yield 21 cops killed by blacks in 2015. An officer’s chance of getting killed by a black person is 0.000033, which is 18.5 times the chance of an unarmed black person getting killed by a cop. After this year’s 72 percent increase in felonious killings of police officers, these ratios will be even more lopsided.)
Mac Donald’s methodology is dubious at best. First, she misrepresents the data a bit. According to the report she cites, 52 officers died in “felonious incidents”, but there seems to be some discrepancy on this, as a more recent FBI press release only listed 41 deaths. Either way, these reports talk about fatalities, not shootings, so Ms. Lahren’s claim already runs afoul. Second, in choosing to apply a 10 year average of the percent of cop-killers who were black, Mac Donald conveniently omits the fact this number has been decreasing markedly for a few years, so would yield a much lower rate if a more recent average is used.
These statistical quibbles are not the worst part of Mac Donald’s premise, however. It is rather the very nature of her analysis. She juxtaposes the deaths of black men and the deaths of police like they are enemies in a war of rival factions, instead of citizens of the same country. She also equates the killing of unarmed black males with the deaths of police officers at the hands of cop killers, like some grisly tit-for-tat. In doing so, Mac Donald is perpetuating the long standing racist narrative castigating black men as criminals, which has been historically and structurally pervasive within the US justice system.
To be clear, none of this is to diminish the deaths of law enforcement officers. Brave men and women risk their lives everyday to defend the law and order of this country. Those who righteously do so deserve our respect and admiration.
But the increased risk of violence and death that law enforcement officials face is inherent in the nature of their job. The same should not be inherent in being a person of color in America.
Statistics are not hard numbers; they are open to interpretation. The way they are used by people like Heather Mac Donald, then consumed by the masses via people like Tomi Lahren, are a big part of the reason for continuing racial disparities and tensions.
Countering such deep-seated notions is why Black Lives Matter. It is why we cannot, and will not, stop marching.