Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
It's not just implicit racial bias. According to a new study, state policies are also a determinant factor in police shootings that disproportionately target African Americans.
The question that typically pops up when black people are killed by police is whether racism had anything to do with it. Many studies do show that racism plays a part in causing police to pull the trigger more quickly on black suspects. That’s usually because of the implicit racial biases of the individual police officer involved. Law enforcement officials often try to rule out racism by arguing that you can’t tell what’s in a officer’s heart when these killings happen.
But what a team of researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health recently endeavored to find out was whether the kind of racism that’s woven into laws and policies also informs racial disparities in police violence. Their findings were released in the paper, “The Relationship Between Structural Racism and Black-White Disparities in Fatal Police Shootings at the State Level,” which was recently published in the Journal of the National Medical Association.
For this study, a research group led by community health sciences professor Michael Siegel looked at data on fatal police shootings between 2013 and 2017 from the Mapping Police Violence database, and then ran that along five key indicators of systemic racism— racial segregation, incarceration rate gaps, educational attainment gaps, the economic disparity index, and employment disparity gaps—for each state. The worse that African Americans are doing on those five fronts compared to white people, the higher the state’s score on what the researchers call a “state racism index.” If a state scores high on those five factors, and also happens to have a high per capita rate of unarmed African Americans shot and killed by police, then structural racism serves as a worthy explanation for police violence in those states.
Siegel’s team controlled their analysis by considering other factors such as each state’s population size, non-homicide violent crime rate, household gun ownership, and proportion of population living in urban areas. They found that structural racism does positively correlate with higher levels of police killings of African Americans. For every ten-point increase in the state racism index there’s a corresponding 24 percent increase in the ratio of unarmed black people killed by police compared to white people killed in same conditions. This was true for the nation, when looking at state results in aggregate. Racial segregation was the most significant predictor among the five state racism index factors for this outcome.
Below is a map of how each state scored using this analysis:
Before this study there were two general schools of thought on racial disparities in police killings of unarmed black suspects: The threat hypothesis, which reflects the influence of racism on police interaction with African Americans, and the community violence hypothesis, which supposes that higher rates of violent crime in black neighborhoods might explain higher rates of police shootings of African Americans. Siegel’s study says both are contributors, but don’t totally explain the disparities.
“Even when controlling for both the overall rate of Black police shootings and Black arrest rates,” reads the study, “structural racism was still a significant positive predictor of police shootings of unarmed Black suspects.”
The best state examples for seeing how structural racism might influence police violence against African Americans are Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, which register the highest on the state racism index, and have some of the highest rates of unarmed African Americans shot by police. So, one might apply this study to see if explains the police killing of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African American who suffered from a mental disorder who police shot 14 times in 2014; or, the Facebook-lived police killing of Philando Castile in 2016, who was also unarmed when police shot him in an area outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. Or, you could look at any one of the hundreds of police killings that occurred in Chicago, Illinois over the past few years to see if the lessons of Siegel’s study applies.
No matter how these matters are reviewed, the racial disparities found in police violence can no longer be written off as a dispute over what was in a police officer’s heart when he or she pulled the trigger. There is now empirical data that shows that broader policies perpetuating racism must be considered, too.