Black lives really should matter

By Edward Achorn

Black lives matter, virtually every American believes. Unfortunately, some of the people carrying that banner seem to be advocating policies that have the opposite effect of protecting black lives.

Vast majorities of Americans, thank God, still believe in equal justice under the law, which is the American ideal. Virtually no one wants police officers to bully and kill minorities (or even whites). The outpouring of grief and outrage by Americans across the political spectrum after the death of George Floyd argued that point. They care and want things to be better.

But making the latest act of police brutality emblematic of the American people is not only a gross distortion of reality but a prescription for disaster, including for black Americans.

Certainly, recent days of killing, looting and destruction have hurt majority black communities terribly. African Americans have been murdered by rioters. Black-owned businesses built through great sacrifice have been looted and destroyed. Neighborhoods have been left in ruins. People are no longer able to shop for necessities. Where will they go for food and medicine? When, if ever, will their neighborhoods be rebuilt?

Residents themselves have spoken out against the mob, arguing tearfully that riots do nothing to respect Mr. Floyd’s memory or advance justice. This black store owner in the Bronx blasted the looters.

Do those black lives matter?

The notion that neighborhoods in flames may be good for African Americans has been spread by talking heads and politicians who, of course, live in safety.

“America is burning. But that is how forests grow,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey assured us.

It is shockingly irresponsible for any leader to downplay the dangers of anarchy, hatred, murder, violence, and destruction. At such a perilous moment, leaders should be resolutely defending what makes America great: civil rights, the rule of law, free speech, public engagement and, yes, treating each other with love and respect. We have nonviolent means to go after bad cops (and others in positions of power who abuse their authority).

Of course, the argument we keep hearing is that Mr. Floyd’s death is evidence that America is “systemically racist,” and that peaceful efforts to address injustice have been proved a failure. Anyone who denies that is said to have his head in the sand, or worse. The solution advanced seems to be the institution of more socialism/authoritarianism and the treatment of Americans as members of identity groups (of varying worthiness) rather than as individuals.

Although horrible images such as the knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck touch us powerfully, it is important to consult reason and facts as well as our emotions in addressing societal problems. Such analysts as Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute have pointed out that the data do not support the argument that America and its police are incurably racist.

“A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the criminal-justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing. Crime and suspect behavior, not race, determine most police actions,” she wrote in The Wall Street Journal on June 2 (“The Myth of Systemic Police Racism”).

Police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites in 2019, down dramatically from 38 and 32, respectively, in 2015, according to the Washington Post.

“In 2018 there were 7,407 black homicide victims. Assuming a comparable number of victims last year, those nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1% of all African-Americans killed in 2019,” Ms. MacDonald wrote. “By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.”

She cited a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We find no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers,” the study reported.

None of this should suggest that incidents of police brutality and injustice ought to be ignored. To the contrary. But we have lawful means to deal with that. And there are deadly consequences to vilifying all police. For starters, it makes their jobs more dangerous and makes them less inclined, rather than more inclined, to risk engagement with criminals in more dangerous neighborhoods where people desperately need and want protection.

The focus on police as emblems of American racism shifts public attention away from far more immediate dangers to black Americans in urban communities — notably, high crime, particularly homicides. At community meetings with local police departments, minority residents beg for more police protection rather than less. Do those black lives matter?

The death of Mr. Floyd has led some politicians and activists to advocate for the defunding of police. Who would suffer most from that? Would untrained citizens wielding pistols and rifles, and practicing vigilantism as a substitute for police protection, really better protect civil rights and shield black lives?

Many activists seem curiously uninterested in existing urban crime and the horrifying homicide totals published every weekend. Do those black lives matter?

What about the barriers to the advancement of blacks in our society? The broken homes that result from the society’s destruction of families? The bad public schools that special interests use their power to protect? Do those black lives matter?

The irony is that tougher conditions for urban black Americans as the result of the riots would provide demagogues with the opportunity to blame it all on the American people, supposedly because of their intractable racism and their constitutional form of government. The worse that things get for African Americans, the more readily these will be blamed.

It is hard to believe that black lives truly matter to anyone seeking such terrible ends.

History shows that fomenting hatred and division has led America down some very dark paths. Peace, charity, mutual respect and the rule of law are the only way forward.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

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