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Why people are angry over a Washington Post fact check about police shootings

The article argued that there were “virtually no shootings of unarmed black children” in recent years.

A man protests the police shooting of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year old. Rice was killed on November 22, 2014.
A man protests the police shooting of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year old. Rice was killed on November 22, 2014.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat currently campaigning for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in Texas, attracted national attention when he offered a full-throated defense of the NFL kneeling protests earlier this month. But this week, the politician’s comments sparked a separate debate within the media about the ways police shootings affect black children.

During a campaign town hall on August 10, a voter asked O’Rourke if he thought NFL players’ protests against police violence and racial inequality were disrespectful.

O’Rourke gave a lengthy response, one that not only addressed the protests themselves but also reflected on the history of the civil rights movement. It was the final portion of his statement, though, that attracted the most attention.

From O’Rourke:

Peaceful, nonviolent protests, including taking a knee at a football game to point out that Black men, unarmed; Black teenagers, unarmed; and Black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability and without justice.

And this problem — as grave as it is — is not gonna fix itself, and they’re frustrated, frankly, with people like me and those in positions of public trust and power who have been unable to resolve this or bring justice for what has been done and to stop it from continuing to happen in this country. And so nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem and ensure that we fix it. That is why they’re doing it, and I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, anyplace.

Cruz criticized O’Rourke’s statements, calling the “nothing more American” remark unpatriotic and disrespectful to the military. A similar argument has been used heavily by President Donald Trump, who has regularly argued that NFL players protesting racial injustice are disrespecting America, the national anthem, and the flag.

Cruz’s comments drew more attention to O’Rourke’s initial remarks. On August 21, NowThis News tweeted out an edited clip of O’Rourke’s comments, which quickly went viral. Since that post went up, it has been tweeted by a number of celebrities, including Colin Kaepernick, who originated the NFL kneeling protest in 2016. The NowThis News clip has been viewed some 44 million times since being posted last week, Vanity Fair reports.

For the most part, discussion of O’Rourke’s comments has largely centered on what he said about the NFL protests. But on Thursday, the Washington Post took the discussion of O’Rourke’s remarks in a different direction when it published a piece fact-checking his claim about black children being shot by police, concluding that “there have been virtually no shootings of unarmed black children by police in the past five years.”

The post was swiftly met with backlash, with critics noting that black children like Tamir Rice have been killed in police shootings. Defenders of the article meanwhile, like Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, argued that the core claims of the Washington Post analysis were correct.

It’s sparked a debate that gets at something much deeper than the single claim the Washington Post set out to verify, calling attention to the ways police shootings can have damaging effects on black communities in ways that go beyond raw numbers.

The Washington Post has been criticized for its fact check

Prompted by a reader, the August 30 Washington Post fact check, written by Glenn Kessler, focuses solely on one part of O’Rourke’s comments, the line that “black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement.”

To determine the accuracy of that statement, Kessler turned to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, which tracks fatal police shootings across the country each year. Drawing a distinction between black children and teenagers (the Washington Post database lumps both into an under 18 category), Kessler notes that based on the database, no unarmed children had been killed by police between 2015 and this month. Kessler acknowledged the 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a police officer, but noted that because he was holding a toy gun, the database did not count his death as being unarmed.

Kessler also acknowledged the police fatalities of unarmed black teenagers — including Jordan Edwards, Antwon Rose, and David Joseph — in recent years, but concluded that unarmed black teenagers killed by police ultimately “represent a small set” of those killed by police. He adds that “six teenagers and three children who were white or Hispanic — and unarmed — were fatally shot in the 2015-2018 time period.”

“There have been virtually no shootings of unarmed black children by police in the past five years,” Kessler concluded.

He also evaluated O’Rourke’s claim from a different angle, this time looking into whether unarmed black children are more likely to face violence beyond police shootings. Looking at homicides in America’s 50 largest cities, Kessler cited WaPo data that found that black children and teenagers accounted for some 70 percent of those killed since 2007. Based on those numbers, Kessler noted that this level of violence “would qualify as a frightening level.”

The piece was immediately challenged by other outlets. Over at Splinter, Katherine Krueger argues that Kessler’s article is “what happens when you’re straining so hard to uphold some misplaced standard of ‘objectivity’ and are so horned up about delineating fact from fiction that you lose any sense of moral clarity.” On Twitter, commenters noted that the post itself was based on somewhat shaky footing, arguing that the act of determining if children’s deaths at the hands of police reached a “frightening level” was completely subjective.

Later on Thursday, Kevin Drum, an opinion writer for Mother Jones, mounted a defense of Kessler’s piece. Pointing to a recent paper on fatal police shootings in 2014 and 2015 published by the Public Administration Review, Drum noted that researchers found an incredibly small number of unarmed deaths at the hands of police in general.

“Are unarmed children being gunned down by police at harrowing levels? Obviously not, if this data is correct,” Drum noted.

This debate is about more than the number of black children killed in police shootings

For the most part, this debate has mostly played out online, focusing on a largely subjective question. After all, a “frightening level” of violence to one person might not mean the same thing to another. And while the reader who emailed Kessler was particularly curious about black children killed by police, one could also look at O’Rourke’s comments and argue that he was speaking about police violence against black people as a whole, a perspective that would make this entire debate seem like a lot of needless hair-splitting.

Focusing on the exact number of black youth killed by police can miss important context and make it much easier to dismiss arguments about policing and the ways it affects black children, an omission that is likely fueling some of the frustrations about Kessler’s piece.

It’s worth noting here that discussions of police shootings and children and teens have largely focused on high-profile cases, including those of Rice, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Laquan McDonald in Chicago; and more recent cases like Edwards and Rose. Not all of these cases were included in Kessler’s assessment. McDonald, for example, would likely be classified as “armed” in the Post’s database because he had a knife when he was shot 16 times while walking away from a Chicago police officer in 2014.

These incidents have deepened black Americans’ distrust of police, and have affected the ways black youth interact with law enforcement. While the Washington Post article is meant to be a straight fact check, it doesn’t grapple with the ways police shootings can disrupt lives and affect a community, making its focus on the raw numbers of police shootings of unarmed children come off as dismissive.

Black children are still exposed to violence that their peers are less likely to face. Research has shown that starting in childhood, black people are subjected to heightened scrutiny and suspicion. In 2014, researcher Phillip Goff found that by the age of 10, black boys begin to be seen as less innocent than their white peers. And a Georgetown study released in 2017 found that black girls as young as 5 are already perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls of the same age. And it’s likely that these beliefs play a role in police violence against black children, like when an 11-year-old girl suspected of shoplifting in a grocery store was struck by a police Taser earlier this month.

Violence against black children can’t be separated from policing issues that affect black adults and black communities. In the years since Mike Brown’s shooting in Ferguson sparked a national discussion about racial disparities in policing, there have been countless examples of the reasons black communities often struggle to trust law enforcement. They include not only police shootings and brutality but also racial profiling, unnecessary police stops and searches, racially disproportionate arrests, and systems of fines or even outright theft that have plundered the wealth of black residents.

Ultimately, these are some of the very disparities highlighted by the NFL protests that O’Rourke spoke about this month. And that focus shouldn’t be sidetracked by discussions that seek to determine exactly what level of police violence against black children is or isn’t “frightening.”