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Black Lives Matter: Are Whites killed by police brutality more than Blacks? Stats show the shocking truth

Understanding the link between racism and policing requires a look at more than just the raw data. Here's what we found
UPDATED MAR 13, 2021
There is no federal database of police shootings in the US, which makes tracking the use of force complicated (Getty Images)
There is no federal database of police shootings in the US, which makes tracking the use of force complicated (Getty Images)

Is law enforcement in the US racist? In light of the killings of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it is easy to believe that the answer is yes. In reality, though, it's not as simple as that. There is no federal database of police shootings in the US, which makes tracking the use of force complicated. But, thanks to efforts by the media and non-government organizations, we do have a rough idea of the numbers.

There is no doubt, the US has one of the highest rates of use of force in the world. It's not even a competition. For every 10 million people, the US kills 33.5 civilians. The next highest is Canada, with 9.8 civilians killed as per the Prison Policy Initiative. Breaking down those numbers, you might be surprised to learn that law enforcement in the US isn't entirely as racist as portrayed in the media. 

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The fact is more White people are killed each year by police than any other race. The issue? More African-Americans are killed per capita than any other race.

A police explosives unit walks in Cal Anderson Park as police and city crews dismantle the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) area on July 1, 2020, in Seattle, Washington (Getty Images)

Demographics matter

To really understand the issue, we need to understand the demographics of the US and law enforcement. According to Data USA, 67% of police officers are White, while African-Americans make up just 12.4% of the force. That is roughly in line with America's population. African-Americans make up 13.4% of the US population according to the Census Bureau. The bottom line? There are just more Whites in the US, while African-Americans make up just a minority. 

Those numbers are also reflected in cases of police violence. Data from Statista shows that 432 White people were killed by the police in 2020, as compared to 226 Black Americans. 2020 is not an anomaly, the data is consistent across years. Looking at those numbers, the reality is simple — White Americans are more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement officials. 

But, the use of force is not so cut and dry as that. If you go behind those numbers, you'll see that the rate at which Black Americans die is more than twice as high as White Americans. That comes down to analyzing deaths based per million. When you look at it that way, 35 Black Americans are killed per million as compared to 14 White Americans. That discrepancy is more pronounced in cases where victims are unarmed. In those cases, Black Americans made up 36% of deaths reported. 

Perception of violence and race

Why are African-Americans more likely to be killed? To understand that, one needs to dive into sociology. African-Americans are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods and suffer from a lack of access to basic facilities. That leads to a rise in crime rates, which in turn leads to aggressive over-policing and the use of force. It's a deadly cycle that is an inherent part of American life. Historically, African-Americans are also incarcerated at higher rates than White Americans. Both these factors lead people to perceive Black Americans are more dangerous, a bias that police officers implicitly have. 

It's not just police officers, the perception that African Americans are more dangerous is a common bias shared by many Americans. Joshua Correl, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that "civilians were more likely to shoot unarmed Black men, relative to unarmed White men and even armed White men, which was attributed to the stereotypes associating Black people with danger."

That stereotype isn't new. Going back to the colonial empire, White men have always viewed Blacks as "savages", over the years that bias has been fine-tuned to fit into modern society. Today, racial bias against African-Americans takes many forms. The link between violence and race is seen in more overt examples like incarceration and police violence, and subtle ones like hiring and firing. 

Police remove people from a vehicle during a protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Getty Images)

Police violence and society

The bias leads to greater rates of violence against Black Americans, but it doesn't end there. A key issue in America is that it is hard to take disciplinary action against officers for misconduct. As a result of strong unions and lax laws, police officers are very unlikely to face consequences for their actions, which can further encourage such actions. A 2020 research found that officers who aren't disciplined are "more likely to commit misconduct in the future compared to officers who had never been fired." 

Even if an officer is fired, they tend to move to another agency, which invariably tends to be in smaller communities with a greater percentage of Black residents. Since it is easy for them to get a job, the bias remains and the cycle continues. Without adequate reforms, African-Americans will remain at greater threat of dying from police violence, even if they are a smaller number in total. 

Back in 2020, Trump was asked by CBS "why Black people are still dying at the hands of law enforcement?" He responded, "So are white people. So are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people." He isn't wrong, the issue is that he isn't entirely right. The reality is that Black Americans are in more danger, mainly due to systemic racism. Addressing that takes more than de-escalation training and body cameras. 

It's an issue many police forces are now reckoning with. Implicit bias training is now slowly becoming a more popular option. But, it is not the perfect solution. Based on data from the New York Police Department, NPR found that the behavior of officers towards Black Americans hasn't necessarily changed. 

Can anything be done? The Democrats believe so. The House recently passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. The bill aims to tackle gaping holes in the current policing system and help reform the approach to African-American communities. Maybe it will help reform policing and ensure Black Americans aren't more likely to die than other races. However, it still doesn't tackle the issue of police violence. Until broader reforms are made, more and more Americans will die at the hands of law enforcement. And whether one likes it or not, they will be from all races, but mostly White Americans because they are greater in number. 


Data USA, Journal of Urban Health, NPR, Prison Policy Initiative, Scientific American, Statista, United States Census Bureau, Washington Post Police Shootings Database, Yale Law Journal