Debunking the Debunker: The Truth About Racialized Police Violence

Like many students, my initial response to reading Robert Lucido’s recent series of columns in The Student was to roll my eyes and laugh. As Mercedes MacAlpine noted in her excellent response on Amherst Soul, the value of Black lives isn’t up for debate, and anyone who thinks otherwise is already on the wrong side of history. Interpreting Lucido’s arguments as anything more than pseudo-intellectual acrobatics designed to “keep out the possibility that the world might not be all that he wants it to be” would be overly generous at best.

But then I remembered that, despite Lucido’s remarkable ability to monopolize campus conversations, he’s far from the only one to hold such misguided beliefs. A March 2014 public opinion poll found that a plurality of Americans believe the U.S. criminal justice system is fair to people of color, and a full 23 percent of Americans believe police officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing an unarmed Mike Brown. Lucido might like to play the persecuted minority in the context of Amherst College, but his views are commonplace, even hegemonic in American society at large.

More importantly, however, Lucido’s “debunking” of the Black Lives Matter movement is just colossally, comically wrong. From his reliance on discredited sources to his cherry-picking of quotes and statistics, Lucido completely untethers his beliefs from reality, jettisoning any facts or logic which might conflict with his world-view.

In his first column, he focuses on the oft-repeated statistic that a Black person is killed by police, security guard or vigilante every 28 hours, calling it and “Operation Ghetto Storm,” the report from which it came, “a contrived narrative, tailored to fit a predetermined conclusion.” To support his critique, he notes that “many of the report’s victims were killed as a result of accidents” and quibbles with the author’s definition of “unarmed,” noting that nine of those listed as unarmed in the report were killed while “allegedly attempting to run over an officer with a car.”

Yet, by focusing on one statistic, Lucido totally ignores the host of evidence showing that lethal violence by police officers does overwhelmingly target Black Americans. For instance, a national investigation of fatal police shootings in America’s ten largest cities by ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter found that African Americans comprised a disproportionate share of the victims in every city they examined. In New York City, San Diego and Las Vegas, police killed Black persons at a rate double their share of the cities’ population.

Additionally, using data collected by the FBI, USA Today found that police killed on average 96 Black persons each year between 2005 and 2012; however, they write “the database it’s based on has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete,” which means the total may be even higher.  Nonetheless, in the past five years alone, seven U.S. police departments have come under review by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in response to deadly police shootings. The Albuquerque police department, for instance, had 20 fatal shootings between 2009 and 2012; the majority of which, the Justice Department concluded, were unconstitutional.

The bottom line is this: It is nearly impossible to know with 100-percent accuracy how many Americans, Black or white, are killed by police each year, since there is no official database or reporting system, but denying the existence of any disparity whatsoever is not only illogical; it’s outright racist. As Arlene Eisen, the author of the Operation Ghetto Storm report, notes:

Those of us who respect and stand in solidarity with the movement understand that whether people say “every 24, 28, 54 or 84 hours” is not the point. Any of these numbers carries the meaning that police killing of black people is systemic. The hashtag went viral because it challenges the myth that these killings are isolated or the result of the personal prejudice of a handful of rogue cops.

In his second column, Lucido takes issue with “Deadly Force in Black and White,” a report published by Pro Publica which found that “young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts—21 times greater.” According to Lucido, such a disparity is not evidence that the police are racist—au contraire—it merely reflects “the rate at which black and white male teenagers put themselves at risk of such lethal force.”

Of course, the idea that people like Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo (not to mention Aiyanna Stanley-Jones) “put themselves at risk” of being murdered by police is just plain absurd, and Lucido manages to produce only flimsy evidence to support his claim that young Black men are more dangerous (and thus more likely to be killed by police). His principal source, the “Crime Prevention Research Center,” is a right-wing propaganda mill that boasts Ted Nugent as one of its directors. Moreover, the source for Lucido’s claim about violent crime rates relies completely on unfounded extrapolations based off of large assumptions and leaps in logic (e.g., “If black murders are more likely to involve gangs and gangs are more likely to get into shootout with police, young black males would be more than 9 times more likely to commit murders than similarly aged relevant white males”).

In contrast, academic studies which have examined the relationship between race and violent crime, such as Columbia University’s 2010 “Homicide in Black and White,” have found that disparities in violent crime rates can largely be explained by the impact of structural inequalities, such as differences in sentencing between Black and white offenders. The Columbia study also found that measures that reduce racial inequality, such as school desegregation, have a larger impact on violent crime rates than traditional law enforcement solutions like increasing the number of police.

In his third and final column, Lucido decides to offer up some “common sense solutions” to problems with policing in the United States. Shockingly, his solutions just happen to be right-wing talking points: end affirmative action and destroy police unions. Lucido cites a study by “renowned economist” John Lott (who was pushed out of academia after he was caught lying about his research and manipulating data) which claims that affirmative action policies implemented by police departments between 1987 and 2003 were correlated with increases in crime and civilian deaths. The elementary point that correlation does not imply causation aside, nearly every study that attempted to replicate Lott’s claims found no relationship between affirmative action and crime rates. In fact, one important study by Stephen Levitt and John Donohue found that affirmative action policies were essential in reducing racial disparities in arrest rates.

Ultimately, however, Lucido’s emphasis on lethal violence is a red herring; the vast majority of interactions between civilians and police don’t end in death, but for people of color (especially young Black men) violence and harassment by police is a reality that can’t be ignored. Just this week The Guardian published an exposé revealing that the Chicago Police Department ran a “black site” detention center, in which (predominantly Black and Hispanic) suspects were held without access to legal counsel and subjected to beatings and prolonged shackling by police interrogator, resulting in at least one death.

Moreover, racial discrimination exists at nearly every step of the criminal justice process, from whom police choose to arrest and detain to disparities in sentencing and incarceration rates: For instance, the Human Rights Watch found that Blacks and Hispanics accounted for 87.3 percent of the NYPD’s arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in 2009, despite the fact that whites use marijuana at a higher rate than minorities. And according to the Sentencing Project, Black men have a lifetime incarceration rate of 1 in 3, compared to 1 in 17 for white men, largely as a result of the decades-long War on Drugs that has disproportionately targeted people of color.

By reducing the Black Lives Matter movement to a pair of statistics, Lucido ignores the broader patterns of racial inequality that anti-racist activists are fighting against. From a rapidly resegregating school system to a growing racial wealth gap, from city governments which deny their citizens clean drinking water to public housing authorities who bulldoze cherished homes to make way for condos, from a major political party built around racial resentment to predatory payday lenders, the activists and ordinary citizens who take to the streets under the banner of Black Lives Matter are fighting the myriad ways in which a country literally built by slave labor continues to degrade and discount Black lives.

Lucido’s columns are troubling not just because they’re delusional; they’re troubling because they speak to a profound ambivalence in the American psyche on the issue of race. We live in a country that can elect a Black man to the most powerful office in the world while allowing millions of Black men to languish in prison, stripped of their civil rights for the crime of being born Black in America. We live in a country that emblazons the phrase “all men are created equal” in its founding document while allowing thousands of its sons and daughters to get gunned down in the streets year after year with nary an outcry from the media or politicians. Lucido’s attempts to maintain the fiction of a post-racial America not only make him sound ridiculous, but also perpetuate and normalize racist justifications of present-day inequalities.

In the words of James Baldwin:

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. […] It is their innocence which constitutes the crime. […] And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and to change it.