We’re Learning More About the Relationships Between Race, Class, and Police Brutality

A new paper finds that for white Americans, socioeconomic status is a major determining factor in susceptibility to fatal police violence, while for black Americans, class is critical but not decisive. The findings underscore the need to build a movement that stands against both racist police brutality and brutal class stratification.

New York Police Department officers on the streets of New York City. shootingbrooklyn / Flickr

Right-wing author and commentator Heather Mac Donald’s book The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe was published in 2016, between the first and second waves of Black Lives Matter protests. In it, Mac Donald points to both crime statistics showing high reported rates of black people committing crimes and high numbers of white victims of police killings in order to argue that there is no epidemic of unjustified and disproportionate police violence against black Americans. Mac Donald denounces the Black Lives Matter movement as a “fraud” and a “dangerous distraction.”

While the Heritage Foundation, the flagship right-wing think tank, found Mac Donald’s book too extreme in places, her work has made an impression on the Right. Charlie Kirk, the founder of the right-wing youth organization Turning Point USA, acknowledged her by name this month in a shaky selfie video recorded in the driver’s seat of his car. “Was George Floyd wrongly killed? Yes. Is it a trend? No,” Kirk said. He concluded his heated monologue, “Support facts. Support data. Support our country. And support police.”

In The War On Cops, Mac Donald even takes pains to defend Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who murdered Michael Brown, bemoaning the “anti-Wilson juggernaut” that couldn’t be stopped and lamenting that anti-police rhetoric will “heighten the chances of more Michael Browns attacking officers and getting shot themselves.” But her hostile stance toward victims of police violence softens conspicuously in one section. She writes:

The persistent belief that we are living through an epidemic of racially biased police shootings is a creation of selective reporting. In 2015 … the white victims of fatal police shootings included a 50-year-old suspect in a domestic assault in Tuscaloosa, Ala., who ran at the officer with a spoon; a 28-year-old driver in Des Moines, Iowa, who exited his car and walked quickly toward an officer after a car chase; and a 21-year-old suspect in a grocery-store robbery in Akron, Ohio, who had escaped on a bike and who did not remove his hand from his waistband when ordered to do so. Had any of these victims been black, the media and activists would probably have jumped on their stories and added their names to the roster of victims of police racism. Instead, because they are white, they are unknown.

Mac Donald only recounts these appalling stories to further harden her reader against the Black Lives Matter movement. But in the process, and in a deeply reactionary book otherwise entirely devoted to justifying and underscoring the necessity of racist police violence, she inadvertently touches on a real phenomenon: large numbers of white Americans are also killed by police officers every year, unarmed and otherwise. According to a paper published today by the People’s Policy Project, Justin Feldman’s “Police Killings In The U.S.,” of the 6,451 police killings recorded between January 2015 and the present, 3,353 of the individuals killed were white, 1,746 were black, and 1,152 were Latino.

It’s important to stress that while more white Americans are killed by police in sheer numbers, white people also make up a majority of the US population and are significantly less likely to be killed by police than black people. Feldman finds that “whites had the lowest overall rate of police killings (3.3 per million) followed by Latinos (3.5 per million). The rate of police killings for the black population was more than double that of whites: 7.9 per million.”

Outside the Right’s reactionary echo chamber, this reality is well known. But Feldman’s paper also introduces a new analytical category, pairing data on police killings with census tract poverty data to estimate the likely socioeconomic status of the deceased. This method is imprecise, but it’s a step forward in the general body of research on police killings. Class is rarely accounted for in data analyses of fatal police violence, and its inclusion deepens our understanding of who is susceptible to it, across racial lines.

Feldman found that “the rate of police killings increased as census tract poverty increased,” with the level of police killings in the highest-poverty quintile more than three times that of the lowest-poverty quintile. In layman’s terms, you’re overall more likely to be killed by a police officer if you’re working-class or poor. Given this country’s long and continuing history of intense racial oppression, it’s little surprise that black and Latino people are more likely to live in high-poverty areas than white people: Feldman observes that “median census tract poverty was 9.4% for whites compared to 18.7% for black and 16.8% of Latino individuals.”

The paper then examines the relationship between poverty quintile and police killings across racial demographics. What Feldman finds is notable: the correlation between poverty and susceptibility to fatal police violence that exists for white people is much stronger than for black and Latino people. In other words, white people who live in the poorest neighborhoods are at high risk of getting killed by a police officer, but black people are at high risk everywhere.

Feldman concludes by entertaining “a counterfactual scenario in which the distribution of poverty quintiles among black people is equal to that of whites” and found that black people would still be killed by police at much higher rates than white people. The same was not true for Latinos according to his analysis — if they had roughly the same wealth distribution as whites, the rates of death by police would look similar.

We can extrapolate two things from this study. First, a lot of white Americans are killed by police, and class plays a major role in determining which white people are at risk of fatal police violence. Second, while class also accounts in large part for people of color’s susceptibility to fatal police violence, it doesn’t account for the massively disproportionate rates of police killings of black people in particular — only 28 percent.

Conservatives like Heather Mac Donald want you to think that because cops also kill white people, this means there’s nothing wrong with policing in America — that Black Lives Matter is built on a lie and should be wholly disregarded, the practices of the police defended and their honor restored. They’re wrong.

Black Lives Matter hinges on a verifiable truth about black people’s unique susceptibility to police violence. If the movement succeeds in making American police less intrusive, overbearing, and violent, black Americans will disproportionately benefit. But so too will large numbers of Latinos and poor and working-class white people — not just the hundreds who are killed by police every year but also the millions who are incarcerated, on probation or parole, weighed down by their criminal record, have family behind bars, or are otherwise tethered to our unconscionable criminal justice system.

Feldman’s study provides all the more reason to continue building a multiracial working-class mass movement that stands in opposition to both racist police brutality and brutal class stratification. To borrow from Charlie Kirk: Support facts. Support data. Support the protests against police violence. And support the struggle to eliminate the racial and economic inequality that factor so heavily in its distribution.