Nearly three-quarters of Black Americans say it’s common for police to arrest people for crimes they didn’t commit. Less than half feel police do a good job of protecting people from crime. Two-thirds say officers who break the law get away with it.
Studies have long shown how law enforcement in the U.S. treats Black people worse than the rest of their fellow citizens. But the facts on the ground are even worse. Reports typically average out all the responses from Black people, flattening them into a single number meant to represent “Black opinion.” But police treat some Black people far worse than others.
A small minority of Black Americans bear the brunt of both police power and crime itself, but those people’s experiences — their expertise — gets lost in the data. Black trans women’s experiences are erased when counted alongside those of cisgender people. Young Black people are outnumbered by their elders. The voices of the most vulnerable Black people — like teenagers and trans women — go unheard.
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Black Americans are actually far more divided on policing than whites. Monolithic statistics hide the division, and silence the most marginalized Black people.
A History of Racism: Gender, Age and Class Matter, Too
In the 1930s in Atlanta, Georgia, white liberals and Black conservatives began working together to get the city to hire Black police officers. White police treated all Black Atlantans equally badly, no matter their social standing. Black police, the thinking went, would be able to discern the different socioeconomic classes of Black people, explained James Forman in his acclaimed book, Locking Up Our Own. The so-called lowliest might continue to be mistreated, but Black elites would finally be respected for their elevated social and economic class.
In the decades that followed, the U.S. criminal legal system continued to treat Black people worse than their white counterparts. But narratives that universalized Black people’s experiences missed critical differences. As mass incarceration exploded in the ‘80s and ‘90s, for example, Black men who didn’t finish high school got locked up at soaring rates. But during those same years, Black men who attended college actually saw their odds of incarceration decrease slightly, Forman wrote.
Black people, overall, are victimized by violent crime much more often than whites, but the details, again, are more complicated. The poorest Black people endure the most violence; the youngest do, too. But there’s a troublingly lack of data that digs deeper. We know little, for example, about how the intersection of race, age and class affect someone’s odds of being a victim of violence — like how much poor Black kids get victimized compared to their better-off peers. Without more detailed data, the most vulnerable people’s experiences get lumped in with everyone else’s, and are drowned out.
Back in 1998, researchers published one of the few criminal justice studies to look at multiple demographic factors at once: on how the race, age and gender of defendants in Pennsylvania influenced the way judges sentenced them. In general, Black people got longer sentences than white people for similar crimes, but defendants’ age and gender had a huge impact, too. Judges punished young Black men much more harshly than white ones, but the discrepancy gradually shrank with age. The study found that 50-year-old Black and white men received roughly the same sentences. Meanwhile, judges punished Black women more than white women, by a similar degree, at every age. Courts, unfortunately, don’t track defendants’ economic class.
Lack of Data on Some of the Most Vulnerable People
Data on the smaller subgroups of Black Americans is even harder to come by. For example, research shows that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, but there’s almost no study of the policing of Black people with mental illness in particular. That’s not surprising. U.S. society has long been quick to label Black people “mentally ill” if they dissented against white society (back in the 19th century, enslaved people who tried to escape were diagnosed with “drapetomania”) but less willing to acknowledge and offer support for actual mental health problems in Black communities.
Police sexual violence also remains largely unseen and unaddressed. Andrea J. Ritchie’s 2017 book, Invisible No More, documents the ongoing failure to even study (let alone confront) the sexual violence and harassment police inflict. The little data there is points to a silent tidal wave of abuse. In New York City, for example, Ritchie notes that almost 40 percent of young women said police had sexually harassed them, and Black women were dramatically overrepresented.
The dearth of data and the lack of action, when it comes to police-perpetrated sexual violence, may stem in part from society’s relative indifference toward its victims. Young cisgender and trans Black women are disproportionately victimized by sexual violence by the police, and those who do sex work are particularly vulnerable, because officers can use the threat of the law to extort money and sex from them. In fact, young women who do sex work face more violence from police officers than pimps, clients, or any other source, Ritchie writes.
Police also abuse Black trans women in specific, acute ways. In New Orleans, about 60 percent of transgender women of color — mostly Black trans women — said a police officer had asked them “for a sexual favor,” a 2014 study found. Roughly half told researchers they had called police for help, only to be arrested themselves. Young Black trans women and girls are murdered at one of the highest rates of any population group in this country.
Who Wants More Cops?
In recent years, surveys have found that the vast majority of Black Americans want to maintain or even increase the police presence in their neighborhood. Many distrust police, or even fear them, but only 10 to 15 percent of Black people in the U.S. actually want fewer police in their daily lives, according to these data. Some pundits cite these stats as proof that law enforcement remains a valued pillar of Black communities, and that even amid outrage over racial profiling and police murder, Black people “want” to be policed.
But the meaning of those surveys is less than clear. Some Black Americans may oppose cuts to policing because they believe the government won’t provide their neighborhoods with any alternative way of maintaining some public order. In Locking Up Our Own, Forman chronicles how many Black officials called for both more law enforcement and more resources to address the root causes of crime, like poverty and racism. But they only ever got the funding for law enforcement. Black Americans might rightly think they aren’t choosing between policing and anti-poverty initiatives. They’re probably choosing between policing and nothing at all.
The 10 to 15 percent of Black Americans also loom large, especially because we don’t know much about them. A small subgroup of Black people suffers disproportionately from policing. But their experiences count for little in studies of “Black opinion.” Black trans women’s views, for example, effectively do not exist when it comes to official data. Black kids’ experiences literally don’t matter — surveys on criminal justice reliably exclude people under 18 years old, even though Black kids are among the most endangered people in the country.
The most vulnerable people have the most at stake in questions of law and order. They are less represented by the data — often, they are not even surveyed — but their views matter the most. When studies merely tally up their responses alongside everyone else’s, or do not tally them at all, they erase them. This erasure misrepresents the range of opinions among Black communities. If we are to take “Black opinion” into account when creating public policy, we have to have better data, and ensure that we are centering the perspectives of the most marginalized Black people.