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Why conservative pundits and politicians are attacking Beyoncé

Many Americans watched Beyoncé's Super Bowl halftime show in awe of its technical marvel and the musician's obvious talent. As Vox's Alex Abad-Santos put it, the show was "stunning."

But some conservatives saw political undertones in her show — and they're not happy about it.

The big point of contention: In Sunday night's performance, Beyoncé's dancers wore attire that, according to Entertainment Weekly, "paid tribute to the Black Panthers and, by extension, the Black Lives Matter movement that Beyoncé sings about on the new cut."

The live performance followed a new music video by the pop superstar for "Formation." The video shows a young black boy standing with his hands up against a row of police officers — a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested racial disparities in the criminal justice system and particularly police use of force. And it ends with a police car drowning in rising waters — a callback to Hurricane Katrina and systemic neglect and abuse of the black community in New Orleans.

Several conservative pundits and lawmakers took issue with the video and particularly the Super Bowl show. In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, said, in the video above from Media Matters:

I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive. And what we should be doing in the African-American community, and all communities, is build up respect for police officers. And focus on the fact that when something does go wrong, OK. We'll work on that. But the vast majority of police officers risk their lives to keep us safe.

US Rep. Peter King also posted a Facebook message, which got thousands of shares, in which he criticized the Super Bowl show and video as "just one more example of how acceptable it has become to be anti-police when it is the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line for all of us and deserve our strong support":

Beyoncé may be a gifted entertainer but no one should really care what she thinks about any serious issue confronting...

Posted by Peter King on Monday, February 8, 2016

From the outside, it might seem strange that conservative pundits and politicians are criticizing a musician. What they're really going after, however, is not Beyoncé but the movement she paid homage to. They strongly believe that the Black Lives Matter movement, which Beyoncé seemingly supported through her art, has wrongly characterized police as racist over the past couple of years — and, as a result, potentially endangered the public and cops.

Conservatives say other factors beyond racism explain racial disparities in policing

There are, unquestionably, racial disparities all throughout the criminal justice system — and that includes police use of force.

For example, an analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind found 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 because 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

Conservatives, generally, do not deny these disparities. Instead, they argue that the disparities are not a result of police wrongdoing but of systemic problems in minority communities, where crime and poverty are higher.

Conservative commentator Heather Mac Donald recently made this argument in the Marshall Project, while retelling the story of an innocent black man who was shot by an officer last year:

Unfortunately, innocent blacks like the elderly Mount Vernon man probably do face a higher chance of getting shot by stray police fire than innocent whites. But that is because violent crime in their neighborhoods is so much higher. The per capita shooting rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with its legacy of poverty and crime, is 81 times higher than in working-class Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a few miles away, according to the New York Police Department. This exponentially higher rate of gun violence means that the police will be much more intensively deployed in Brownsville, trying to protect innocent residents and gangbangers alike from shootings. If the police are forced to open fire, in rare instances a police bullet will go astray and hit a bystander. That is tragic, but that innocent's chance of getting shot by the police is dwarfed by his chance of getting shot by criminals.

Conservatives broadly believe that this applies to all shootings, not just ones that kill innocent bystanders. Since black communities are more likely to have higher crime, and police are more likely to be deployed in these communities as a result, officers are more often than not going to shoot a black person, whether that person is innocent or not. That doesn't reflect racism, in conservatives' views, but rather good police work in which cops are deployed to dangerous areas and sometimes defend themselves from violent criminals.

So when critics claim police are racially biased, conservatives worry that good police work will be admonished, which could potentially lead cops to back off good practices — and be less able to protect the public.

In fact, conservative defenders of police worry that Black Lives Matter's criticisms of police have already endangered the public. They call it the "Ferguson effect": the idea that protests against excessive use of force by police has demoralized police officers and emboldened criminals, leading to more crime.

As evidence, supporters of the Ferguson effect theory point to crime statistics from 2015, which showed a spike in violent crime rates across the US.

(Although criminologists have warned that it's far too early to know what the cause of the spike is. After all, we still don't fully know why crime declined in the past couple of decades — there are literally dozens of theories for why, and none is wholly accepted by experts as a satisfactory explanation. So it's possible other factors are contributing to the crime rise, some of which we may not even know exist yet.)

The worry with Beyoncé in particular, then, is that her music and her widely televised show at the Super Bowl will give more credibility to a dangerous criticism of police.

Still, there's reason to believe that the Black Lives Matter movement — and Beyoncé — are at least partially right about racial disparities in the criminal justice system: The research has found evidence time and time again of some racial bias.

Police do often hold some biases against black people

child black lives matter Win McNamee/Getty Images

Crime doesn't explain all the racial disparities in the justice system. A 2015 look at the research by the Sentencing Project, for example, concluded that throughout various time periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons. So other factors were behind as much as 39 percent of the disparate rates of imprisonment for black people.

One of those possible factors: implicit bias, which is subconscious bias that drives people — including cops — to treat racial minorities differently.

As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones with a history of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.

"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a University of California Los Angeles researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."

Another study found people tend to associate what the authors call "black-sounding names," like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do "white-sounding names," like Connor and Garrett.

These biases may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that 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 even 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."

All this research suggests that Black Lives Matter is onto something: While some of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system are explained by higher crime rates in black communities, at least some of it could be explained by real racial bias. So now black superstars like Beyoncé are taking a stand — to the ire of conservative critics.

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