The question mostly applies to America, but my own experience is with the UK.

In Britain it is often said that a black person is twice as likely to die in police custody as a white person.

That emerges from a bald statistic of the number of such black deaths as there are white deaths as a percentage of their respective population sizes.

However it is also a fact that a black person (in both US and UK) is far more likely to be poor than a white person.

So is it simply the case that the disadvantage, so far as police tactics are concerned, is not essentially about skin colour but about being poor? Does anyone have succinct access to statistics which will help resolve this conundrum?

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    Perhaps interesting to note that Ellen Degeneres posted a tweet about how this is part of an issue of people of color, and then deleted it after receiving blowback for not emphasizing it as a black issue. That's not the entire history of that event, but it's part of it, and I couldn't help but feel it was kind of a weird reaction to the post. But still, might be taken as a potential indicator that at the popular level it's taken as more of a black issue specifically. – zibadawa timmy Jun 7 '20 at 23:43
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    It is certainly true that police brutality affects black people more than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. However, that does not mean that it does not affect other people of color more than European-Americans. Last I checked, I believe unarmed Hispanic people are around 50% more likely to be killed - quite different from 400% for African-Americans, but not a trivial difference. There have certainly been a few high-profile cases there as well: a Latino man killed while supposedly reaching for a hammer, or a Chinese-American man killed by a security guard. – Obie 2.0 Jun 8 '20 at 0:13
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    Actually, now that I think about it, Native Americans (many but not all of whom identify as people of color) are disproportionately targeted by police brutality at rates similar to, or according to some estimates, higher than black Americans. Since they constitute a much smaller percentage of the population, they do not show up much in the statistics. But still, more evidence that while African-Americans may bear the brunt of police violence against people of color, they are definitely not its only targets. – Obie 2.0 Jun 8 '20 at 0:21
  • @Obie2.0 Well, in this case it might be a stretch to say the Minneapolis police were being oppressive because of race or affluence. They appear to be oppressive and excessively violent on an equal-opportunity basis (read some of the links in the footnotes there - some of them appear to document some serious training issues with the Minneapolis police...) And no, my calling them "equal opportunity" is not a compliment here at all - I'm sarcastically pointing out the fundamentally wrong behavior seems to be a widespread issue there... – Just Me Jun 8 '20 at 23:33
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    @JustMe - Someone should tell that to the police who are arresting African American and Native American Minneapolis residents at 9 times the rate of their European American counterparts. – Obie 2.0 Jun 8 '20 at 23:41

The evidence suggests that the death of George Floyd both represents and is an instance of the oppression of black people in the United States, in the sense of the existence of both prejudice and disparate negative outcomes. This does not by any means rule out a possible effect of apparent wealth.

First, as noted in another answer, African-Americans are only around twice as likely to be below the poverty line as European-Americans. However, data from 2014 suggest that African-Americans are five times as likely to be killed by police as European-Americans (not the most unbiased source, but I have seen the data elsewhere). Although I have not tested for significance, this would seem to indicate that poverty alone cannot explain higher rates of police killings of black Americans. There is a strong component of racial bias as well. Some research has also found that the race of a hypothetical target can influence the likelihood that subjects will employ force in laboratory settings, with them being more likely to use force against black targets.

In addition, there are studies that have found a correlation between the levels of racism in a state and the rate of police shootings of unarmed victims.

Researchers then created an index of structural racism at the state level, which they believe is the first of its kind. Looking at measures of black-white residential segregation and disparities in economic status employment status, educational attainment and incarceration rates, the index was cross-referenced with data on police shootings.

For every 10-point increase in the state racism index, researchers say they saw a 24 percent increase in the ratio of police shootings of unarmed victims.

Obviously, correlation is not causation, but this is telling. Overall, the evidence seems clear that to the extent that Floyd's death represents the disproportionate deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, it represents racial disparities, not just economic disparities.

Further, we should consider the individual case, not just statistics. The numbers mentioned previously are sufficiently striking that one might reasonably be inclined to suppose race played a role in a randomly selected shooting of an unarmed black victim (or even an armed black victim). In the specific case of George Floyd, the officer who killed him had a history of excessive use of force, particularly against black suspects. Several people interviewed who had known said that they viewed him as prejudiced against black people. For instance, the owner of a nightclub with a primarily Latino clientele said that he was comfortable with the usual crowd, but that when black clients would come in, he had a propensity to get violent. In short, the officer who killed Floyd seems to have been bigoted and inclined to act out violently against the targets of his bigotry.

Further, since race and poverty are correlated, in the hypothetical (and counterfactual) case in which police officers exhibited no racial bias but were instead only biased against low-income individuals, they would still kill black people at higher rates. Thus Floyd's death would still represent the oppression of black Americans, but at the economic level, as opposed to the level of police bias.

Finally, from an ethical point of view, if the police were strictly unconcerned with race but still perfectly willing to employ disproportionate force against targets whom they perceived as poor, that would not precisely be encouraging.

  • There are also differences in the amount of crime committed per capita by each race, even if you adjust for income. Your answer wouldn't be complete without mentioning said differences. – JonathanReez Jun 8 '20 at 4:14
  • @JonathanReez Slavery, and then segregation, were not only cruel and inhuman but demoralising (in a literal sense). At the heart of the issue is that groups, clearly demarcated by colour, were, and to some extent still are, acculturated differently. A novel worth reading is Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948), written in the context of urbanisation in Africa. Why does a gentle youth, son of a gentleman and minister of religion, enter into violent crime when he moves to Johannesburg? It is an immensely complex matter. – WS2 Jun 8 '20 at 7:49
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    @WS2 not sure how this is all related to my comment. An objective answer should include all sides of the same coin. – JonathanReez Jun 8 '20 at 8:03
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    @JonathanReez - The killing of an unarmed person cannot be explained by violent crime rates. Not to mention that arrest and conviction rates are also influenced by race. – Obie 2.0 Jun 8 '20 at 10:49
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    @JonathanReez There are racial disparities in mere traffic stops. Try "A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States" 5harad.com/papers/100M-stops.pdf – Lag Jun 8 '20 at 11:41

First we should note that when it comes to police use of force, as mentioned in this article from ABC News, "[p]art of the problem lies in the data itself, which researchers described as 'terrible' and 'atrocious.'" (Here is an academic article that explains in greater depth how flawed this data is.) So any conclusions based on this bad data should be considered tenuous at best.

That said, according to the best data we have, the rates of racial disparity in and of themselves leave your question unresolved. Black people are a little more than twice as likely than whites to be killed by police (the ABC article provides several sources on this), and they were also a little more than twice as likely to be poor (according to the official national poverty rates).

I've not seen any attempt to dis-aggregate whether and how uses of force were deemed either justified or excessive, and this may be an important point. It may be the case, for example, that more of the whites killed by police are actually armed and dangerous, or that unjustifiable deaths of black victims by white officers are more likely to go unpunished, etc. It may also be the case that middle and high income blacks are more likely to be killed by police than middle and high income whites; I've not seen data to look at this either way.

However, there are a number of other reasons to think that racial bias plays a role independent of poverty. For example this study from the late 1990s found that having a black mayor in a city is associated with lower rates of police killing black people. NBC News reports on another study which shows that across many states and cities over many years, "police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers". There are many data points like these which would support the interpretation that direct racial bias on the part of the police is a factor independent of poverty.

I would also make the point that we should not passively accept the fact the blacks are more likely to be poor. No matter to what extent that excessive police violence is mediated by poverty, racism is no less relevant as long as poverty is racialized. The demands of the Black Lives Matter Movement to invest in black communities recognizes that poverty and racism are closely interconnected.

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    @jamesqf Sure, like I said, there are many more data points one could include. Blacks are incarcerated at something like 5 times the rate as whites. However you explain that, racialized poverty isn't the whole story and there is structural racism in the justice system itself. – Brian Z Jun 7 '20 at 18:22
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    There actually is data on this. After considering whether the victim is unarmed. black people constitute 50% of police homicide victims. And, of course, "the police are not murdering people because they're racist, but rather because they're classist" would, even if it were true, be a less-than-reassuring argument. – Obie 2.0 Jun 7 '20 at 22:19
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    @BuckThorn - What percentage of police victims have committed a homicide? Lol. That's an almost completely tangential datum. – Obie 2.0 Jun 8 '20 at 10:50
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    @BuckThorn - It must be very stressful for someone to interact with a police officer if they are 20 times more likely to kill someone than the average person. I guess I would "refrain from judging too harshly" anyone who kills a police officer. If the homicide rate against police officers is five times the US population, I guess I have to be understanding, since after all they kill more than five times the expected number of people. – Obie 2.0 Jun 8 '20 at 11:06
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    @BuckThorn careful using "X commits Y% of crime" as a shortcut when the data is actually showing "X is punished for Y% of crime". – Tim Sparkles Jun 8 '20 at 19:37

This is a difficult question to answer, in large part because one of the lasting effects of Colonialism is the association of race with social and economic status. From the 16th through the early 20th centuries white Christian Europeans created vast economic hegemonies in which people of other races were subjugated, organized into labor forces, enslaved, and/or driven out so that Europeans could profit from the resources of their lands. This created a persistent set of institutions, norms, in which the legal force of courts, prisons, police, and the military were applied to maintain wealth imbalance, usually along racial lines.

It's also worth considering Immanuel Wallerstein's psychological point that race is often a convenient justification for inequity. It's impossible to live in modern society without being aware of social and economic inequity, and it is impossible for most people to be aware of such inequities without having some explanation for them. The straightforward idea that broad inequities are merely a matter of social exploitation — that we are comparatively wealthy because we have exploited and impoverished others to gain our wealth — is unsettling to most people (at least to non-psychopaths), because it violates their sense of fairness and justice. It is far easier in to attribute the others' comparative poverty to some concrete biological, racial, or ethnic characteristic, effectively absolving ourselves of any current or past injustice by holding out the proposition that those people can't help but be less well off. That proposition then creates social feedback: people of that group are systematically denied opportunities on the belief that they cannot handle them, forcing them into lower socioeconomic strata; that lower socioeconomic status in turn serves to validate the proposition that was its cause.

For black people in the US the situation is more dire and complex. For the first part of the 19th century blacks were property: a significant economic investment that slave-owners need to protect, and specifically needed to protect from blacks themselves. A black person seeking freedom in the South was simultaneously a rebel and a thief — someone trying to destroy the economic power of the South by depriving the slave-owner of a valuable piece of property — and the full force of the law was applied to keep such activity in check. After the Civil War, blacks gained freedom and citizenship, but the institutions and cultural attitudes that had kept them subjugated previously were still largely in place. They still persist even to this day; culture and institutions die hard.

I think the best attitude to take with respect to this question is the old adage that "No one is free when others are oppressed." Or perhaps we can use Teddy Roosevelt's apt quote: "No man is above the law and no man below it." George Floyd's death is an exemplar of both the oppressive treatment that blacks have received from police and society since the earliest days of this nation, and of the ongoing use of state force to preserve social and economic inequity. Trying to say it's this or that serves no purpose except to sow confusion and frustration.

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    I'm not downvoter but I find it hard to follow how this answer addresses the question that is asked. – Brian Z Jun 7 '20 at 17:01
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    So is it blackness or poverty that attracts oppression? – WS2 Jun 7 '20 at 17:05
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    @BrianZ: That's because the answer explains how the question doesn't really make sense. We can't separate race and socioeconomic status in the way the question implies. – Ted Wrigley Jun 7 '20 at 17:15
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    The converse of this, though, is that race & other sorts of discrimination can easily become a convienient excuse. It is likewise a matter of social feedback, which exaggerates the degree to which racism &c exists, and the barriers it presents. Eventually it reaches the point of the "crab bucket" mentality en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_mentality In contemporary US terms, perhaps best encapsulated in the two words "acting white": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acting_white – jamesqf Jun 7 '20 at 18:16
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    @Buck Thorn: And similarly, that poor white people do not exist. Or that people, regardless of race, can not go from poverty to prosperity through their own efforts. – jamesqf Jun 8 '20 at 5:12

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