clock menu more-arrow no yes

What does race have to do with the Ferguson protests?

The shooting of Michael Brown, like so many similar incidents between police and unarmed black men, renewed conversations about racism in the American justice system and, more specifically to Ferguson, deep-rooted racial disparities in local government and law enforcement.

To the majority-black community in Ferguson, Brown’s death was seen as something that could happen to them or their own sons. Darnell Hunt, an expert on race relations and civil unrest, compared the situation to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012: “Not only was this something that affected people across the country, but other people realized that the fate of Trayvon was possibly the fate of their own sons.”

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: “One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week.”

Some researchers have suggested that subconscious racial biases are behind the disparities. Studies show officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

Part of this may have been reflected by testimony from Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown. In testimony to the grand jury, Wilson invoked — perhaps inadvertently — racial stereotypes by characterizing Brown as an unstoppable, violent brute who could kill him in one punch, even though Wilson’s injuries weren’t severe.

The racial disparities in the criminal justice system go beyond police use of force. Black people are much more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they’re not more likely to use drugs or sell them. And black inmates make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population.

drug use and arrests Joe Posner/Vox

The perceived overreactions by police against predominantly black men and other disparities have driven many in minority communities to distrust and fear law enforcement — out of concern that they or their sons could be the next victims.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.