Tipping the Scales of Justice

In the simmering heat of the Nevada desert, a group of armed white men pointed assault rifles at Las Vegas police officers and 24 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers. In the suburbs of St. Louis, a young African-American man was stopped by a police officer for allegedly jaywalking. In Beavercreek, Ohio, a man called the police on a young African-American man handling a BB gun in Wal-Mart.

Cliven Bundy is currently on the campaign trail, supporting candidates of the American Independent Party. His numerous offenses remain unpunished. Michael Brown and John Crawford III are dead, and a grand jury has declined to indict the officers involved in Crawford’s killing. The circumstances surrounding the Bundy standoff and the police shootings of Brown and Crawford share few parallels. It is also difficult to confidently ascertain if race played any role. But whether or not these incidents were affected by the race of those involved, opinion of them, and law enforcement in general, rests largely along racial lines.

According to a survey by Pew, 80% of African Americans believe the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown warrants discussion about race, while 47% of whites believe race is getting more attention than it should. In even starker contrast, only 18% of African Americans express confidence in the Ferguson investigations, compared to more than half (52%) of whites. A similar discrepancy was found in Pew polling of African Americans and whites after the George Zimmerman trial. While 78% of African Americans believed the trial raised important racial issues, 60% of whites said the case was getting more attention than it deserved. And though 86% of black respondents expressed dissatisfaction at Zimmerman’s acquittal, only 30% of whites shared that sentiment.

Supporters of police officer Darren Wilson rally in south St. Louis.
Supporters of police officer Darren Wilson rally in south St. Louis. Source: stltoday.com, August 2014

These discrepancies of opinion between whites and African-Americans point to a deeper issue of a fundamental distrust many whites have of other races. The 2012 Associated Press Racial Attitudes Survey found that only 17% of respondents believed that the word “law-abiding” described African Americans very well, while 10% believed not at all. Whites, on the other hand, fared considerably better: 25% and 4%, respectively. Similar differences in opinion existed for violent tendencies, intelligence at school, responsibility, and work ethic. If certain whites believe that African-Americans are less likely to follow the law, and are less responsible, less fastidious, less peaceful, and less intelligent, they are also less likely to believe African-Americans’ claims of unfair treatment by the law. They would also be more inclined to view shootings like the one in Ferguson as justified.

This mistrust manifests in many ways. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 70% of African-Americans believe they are treated less fairly than whites by police. In contrast, only 37% of whites believe African-Americans are treated less fairly by police. This divide also applies to the judicial process. While 68% of African-Americans believe they are treated less fairly than whites by the courts, a mere 27% percent of whites concur. In fact, a recent study demonstrates that whites may actually be perpetuating this unfairness. Two experiments by Stanford University psychology professors Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found that groups were less likely to support the repeal of the California three-strikes law and New York’s stop-and-frisk program if they had seen a prison video showing a higher number of African-American inmates, even though they agreed the laws were draconian. As the study reports, “exposure to extreme racial disparities, then, can lead people to support the very policies that produce those disparities, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.”

The cycle is also maintained by differences in financial resources. The defense fund of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, raised more than $400,000 dollars before closing at the end of August. The Michael Brown Memorial Fund is nearly $100,000 dollars behind and remains open. George Zimmerman’s defense fund procured a similar amount, and had outraised the Trayvon Martin Foundation by nearly $100,000 as of May 2012. Again, these figures are not evidence of racism. But when the KKK contributes to Darren Wilson and the comments section of his fundraising campaign page contains language like “entitled primitive savages,” ignoring race, as many in the media have requested, is to neglect a critical element of Michael Brown’s, John Crawford’s, and others’ stories.

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Comments from supporters of Darren Wilson on his GoFundMe page, collected by Jon Hendren. Source: motherjones.com

Officers in Wilson’s legal situation are rarely convicted. Some whites’ dramatically different interactions with police officers and their mistrust of African Americans may cause white jurors to sympathize with law enforcement officials and favor their accounts of events. A 2012 study by Duke University found that all white juries convict African-Americans 16% more often than whites, and that this imbalance nearly disappeared when a single African-American was a member of the jury. As Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson noted to Talking Points Memo, “Reasonableness is through the eyes of your life experiences, and of course, that includes things like race… A black member of the community might see police actions differently than a white member of the community because they have a different experience with the police.” Police officers are also held to a different standard than the general public. The 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor ruled that evaluation of the actions of law enforcement must include “an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.” Essentially, the evidence needed to convict law enforcement must be stronger than the evidence needed to convict the general public because of the unique circumstances police officers often face.

This higher standard necessary for officer convictions and white bias leads to a dramatically low conviction rate for officer-involved shootings. The NAACP found that between 2004 and 2008, 37 out of 45 people shot in officer-involved shootings in Oakland were black, and none of the 45 were white. No officers were charged, even though 40% of the Oakland suspects were unarmed. The NYPD found similar figures in New York, with blacks being wounded and killed by law enforcement at a much higher rate than Hispanics and whites. Nationally, the numbers are much harder to discern. However, a study in the American Journal of Public Health examined deaths from “legal interventions” (interactions with police) from 1979 to 1997 and discovered that African Americans were three times more likely to die from encounters with law enforcement than whites. And a recent investigation by ProPublica found that black males aged 15 to 19 were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites in the same age group.

The available data does not bode well for black men’s future African American interactions with police, nor for the outcome of any potential trials regarding Ferguson or Beavercreek. Darren Wilson and officers involved in future incidents are likely to walk free. Such outcomes are likely to further entrench African American’s negative opinions of police while fortifying whites’ positive ones. Until this mistrust is addressed, the problem of white skepticism towards the African American experience will persist, and young black men like Michael Brown and John Crawford will continue to die at the hands of law enforcement, their lives tragically cut short by a biased fear deeply embedded in America’s legal system. And as the Wednesday shooting of Vonderrit Myers shows, these incidents will be all too common.

Featured Image Source: nbcnews.com, Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Aug. 11, 2014