The case hasn’t attracted the higher degree of attention from the press, the public, or policing-reform activists, partly because body-cam footage of the killing has been withheld from the media and partly because the cop and the dead man were both white, rendering the killing less controversial than one possibly animated by racism. But it warrants more attention than it has received.
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Police killings in the U.S. have come under intensified scrutiny since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter, a protest movement that seeks numerous policy reforms to stop unjust uses of deadly force. Although a Department of Justice investigation later cleared Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, it also documented decades of racist policing in the St. Louis suburbs; and a disproportionate number of the most egregious police killings involve black victims: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, and more. African Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of all police killings, too.
Given the historic abuses African Americans have suffered at the hands of police and the disproportionate ways they are affected even today by racist or inept police officers, many find the racial framing of Black Lives Matter is essential. At minimum, it is both understandable and substantively defensible. And in my estimation, the race-neutral policy reforms that the movement advances are long overdue.
Its protests have certainly helped mobilize support for police reform among the subset of Americans who believe that fighting racism should be a high priority. Unfortunately, its explicitly racial focus has been alienating to others, including those who don’t believe that racism is a significant factor in police killings; those who put fighting racism low on their priority list; and anti-black racists. In debates that ensue, critics of Black Lives Matter often try to argue that African Americans are not in fact disproportionately victimized by police killings. Here is a representative example.
Rather than engage that debate, though, I want to argue that it is largely irrelevant. Even if Black Lives Matter critics were right that police killings in America are not racially suspect, that would not be a sufficient argument against police reforms. It would still remain the case that American police officers kill many more people overall––and many more unarmed and mentally ill people in particular––than do police officers in other democratic countries.
Why isn’t that enough to warrant serious, systemic reform?
Black Lives Matter and its progressive allies who want to advance its reform agenda, believing that it will save innocents of all races and that it will disproportionately save lives in black communities, display a laudable commitment to speaking out every time the police killing of a black person illustrates a flaw of the status quo. But publicizing and protesting egregious instances of white people being killed would do as much to advance its agenda.