What Police Shootings Tell Us about Race and Gender

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the ensuing protests do more than express the ever-growing racial tensions across the country. The protests reveal a division that has alienated the races from working together at a time when boys and men are 96% of all deaths at the hands of law enforcement according to current data. The struggles of the nation’s people to find common ground to eliminate racial differences and causes of these travesties is as pressing a need as protecting the lives of boys and men who overwhelmingly represent these victims.

Radley Balko’s article in the Washington Post (White people can compartmentalize police brutality. Black people don’t have the luxury) speaks to some of the variances in racial mindsets when it comes to killings at the hands of law enforcement and brings up layered cultural feelings.  Blacks make up a higher rate of those killed at the hands of law enforcement, and the reactions of the black community, as Balko identifies, are more visceral for reasons historically familiar in our culture. The destructive elements and misguided actions of the violent protests (from people we do not know) divide us. They do not symbolize the rage of peaceful protests and the words of wisdom representative of the black leaders of our nation and other leaders who support them and truly want peaceful justice, a remembrance for the life of George Floyd, and a spiritual accounting of all people in our nation [2].  

What Balko does not speak to is the overwhelmingly gender demographic-data at the heart of these deaths that must be acknowledged if we hope to do more than heal wounds but exercise a spiritual awakening that unites us in common purpose.

Males make up 96% of all fatal shootings at the hands of law enforcement since 2015 according to data from the Washington Post. For every 22 boys and men killed at the hands of law enforcement, 1 girl or woman is killed. These deaths only include fatal shootings and do not include the tragic choking of Mr. Floyd and other such killings. Deaths associated with tasers, automobile chases that end in fatalities, and other causes of death are not as easily accessible after reviewing several sources and the methods used to list fatalities. However, it’s clear that boys and men contend with social and cultural forces that place them in devastating situations.  While whites males make up a higher number of deaths at the hands of law enforcement, the topic often becomes a sensitive one as black males and Hispanic males have higher death rates and disparate racial experiences with law enforcement than whites. The deaths of Hispanics have often been overlooked in gender demographic-data and the press as well despite the history of killings at the hands of law enforcement. 

Acknowledging the deaths of all our boys and men, however, can only help to open doorways of understanding. Yet there is a long-standing cultural malaise when it comes to unifying people of all races under the likeness of boys’ and men’s causes. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reviewed data from 2009-2012 and revealed 96% of fatalities were male, a trend that continues today [1].  

Complicating elements of fatal shootings involving law enforcement is the death of law enforcement officers serving their communities. Families of officers, particularly wives, have expressed their concern and started the National Police Wives Association, ("a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to supporting law enforcement spouses") and at least one other organization, Police Wives of AmericaThere have been at least 209 law enforcement officers fatally shot in the last four years and 95% of those are male according to data from the Officer Down Memorial Page. (Men account for 88% of law-enforcement officers in the U.S.)

Understanding racial sensitivities is a crucial component of a troubling, systemic problem with a common male victim-narrative. Reporting continues to overlook gender elements. The same type of reporting practices regarding coronavirus specifically identifies race even though men-of-color and all men need greater resources specifically directed toward them as they make up 60-70% of COVID-19 deaths nationally and internationally. Dr. Keisha N. Blain, an assistant professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, calls needed attention to race, COVID-19, and policing, yet does so in a way all too familiar with such reporting. Dr. Blain discusses the ways the virus "ravages black communities at a disproportionately higher rate than other racial groups, [as] black people must continue to contend with another threat: police violence." But to be more accurate, it's boys and men and more specifically black boys and black men.

Parsing out the male-victim narrative remains absent from the reporting in ways that must become more present. We must applaud Dr. Blain for her lessons in the article that speaks to the history of policing prior to, during, and after the civil rights movement. Such lessons can reach the collective conscience of all races, but still settle more deeply into the souls of black Americans in ways that need to reach the souls of all peoples.  

We must bring people together who share common pains and common hopes. To demand a more peaceful nation determined to serve humanity and the boys and men led like silent, gentle lambs to their untimely permanence and waiting providence.

Imagine the loved ones of George Floyd, Daniel Shaver, Deputy Sheriff Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal, Tony Timpa, and other families who lost loved ones to fatal shootings (and other deaths associated with law-enforcement in the broader sense) walking arm-in-arm in the manner Dr. Martin Luther King encouraged so we might "one day live in a nation where [all people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And I would add, the nature of their gender. I pray it is people like Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and other such leaders shepherding a convention of people to a greater promise bound in tenets of love, humanity, and brotherhood.

End notes

  1. Sarah DeGue, PhD, Katherine A. Fowler, PhD, Cynthia Calkins, PhD. Deaths Due to Use of Lethal Force by Law Enforcement: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System, 17 U.S. States, 2009–2012.Am J Prev Med. 2016 Nov; 51(5 Suppl 3): S173–S187.

  2. Figure 1 data is specific to the Washington Post numbers based on deaths per million; where blacks account for 30 deaths for every 1 million blacks, Hispanics account for 22 deaths for every 1 million Hispanics, and whites account for 12 deaths for every 1 million whites.

  3. Table 1 and Table 2 uses data from the same Washington Post article. 

 

 

 

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