But even his weakest claims are misleading on three grounds. First, the fact that there are also income disparities in police brutality does not negate the existence of racial disparities. The data Guastella deploys is highly aggregated and not individual-specific—it doesn’t measure personal outcomes and characteristics. He points to a single study in the American Journal of Public Health whose basic units are census tracts (of which there are approximately 74,000 across the US) which were then divided into quintiles based on residents’ incomes. It turns out, he tells us, that “a person in the poorest quintile of census tracts is 3.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than a person in the wealthiest quintile.” This says nothing about the actual wealth or poverty of individuals killed, though it seems fair to infer that police kill poor people more often than wealthier folks.
The problem is that the same study actually finds
police-related death rates were highest in neighborhoods with the greatest concentrations of low-income residents (vs high-income residents) and residents of color (vs non-Hispanic White residents). For non-Hispanic Blacks, however, the risk was greater in the quintile of neighborhoods with the highest concentration of non-Hispanic White residents than in certain neighborhoods with relatively higher concentrations of residents of color.
So neighborhoods that are both poor and predominantly non-white see the most police killings, but Black people in particular experience more murders by police when they live in the income swath of neighborhoods that are predominantly white.
How does any of this negate racial bias? It doesn’t.
Second, even if we were to grant that officers’ racial biases are not the main driver of lethal targeting (which we really shouldn’t) and that poverty instead does all the explanatory work, we might also ask: how did it come to be that far greater shares of Black people than white people are poor?
It hardly bears repeating that Black people in the US have been systematically inhibited from accruing wealth, and industrial decline and outright racial exclusion have compounded such deficits.3See, for example, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). These processes were both economic and racial-political and were quickly followed by a revolution in law enforcement that sent armies of cops into Black communities, increasing contact and the likelihood of victimization.
So even if cops were uniformly “colorblind”–which they of course are not–these structural factors would go a long way toward explaining heightened Black victimhood. This is structural and institutional racism pure and simple. Guastella seems completely unaware of this, despite his being a graduate student in sociology.
Third, he references three studies in defense of his claim that “racial disparities in police killings are greatly diminished.” Of these, none convincingly corroborate his claims, and one of them has been widely criticized with even its own authors requesting retraction. The first of these papers is by Roland G. Fryer (2018) and the second is by David J. Johnson et al. (2019).
Fryer’s paper uses four non-compatible datasets, two of which don’t measure police lethality but do reveal statistically significant differences by race in non-lethal police brutalization:
[A]s the intensity of force increases…racial difference remains surprisingly constant…These are rare events. Yet, the results indicate that they are significantly more rare [sic] for whites than blacks.”
The third dataset only includes “incidents in which an officer discharges his weapon at civilians” and thus does not provide the necessary denominator: all police interactions grouped by civilians’ race. Without this information, we cannot possibly assess racial bias in the application of deadly force.