Outrage, grief and fury. Even these words do not suffice in describing the political climate in America following the death of George Floyd, an African American who died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck until Floyd fell unconscious and, tragically, died.
The riots and protests that have ensued are fuelled by resentment against what participants perceive to be systemic and institutionalised racism within American society, specifically against African Americans.
With the militant nature of responses to commonly referenced anecdotes, such as that of George Floyd, some have argued that the ongoing protests and riots are simply subject to a fallacy. That is to say they believe striking, isolated examples of an event are put forward in such a manner to misrepresent the probability of said event (in this instance, police brutality against African Americans) for the reason of proving an argument.
Despite this, rarely do individuals on either side of this debate critically examine this topic with raw, empirical evidence. In order to analyse this topic, each individual major institution and area of American society must be considered separately.
One of the most prominent propositions from activists is that law enforcement, namely police departments, are inherently racist as police officers are seen to be disproportionately ‘killing’ black individuals in cases of officers using lethal force.
However, empirical work in this field contradicts this. When controlling for suspect demographics, officer demographics, encounter characteristics and year fixed effects, Roland G Fryer, an African American Harvard professor found in his 2015 paper that black individuals were 27.4% less likely to be shot by police in officer instigated shootings than white individuals. Fryer concluded that he was ‘unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls’ in the realm of officer use of force in civilian-officer interactions.
Similar conclusions can be seen in studies conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 as well as by Correll, Hudson, Guillermo and Ma in 2014, and by Washington State University in 2016.
Therefore, the statistics on this subject evidently demonstrate how police brutality is not largely race driven. However, this is not to say that police officers using lethal force on citizens, driven by racial discrimination, does not happen.
Despite this, many would cite the fact that African American individuals are more likely to be stopped by police officers to be evidence of systemic racism, as is backed up by a study published in the journal Injury Prevention in 2016. Although this claim is seemingly correct on a surface level, this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that police officers usually patrol in high-crime neighbourhoods.
Generally speaking, high-crime neighbourhoods are populated mostly by African Americans. So, conventional wisdom would convey that African Americans being stopped by police at a higher rate than other races is inevitable, justified, and is not a product of mass racist police officer judgement. An additional study in the American Political Science Review supports this inference.
Nonetheless, this leads onto another area of consideration in this discourse, as many would argue that the above fact of deprived neighbourhoods being disproportionately comprised of African Americans is evidence of systemic racism in America.
Their argument is that employers systemically discriminate against black individuals that leads to a cycle of this ethnic group being financially disadvantaged, leading to them having to live in deprived neighbourhoods and being more predisposed to commit crime. This is evident in the fact that African Americans, despite making up 13% of the population, represent 52% of homicide offenders and 38.5% of violent crime in general.
Evidencing the above claim is an oft-cited paper from 2003 which sought to demonstrate US labour market discrimination. It found that applications for positions with stereotypical African American names were 50% less likely to receive call-backs as compared to applications with white sounding names.
Despite this, there are limitations to this study as it only took place in the cities of Chicago and Boston, where African Americans make up 70.5% of murders and 80% of homicide offenders respectively. Hence, it can easily be seen how racially discriminatory stereotypes can plague such cities in particular and can translate to race-based labour market discrimination, due to citizens observing disproportionally more black individuals committing violent crime as compared to the rest of the country.
Additionally, other studies surrounding this subject have found that such discrimination can be explained by class-based discrimination rather than race-based discrimination. This is due to other studies finding no discrimination in these fields when utilising sophisticated sounding names for both the African American group and the white American group, unlike the aforementioned study which used stereotypical white sounding names and stereotypical black names that were lower class sounding.
Therefore, whilst these studies demonstrate how labour market discrimination is most certainly real, to make the blanket claim that this is all race based is untrue. Perhaps studies that improve the heterogeneity of location types (such as by incorporating more rural areas) used in research can help explore this claim further.
Many activists may respond to this criticism by saying that African Americans being financially disadvantaged is more than a result of employer discrimination but is a result of historic institutionalised discrimination in America’s economy, the reverberations of which are still being felt today (which is inarguably true to an extent).
They refer to the fact that African Americans have a median income of $23,738, compared to $36,785 for white Americans. However, income inequality is a multifaceted issue, with identified factors ranging from racial discrimination (a minor contributor in comparison to other factors) to educational disparities between races and differences in incarceration rates of races. Though, the latter can be explained with differences in crime rates of races, as explored above.
A lot of these variables can be explained by the over-arching issue of cultural problems devastating some African American communities (and not systemic racism) which prevent talented African Americans from achieving their potential. Supporting this claim is the fact that African American students from households with annual incomes in excess of $70,000 have lower median SAT scores than white students from households with annual incomes of $6,000 or less.
Such occurrences, along with others such as African American high school dropout rates being more than 50% higher than that of white students, can only be explained by cultural issues in some African American communities, due to socio-economic factors being controlled for in the many statistics of this kind. Similar conclusions have been made by numerous political commentators, including African Americans John H McWhorter and Larry Elder.
Thus, to claim that the issue of African Americans having lower median incomes than white Americans is simply a result of supposed institutionalised racism would be unwise. Simultaneously, to disregard hardships faced by African Americans in labour markets and the hardship of historic financial discrimination affecting African American families as a contributor to this disparity would also be ignorant.
Finally, activists proclaim that the fact that African Americans receive 10% longer sentences than white Americans for the same crimes as proof of institutionalised racism in America’s judicial system. This claim is relatively undisputed, however, it can be argued that such an imbalance is not statistically significant enough to make such a drastic claim.
Some would argue that it would be more realistic to think of this as a result of some subconsciously racially biased judges existing rather than institutional racism in this area of American society, for there are no actual racist laws that exist that would cause such a phenomenon.
Therefore, to conclude, to make the claim that racism does not exist in America is ignorant, the tragic stories of George Floyd and countless other African Americans disproves this.
Though, on top of this, to make the claim that America is institutionally racist is also false. The empirical work in this field overwhelmingly suggests that this is not the case, although there definitely are elements of racism in America’s institutions due to a minority of deranged individuals.
The phrase ‘institutionally racist’ should only be reserved to describe truly unequal societies, such as apartheid South Africa and 19th Century America. Most importantly, however, rather than focusing on divisions and violence, Americans should be looking for unity and harmony in these turbulent times, and should stand side by side to fight against the remnants of racism that exists in America.