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Changing the Subject From the Realities of Death by Cop

Heather Mac Donald is trying to change the subject.

In her essay, “The Myths of Black Lives Matter,” published in The Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald writes that “fatal police shootings make up a much larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths than black homicide deaths.” Citing The Washington Post database of police shootings, Mac Donald reports that “officers killed 662 whites and Hispanics and 258 blacks” in 2015. That means that 28 percent of those killed by the police in 2015 were Black.

When Black Lives Matter (BLM) spokespersons say that Black lives are at greater risk than white lives to be killed by the police, the evidence Mac Donald uses in her essay supports the movement’s claim. Demographically speaking, Black Americans were more than twice as likely to be killed by the police than whites and Latinos combined in 2015 (non-Latino Black folks comprise just over 12 percent of the population). Yet Mac Donald concludes that Black overrepresentation in police shootings is a myth. Moreover, Mac Donald’s lumping of whites and Latinos hides the disproportionate number of police shootings of Latinos compared to non-Hispanic whites. And the fate of Native Americans, whose rate of death at the hands of police is highest among any ethnic group in the United States, isn’t mentioned at all.

Mac Donald next turns to the FBI’s 2014 homicide numbers to claim that the white and Latino victims of police shootings make up 12 percent of all white and Latino homicide deaths, a statistic that is three times the proportion of Black deaths that result from police shootings. She claims that the lower proportion for Black deaths is due to the significant Black-on-Black homicide rate. This is a red herring. The BLM protest is not about “Black-on-Black crime,” but about racial disparities in death by cop. Decrying Black-on-Black homicide after every high-profile killing of a civilian by a cop has become cliché for conservative pundits (and almost obligatory for liberals who want to be taken seriously). But it is entirely beside the point.

Mac Donald attempts to justify police shootings by claiming that officers are killed by Black people at a rate 2.5 times higher than the rate at which Black people are killed by police. She claims that 40 percent of assailants in cop killings are Black. Mac Donald doesn’t specify a time frame, only that these are data the FBI has been collecting for some time. If we look at the FBI figures from 2014 (the latest available), which suits Mac Donald’s analysis better, we find that 22 percent of assailants were Black. That figure, while considerably lower than the figure she uses, still indicates overrepresentation of Black Americans in the killing of cops.

But what is this comparison supposed to tell us? Forty-two cops were killed by guns in 2015. Using Mac Donald’s percentage of 40 percent, that means 17 cops died at the hands of Black assailants (almost twice as many as the FBI’s 2014 figure indicates). If the point is one of comparison, then the number of Black people killed by police in the time frame Mac Donald is using is more than 15 times greater than the number of cops killed by Black people (almost 30 times greater using the 2014 figures).

Finally, the statistic about white officers being less prone to threat misperception is yet another red herring. Again, BLM is primarily interested in the race of the victim, not the race of the perpetrator per se (although the movement does call for ethnic and racial proportionality in law enforcement to match neighborhood composition). Moreover, Mac Donald’s point rests on the false assumption that racially biased practices must necessarily match the race of the perpetrators.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has been stunningly successful in changing the subject from the realities of violent crime,” Mac Donald concludes her essay. But who is changing the subject?

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