When looking at the images of protests and violence in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, Americans should consider one possibility: It could happen in your town.
It’s clear from the protests that have escalated into violence this week that Charlotte was a powder keg, the killing of Scott just a spark. It’s tempting to ask: Why Charlotte? Why now?
Charlotte does have some unique issues — the Charlotte area ranked last in an analysis of 50 metropolitan areas for social mobility, and the segregation of Charlotte’s schools remains a very big local issue.
But at their core, the Charlotte protests are about the vast racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system more broadly. Yet based on the data, Charlotte isn’t a huge outlier when it comes to policing disparities. The city is more a microcosm of race and policing in America.
"What’s happening in Charlotte is also happening elsewhere. It’s very connected to what was happening in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in other places that erupted or had these spasms of protests and even rioting in response to both local and national issues," Brenda Tindal, a historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, said. "It’s not something that’s just simply particular to Charlotte, but it’s something that’s happening on a national scale."
The lesson from Charlotte, then, may be not that the city by itself has unique issues to deal with but that in America, just about any city can explode into protests — and worse — if a police shooting goes wrong.
Yes, Charlotte and North Carolina have big racial disparities in policing
Consider how people are perhaps most likely to interact with police: traffic stops.
Studies have found that there are big racial disparities in traffic stops in Charlotte and North Carolina as a whole.
A 2015 study by a research team at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that although black people make up about 35 percent of the city’s population, they make up nearly 50 percent of people stopped by the police in the city from 2002 through 2013. And black drivers were more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched, with young black men most likely to be searched by the police during a stop.
These findings appear to hold up statewide. A recent study, by a Stanford University team, concluded that police officers in North Carolina have a lower threshold for stopping and searching black people than they do for white people:
In nearly every one of the 100 [police] departments we consider, we find that black and Hispanic drivers are subject to a lower search threshold than whites, suggestive of discrimination against these groups. In many departments, we find the disparity is quite large, with the threshold for searching minorities 10 or even 20 percentage points lower than for searching whites. For Asians, in contrast, the inferred search thresholds are generally in line with those of whites, indicating an absence of discrimination against Asians in search decisions.
According to the study, if white and black drivers in North Carolina were held to the same standard, there would have been more than 30,000 fewer searches of black drivers — or one-third of searches of black drivers — over the six years in the data set.
But America in general has major racial disparities in policing, too
But it’s not just North Carolina. These statistics are also present on a broader national scale. It’s how the phrase "driving while black" came to be — the disparity is so widely known that it’s earned its own derisive moniker.
For example, in 2013, a Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis found that 12.8 percent of black drivers reported being pulled over in 2011, while 9.8 percent of white drivers and 10.4 percent of Hispanic drivers did. And once again, police were more than twice as likely to search black drivers: About 6.3 percent of all black drivers were stopped and searched, compared with 6.6 percent of Hispanic drivers and 2.3 percent of white drivers.
At the same time, multiple studies and investigations have found that even as police are more likely to search black and Hispanic people than their white peers, black and Hispanic drivers are less likely to turn up contraband. That suggests that cops are searching too many minority drivers, picking up a lot of innocent people along the way.
Coupled with the long, long history of governments using police to enforce slavery and segregation, these are the kinds of real-life experiences and statistics that have caused widespread distrust in the police among black communities.
That’s why when police in Charlotte insist Scott was armed with a gun and that the gun was found at the scene of the shooting, many black people just don’t believe it — and indeed, the city’s police chief acknowledged that the video evidence doesn’t prove Scott aimed his gun at officers. Black people have been mistreated and abused by police for years, so who’s to say similar mistreatment and abuse wasn’t behind the Scott shooting as well?
The deep distrust has led some criminal justice and policing experts to argue that, above all else, police need to admit to centuries of wrongdoing before community-police relations can heal.
As criminologist David Kennedy of John Jay College recently told me:
I don’t think we’re going to be able to build new relationships successfully between black communities and the police until the police say, "We recognize these facts — whether we were there or not, whether we were around during slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, attacks on the civil rights movement, or whether it’s more recent things that we have done that you have found disrespectful and untoward, like zero-tolerance policing and high levels of stop and frisk. We have to recognize and acknowledge that very often we have not treated you well. We’re going to go out of our way to respect your experience and your views, and we’re going to work together to figure out how to do those things differently."
This isn’t a Charlotte problem or a North Carolina problem; it’s an American problem. And as long as governments fail to take this problem seriously, just about any city can see the kind of protests and violence Charlotte has seen this week. All it takes is one shooting for distrust in the police to suddenly boil over.