Why Black Lives Matter Won't Go Away: a Primer on Systemic Racism in America
By Anthony DiMaggio / counterpunch.org

Intellectually lazy. Willfully ignorant. Blinded by privilege. Drunk with prejudice. These are some of the words that come to mind when I think of the 30 percent of Americans in 2016 who agree “our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights to whites.” There’s no excuse for such irresponsible comments considering the mountain of statistical data showing American institutions treat citizens very differently based on race.

The shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have re-energized a Black Lives Matter movement that’s remained remarkably vigilant over the years. I have no interest in judging the specifics of the Castile and Sterling shootings in this piece, or in judging the police officers involved in the court of public opinion prior to official legal action being taken. Individual stories and anecdotes can be spun any which way supporters and opponents of Black Lives Matter wish. But at the end of the day, these stories are just that – stories. They are symbolically powerful, but they won’t convince many who didn’t already agree that America is racist. What I’m interested in are the comprehensive studies of racial prejudice in American political and social institutions.

In this piece, I provide a primer for citizens, which documents a pervasive and disturbing pattern of racial discrimination across America. Such discrimination occurs on multiple fronts, with regard to racial profiling, police brutality, media depictions of African Americans, and racism on the part of the public. Much of this evidence is new, other studies are older.

Police Brutality

A number of recent studies provide definitive evidence of police brutality in law enforcement. As the New York Times reported this month, a study by the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) finds that the race of citizens deeply matters in police stops. Examining more than 19,000 “use-of-force incidents” by police in 11 large and medium size cities from 2010 to 2015, the report concludes African Americans are significantly more likely than whites to be subject to police violence, even after taking into account statistics showing that blacks commit more violent acts than whites. Sociologists have long known that violent crime is a more common problem in minority communities, although the reason has nothing to do with innate or biological differences between whites, Hispanics, and blacks, and a lot to do with poverty, extreme inequality, and the prevalence of depressed inner city neighborhoods where decent paying jobs are in short supply. Desperation and declining job opportunities push citizens toward the illicit economy and violent crime.

The CPE study finds major inequity between blacks and whites regarding police brutality. It concludes that the average use-of-force rate for blacks is 273 per 100,000, compared to 76 per 100,000 for whites, or an imbalance of 3.6-to-1. One could retort that use-of-force is not tantamount to brutality, short of definitive evidence presented in court of excessive force. However, the point here is not about court convictions, but about the mistreatment of blacks relative to whites, which itself amounts to brutalizing an entire race of people.

A second Harvard study by economist Roland Fryer Jr. also provides evidence of police brutality against blacks, although not when it comes to shootings. Shootings, however, comprise an small number of all violent incidents in Fryer’s study of police departments in Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Texas. Far more common are other forms of violence. Across many measures, blacks are more likely to be subjected to violence, even in cases when they do not violently resist police. Black suspects are more likely to be pushed against a wall, handcuffed without being arrested, pushed to the ground, pepper sprayed, touched by hand, or had a weapon drawn on them. National survey data examined by Fryer also finds that blacks are far more likely to say they have been grabbed by police, handcuffed, kicked, or had a gun pointed at them.

Traffic Stops

It is well known that drug arrest rates are higher in minority neighborhoods, but these neighborhoods are also targeted far more often than white, affluent ones, despite comparable drug use among whites and blacks. Blacks account for 35 percent of drug arrests and 55 percent of drug convictions, despite being just 14 percent of the population and drug-users. These statistics suggest a rampant racial profiling among police forces.

For years, police departments and their defenders insisted that greater arrests and traffic stops targeted at minorities were not evidence of discrimination, since crime rates – and as a result police patrols – were greater in poor minority neighborhoods. This defense is little more than wishful thinking. Drug arrests occur 26 percent more often than violent crime arrests across the U.S., and these arrests disproportionately target minorities. By profiling minority neighborhoods more often, police are sure to find black perpetrators more often than white ones. Higher arrest rates in minority areas are defended by police as legitimate because minority areas “have higher crime rates.” But racial profiling itself creates higher crime rates in minority neighborhoods, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies of highway stops across many states have undercut police departments’ claims that they are not engaged in racial profiling. The virtue of these studies is that they take neighborhoods out of the equation, since Americans from all different communities use highways. But these studies also suggest rampant racial profiling. In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel newspaper found that 70 percent of vehicles pulled over in highway stops were against blacks, despite blacks constituting less than 10 percent of the driving population. In Maryland, 18 percent of all people pulled over were blacks, although they represented 70 percent of individuals who had their cars searched. In New Jersey, another study found 46 percent of those pulled over were black, although blacks were just 14 percent of highway drivers. In Illinois, a black highway driver was twice as likely as a white driver to be searched by state police

One might justify these imbalances in stops if African Americans were more likely to be found with drugs. This, however, was not the case. As the New York Times reports, across most states examined in traffic stops and searches, police officers “consistently found drugs, guns, or other contraband more often if the driver was white [than black].” In studies from North Carolina and Illinois, state and local police were consistently more likely to pull over and search blacks than whites, despite blacks being less likely to be found with drugs in nearly every locality examined.

Death Penalty Cases

Minorities are more likely to be convicted in death penalty cases than whites. In the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia – which resulted in the Supreme Court declaring a temporary moratorium on the death penalty – evidence was presented by law professor David Baldus that minorities in Georgia were 1.7 times more likely to receive a death sentence than whites in capital offense trials. Death sentences were also 4.3 times more likely when the victim in a case was white as opposed to a minority. Racial discrimination in death penalty cases continues in modern times. As the New York Times reported in 2011, “Over the past three decades, the Baldus study has been replicated in about a dozen other jurisdictions, and they all reflect the same basic racial bias” in death penalty cases. For example, a University of Maryland study of more than 500 death penalty cases in Houston, Texas (where more executions have occurred than in any other state in the country), district attorney is historically more than three times as likely to advance death penalty cases for capital offenses in when a defendant is black rather than white. Many Americans believe that justice is blind to racial prejudice, but death penalty cases suggest that this is not the case.

Media Discrimination

Media stereotypes against minorities allow Americans to rationalize and defend a brutally discriminatory legal system. Communication scholars have long known that reporters traffic in racial stereotypes regarding crime and poverty. For example, Entman and Rojecki present evidence in their book, The Black Image in the White Mind, that the percent of blacks portrayed as perpetrators in stories on violent crime is well beyond the actual percentage of blacks who commit violent crimes. Similarly, whites are more often portrayed as victims of crime, at a higher rate than the actual number of white victims. These radically uneven portrayals threaten to create stereotypes in the American mind – to be black is to be an aggressor, to be white is to be a victim of black aggression. Political scientist Martin Gilens presents evidence that news stories on poverty depict blacks as in poor at a far higher rate than the actual number of blacks in poverty. In this case, a second stereotype is evident: to be black is to be poor, but to be white is to suffer through the burden of dealing with blacks who are poor.

Experimental media studies suggest that racist stereotypes related to poverty and crime exert a significant effect on news audiences. White audiences that view crime stories with alleged black perpetrators are significantly more likely to support punitive, get-tough policies aimed at locking up criminals and throwing away the key. In contrast, white viewers are far less punitive in their attitudes when they view stories on crime with alleged white perpetrators. Similarly in the case of poverty, whites who see stories with a black woman receiving welfare are more likely to embrace negative stereotypes of blacks, and to oppose welfare spending as wasteful, compared to whites who see stories with a white woman receiving welfare.

Public Opinion

We live in a culture in which the media embrace racist stereotypes, and those stereotypes are burned into the American psyche. Public opinion surveys suggest large differences between blacks and whites regarding their willingness to recognize racism. For example, oneNewsweek survey done at the turn of the millennium found that white Americans were far more likely to claim that problems in black families stemmed from personal deficiencies rather than from structural forces. Most whites agreed that black family problems stemmed from “too many teenage girls having children,” “people depending too much on welfare,” “people not following moral and religious values,” “too many parents never getting married,” and from “drugs and alcoholism.” In contrast, less than half of whites agreed that family problems sprung from “not enough jobs paying decent wages” in black neighborhoods, from “racism in the workplace,” from “racism in society in general,” and from “public schools not providing a good education.” In contrast, while a majority of black respondents agreed that that survey items related to personal deficiencies explained problems in black communities, most blacks also agreed that structural issues were key to explaining black family struggles.

More recent evidence from a Pew 2016 survey finds continued denial among whites when it comes to structural problems that contribute to racial inequality. Whites are far less likely than blacks to agree that blacks “have a harder time getting ahead than whites” because of “racial discrimination,” “lower quality schools,” and a “lack of jobs.” These problems are real, and have been well documented by social scientists for decades, but much of white America is still reluctant to recognize these barriers to success. Despite the mountain of evidence explored above, just 19 percent of whites in the 2016 Pew survey agree that “discrimination built into laws and institutions” is a bigger problem than “discrimination based on the prejudice of individuals.” In contrast, 48 percent of African Americans agree that systemic, structural racism is a bigger problem than inter-personal racism.

The Dallas Shootings and Diversionary Racism

As tragic as the lone-wolf shooting of six Dallas police officers was (I know of no person who hasn’t condemned it), there is now a wholesale effort by many white Americans to draw attention to a supposed crisis of violence against police. The “Blue Lives Matter” slogan is growing increasingly popular among many right-wingers who denigrate Black Lives Matter. The Dallas shooting was rightly condemned by most all of America, but to claim that police shootings are an escalating threat to America, as many have in the wake of Dallas, is to obfuscate reality. The Washington Post reports that police are safer in their jobs today than at any time in the last forty years. During the Reagan presidency, an average of 101 police officers were killed per year. The number fell to 90 under George H. W. Bush, to 81 under Clinton, and to 72 under George W. Bush. Under the Obama administration, the average is 62 deaths per year.

For those who believe in equality, our path forward is not achieved by accepting efforts to divert attention from the systemic racial inequalities that plague this country. Superficial efforts to frame all citizens as already equal under the law, regardless of skin color, or to frame police as the victims of an escalating “war on cops” led by Black Lives Matter should be rejected out of hand. Racial strife in America will decline when the root causes of racial inequality are honestly and openly addressed. Until this happens, we should expect the protests in pursuit of racial equality to continue.


For readers looking to follow up on statistics cited in this piece, please see the following:

On public opinion of race and racism in America:

Pew Research Center, “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites are Worlds Apart,” June 27, 2016,http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/

Polling Report, “Newsweek Poll,” April 16-19, 1999, com,http://www.pollingreport.com/race2.htm

On biased media coverage regarding race, poverty, and crime:

Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki, Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in Ameirca, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, the Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Martin Gilens, “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, 1996, 515-541.

On the effects of racist media coverage on American beliefs:

Frank Gilliam, “The ‘Welfare Queen’ Experiment,” Nieman Reports, 1999, http://niemanreports.org/articles/the-welfare-queen-experiment/

Frank Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar, “Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2000,https://pcl.stanford.edu/common/docs/research/gilliam/1999/primesuspects.pdf

On the death penalty as racist:

Ed Pilkington, “Research Exposes Racial Discrimination in America’s Death Penalty Capital,” Guardian, March 13, 2013,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/13/houston-texas-death-row-black-inmates

David Dow, “Death Penalty, Still Racist and Arbitrary,” New York Times, July 8, 2011,http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/09/opinion/09dow.html

On police brutality:

Timothy Williams, “Study Supports Suspicion that Police are More Likely to Use Force on Blacks,” New York Times, July 7, 2016,http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/study-supports-suspicion-that-police-use-of-force-is-more-likely-for-blacks.html

Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox, “Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings,” New York Times, July 11, 2016,http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html

On racism in traffic stops and drug arrests/incarceration:

Sharon LaFraniere and Andrew Lehren, “The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black,” New York Times, October 24, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/us/racial-disparity-traffic-stops-driving-black.html

Nicole Flatow, “Police Made More Arrests for Drug Violations than Anything Else in 2012,” New York Times, September 17, 2013,http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/09/17/2627601/people-arrested-drug-abuse-violations-2012/

Ken Willis, “Fear of the Truth Drives Dodge of Racial Profiling Study,”American Civil Liberties Union, 2000, https://acluva.org/387/fear-of-the-truth-drives-dodge-of-racial-profiling-study/

Daniel Burton Rose (editor), The Ceiling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry, Common Courage Press, 2002.

On the relationship between poverty, crime, and violence:

Marcus Berzofsky, “Household Poverty and Nonfatal Violent Victimization, 2008-2012,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 18, 2014, http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5137

On declining deaths among police:

Christopher Ingraham, “Police are Safer Under Obama Than They Have Been in Decades,” Washington Post, July 9, 2016,https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/09/police-are-safer-under-obama-than-they-have-been-in-decades/

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Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has taught American politics at numerous colleges, and is the author of Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (SUNY Press, paperback, July 2016).

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Why Black Lives Matter Won't Go Away: a Primer on Systemic Racism in America