The killing of George Floyd is an atrocity. It doesn’t show, however, that America in general or the police specifically are dangerously racist.
On Monday, Minneapolis police arrested Floyd, an African American. A viral video showed Derek Chauvin, a white officer, kneeling on the suspect’s neck for several minutes. In the video, Floyd isn’t resisting. At the beginning, he repeatedly tells the officer that he can’t breathe. Bystanders beg the police to get off his neck. As the video goes on, Floyd appears nonresponsive.
Chauvin doesn’t stop kneeling on Floyd’s neck until paramedics arrive. Floyd was pronounced dead at the hospital. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but it sure looks like murder or manslaughter. A police officer shouldn’t be pressing his knee on the neck of a person who’s already subdued.
This should have been a rare moment of national unity. President Donald Trump called it a “very, very bad thing” and ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the incident. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said that it was “tragic.” Rush Limbaugh said the video makes him “so mad I can’t see straight.” Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton parachuted into Minneapolis to rally protesters.
Around the country, police officer associations and sheriffs, including Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, spoke out against this tragedy. The four officers involved in the tragedy have been fired. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and taken into custody.
It’s important to note that it’s not clear if Chauvin’s actions were racially motivated. Chauvin doesn’t make any racial comments about Floyd during the arrest. A widely circulated photo purporting to show the officer in a “Make Whites Great Again” hat wasn’t Chauvin. There are alternative explanations for an officer resorting to excessive force, including an inability to control emotions, a power trip or just plain sadism.
But the possibility of unity ended when many on the left used this tragedy to fuel their preferred narrative — that America, and especially the police, are deeply racist. They’ve gone so far as to assert that African Americans should actively fear for their safety.
Floyd’s death “sends a very clear message to the black community and black lives that are under threat every day,” Biden said. It’s “not an isolated incident, but part of an ingrained systemic cycle that exists in this country.”
Even if Chauvin acted out of racial animus, these broader claims aren’t backed up by statistics.
According to 2018 FBI data, more than 88 percent of black murder victims were killed by other blacks. Racism is evil, but it’s not what’s motivating most of the people who murder African Americans. Felony crime has also dropped in half since the 1990s, thanks in large part to proactive policing efforts.
Police aren’t targeting African Americans either.
“We did not find evidence for anti-black or anti-Hispanic disparity in police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything, found anti-white disparities when controlling for race-specific crime,” concluded a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This isn’t to say that policing is perfect. There are bad officers who should be fired. Making changes to qualified immunity, a Supreme Court standard that makes it too easy for officers to justify excessive force, would help with that effort.
But spouting hyperbole about widespread racism is more likely to trigger destructive riots than generate productive change.