Deconstructing #BLM

Is Black Lives Matter hitting the wrong notes in its hunt for social justice?

Image: The All-Nite Images

You’ve probably heard the statistical rundown. Black people are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than whites, 25 per cent of black victims of police shootings are unarmed, and 38 per cent of inmates in American prisons are black. This is all true, and it’s not a pretty picture.

If you unpack the statistics just a little, however, things become less clear. The Guardian keeps a running total of Americans killed by police, recording 1 146 deaths in 2015. Of these 305 were African-Americans: that’s 26.2 per cent. Given that only 13 per cent of the country is African-American, they are disproportionately represented.

However, if you cross-reference these findings with African-American crime rates – an obvious indicator of likely police involvement – a different picture emerges. According to the FBI’s official statistics, out of the 5 723 homicides committed in 2013, 2 698 were committed by African-Americans: an easily calculable 47 per cent.

Though homicides are by far the most reliably reported form of violent crime, widening the net changes the figures little, with African-Americans totting up 38.5 per cent of arrests for violent offences. Though this figure counts just arrests (which could potentially be due to police racism), the percentages check out with the National Crime Victimisation Survey, which records all descriptions provided by (often black) victims.

These findings surprised me. It seems that black crime is proportionally much higher than black fatalities in police shootings. This being the case, BLM’s statistics could be considered misleading.

Obviously I’m not suggesting there’s no racism in America (eg. drug arrests). But given the figures I’m left wondering if BLM is picking the right fights?

Statistically, the most significant issues seem to be black-on-black homicide and obscene levels of general police brutality. Almost all of the victims of black murderers are also black: African-Americans account for 93 per cent of victims of black murderers. That means that 44 per cent of all homicides happen entirely within the 12-13 per cent African-American community. That’s a horrifying loss of life.

As for the police, over 1,000 civilians are killed by the lawman every single year. Around 50 die to ‘non-lethal’ tasers, and roughly 30 die once already in police custody. If either of those stats surfaced in Europe, there’d be a continent-wide outcry.

If we imagine these two issues as a Venn diagram then we find ourselves with two vast circles – one representing homicide in the black community, one police brutality – and the overlap between them is relatively small and statistically not unexpected. Publicity stems from controversy, but the issues that enflame Twitter aren’t necessarily the ones that will save lives.

The Michael Brown case was beset by false narratives – anyone who behaved like that in America was likely to get shot – but went nationwide, while the appalling travesty that was the death of Eric Garner long went unnoticed. Because of social media we got ‘hands up don’t shoot’, instead of the provable and deeply compelling ‘I can’t breathe’.

There are broader issues too of not caring for ‘minorities within minorities’. Hillary Clinton has attracted criticism for her comments about young, black ‘super-predators’ in the early ’90s, but a widely-shared Reddit post (penned by a Clinton-voting African-American) has rebutted accusations of racism. User ‘sitvellker’ corroborates Hillary’s position – “Bruh that shit was real!” and who were the gangs killing? Other black people. It should be possible to criticise part of a demographic, so as to protect the rest of it.

Of course there’s police racism in America, but when it comes to campaigning against loss of life it could be a distraction from the biggest issues. Surely tackling poverty and exclusion, police brutality and the gun lobby are the cast-iron ways of making black lives, and indeed all lives, matter.

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