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 an anecdotal 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. Simultaneously, proponents argue that these cases exemplify and raise awareness regarding the effects of institutional racism experienced by millions of African Americans.
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.
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.
Notwithstanding, it would be unfair to claim that there is consensus on this. Notably, University of Chicago Economists Steven Durlauf and Nobel Laureate James Heckman responded to Roland Fryer’s paper stating that selection bias renders Fryer’s findings unsubstantiated. Similar criticisms have been put forward against the other aforementioned studies.
Therefore, it is evident that the statistics on this subject are not clear-cut, and it is hence wrong to make sweeping statements on this issue. Perhaps further research could clarify some of the nuances involved in analysing these statistics, but in the present, it would be unwise for politicians and political commentators to simplify this debate down to shrewd sound bites.
Arguing against this inference, 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 partially be explained by the fact that police officers usually patrol in high-crime neighbourhoods.
Generally speaking, high-crime neighbourhoods are populated disproportionately 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.
However, a popular counter-argument against this would be that this reasoning is circular: there only exists high-crime African American neighbourhoods because of over-policing in these areas, leading to more African Americans being stopped by police, further demonstrating systemic racism in action. An obvious flaw in this counter-argument is that ‘over-policing’ may actually decrease crime rates in certain areas, meaning that more African Americans being stopped by police would not be because of discriminatory police judgment. Thus, the crux of this debate essentially comes down to whether or not ‘over-policing’ leads to higher or lower crime rates.
The studies on this area give a mixed picture. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that higher police presence decreased rates of serious offenses, but simultaneously increased convictions of minor offenses, particularly in black neighbourhoods. This study has also been subject to criticism, and thus once again strong convictions on this issue cannot be definitively drawn until more conclusive research is conducted.
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.
However, 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 black names that were stereotypically associated with lower classes.
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.
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 would also be misleading.
The empirical work in this field overwhelmingly suggests that there is no clear answer. Perhaps it would be better if there were no clear answer too. Debates regarding ‘institutional’ or ‘systemic’ racism often garner strong responses, leading to the further polarisation of American politics. Following the adversarial politics on this issue, it seems far wiser for Americans to take issues of racism in various institutions on a case-by-case basis, for it has been seen above that there may well be significant variations between institutions themselves.
Therefore, 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.