Wilfred Reilly is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University, a historically Black college in Frankfort, Kentucky. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Southern Illinois University and a law degree from the University of Illinois. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
What sort of person – what sort of monster – could deny that Black Lives Matter?
The Black Lives Matter movement dominated upper-middle class discourse in the US between 2015 and 2017, and made international figures of activists like Shaun King and DeRay McKesson, before disappearing from the headlines over the past year or two. It is generally thought of in a positive light even today. BLM activists made stark and unforgettable points: Cherno Biko said that police ‘murder’ an innocent black man every 28 hours. They backed this up by pointing to a litany of what were often described as racially motivated police shootings: Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and more.
The movement was responsible for many major American police departments adopting mandatory body cameras, and for a return in some areas to less intrusive strategies of ‘community policing’. Good and noble work, surely?
Not so fast. I, like other centre-right social scientists, including Heather MacDonald, began empirically to investigate the #BLM movement over the past few years. To an overwhelming extent, I found that the movement’s core claims were wildly exaggerated or simply false.
American law enforcement officers actually kill very few people of any kind on an annual basis, and black people are not overrepresented among police shooting victims once a basic adjustment for group crime rates is made. Many or most of the shooting victims lionised by Black Lives Matter were not heroes, but rather street criminals killed during violent scuffles with police. And, finally, the police pull-back cheered by BLM and its allies has produced a ‘Ferguson Effect’ that caused US murders to jump by more than 1,500 in a single year.
The first point is the most important. The US, and the other Western countries, are not full of murderous killer cops (‘psychopaths with badges’) executing completely innocent people of colour. As I note in my new book Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, about 1,200 Americans of all races were killed by police during the representative year of 2015, around the time Black Lives Matter began. Only 258 of these people, or 21.5 per cent of the total, were African American. According to my calculations, the total number of unarmed black folks killed specifically by white cops was 17.
Several scholars have pointed out that the percentage of people killed by police who happen to be black – 22 per cent in this case – is higher than the overall percentage of blacks in US society, which is 12 to 13 per cent. Fair enough. But even this difference disappears if we adjust for the higher black crime rate. It is this that largely predicts encounters with police. The black crime rate was 2.4 times the white crime rate, according to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Short take: there is no police war on black people.
In this context, the specific high-profile incidents popularised by BLM take on a new gloss. Rather than examples of near-murder, of black men being gunned down with no provocation or reason, many are revealed to be tragic but mundane incidents where criminals were killed while struggling with the police. We now know that ‘the gentle giant’ Michael Brown, most often pictured in a high-school graduation gown, was a linebacker-sized legal adult who committed a brutal strong-arm robbery just before being shot while apparently fighting with a uniformed police officer for his gun.
Similarly, the Alton Sterling case, perhaps the defining BLM matter to take place in the American South, turned out to involve a career criminal and convicted paedophile who was shot while carrying a loaded gun. Police were called to the scene specifically to respond to a report that Sterling was threatening another minority man with his gun.