racism doesn’t cause police shootings

There is no longer any question as to whether racism is the primary cause of police shootings. Enough data has at this point been amassed to know for certain: It’s not. Furthermore, there is no longer any question as to whether racism is the best explanation for why African Americans are killed more often than whites by police. Enough data has at this point been amassed to know for certain: It’s not.

Police shootings are caused by a lot of things: armed suspects, incompetent cops, unarmed suspects who appear armed, trigger happy cops, suspects in the commission of a violent crime, suicide by cop, poor lighting, inadequate training, etc. Similarly, the demographic gaps in who gets shot by police are caused by a lot of things, but the best explanation is that group differences in violent crime rate results in group differences in exposer to police, as well as group differences in how often officers are exposed to individuals more likely to be armed or aggressive towards cops. These are what the facts say. They are empirical observations supported by loads of data.

Many who read this who believe racism explains why cops shoot black people more often than white people will retort that officers often fail to deescalate. Sure, but a failure to deescalate is not racism. Then they will reply by showing videos of white people, in similar situations to infamous videos of blacks getting killed, being subdued rather than shot. Fair enough. I’ll reply by showing other videos of white people in similar situations actually getting shot. Or maybe I’ll reply by showing black people in similar situations being apprehended.

Then, someone will point out that officers are often biased. Understandable. But the evidence for officer bias is hardly conclusive. Not to mention, bias is actually a weak predictor of human behavior in the real world. In fact, the implicit association test (IAT), the gold standard for bias measurement, has come under fire as being an unreliable instrument that doesn’t actually do what its biggest proponents say it does. Folks will still claim bias, and that’s fine. But there is far more evidence for the explanations I’ve provided above than there is for bias.

Finally, someone will jump in and say that “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” explain the gaps. But notice the progression here, from empirically testable to unfalsifiable. Of course, systemic racism might in some way be a factor, but at some point we have to prove it. Otherwise, we are just “believing” it’s so. But just believing doesn’t actually make it so, and since it’s hard to know for sure how systemic racism exactly effects officer behavior, we can only make general claims. Such as, for example, that changing certain laws or relaxing our enforcement of specific statutes might reduce some types of law enforcement interactions that are at risk of turning deadly. All that’s possible. But we can’t say for certain anything beyond mere conjecture.

For the time being though, the best explanation we have for why officers shoot blacks more often than whites, at least at the time of the incident, does not include racism. Our country would do well to move beyond thinking otherwise.