Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison says she wants to see an officer shoot an unarmed white teenager in the back before agreeing that the “conversation about race” is over, but she almost certainly already has received her wish.
An analysis released last week shows that more white people died at the hands of law enforcement than those of any other race in the last two years, even as the Justice Department, social-justice groups and media coverage focus on black victims of police force.
“This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back,” said Ms. Morrison, who also has won the Pulitzer Prize for her work, which includes the bestsellers “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon.” “And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”
Her comments reflect a widespread view that blacks are routinely targeted by law enforcement while whites shot by police are a rarity. Outrage has surged in recent weeks over the high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police, notably 50-year-old Walter Scott of South Carolina, who was shot in the back and killed April 4 as he tried to run away from an officer after a traffic stop.
The officer who shot him, Michael Slager, has been charged with murder, and the Justice Department is investigating the case for civil rights violations. Department officials announced Tuesday that they have opened a federal probe into the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died Sunday from injuries sustained while in Baltimore police custody.
Meanwhile, the deaths of whites at the hands of law enforcement typically receive less attention, even when the case is shrouded in controversy. For example, Gilbert Collar, an 18-year-old white student at the University of South Alabama, was shot and killed while naked, unarmed and under the influence of drugs by a black police officer.
The officer, Trevis Austin, was cleared of wrongdoing in 2013 by a Mobile County grand jury in a case that received little media coverage outside Alabama. Mr. Collar’s parents filed a federal lawsuit last year against the officer.
As researchers are quick to point out, FBI data on police shootings by race is notoriously incomplete, which may explain why Peter Moskos, assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, decided to use figures from the website Killed by Police.
Based on that data, Mr. Moskos reported that roughly 49 percent of those killed by officers from May 2013 to April 2015 were white, while 30 percent were black. He also found that 19 percent were Hispanic and 2 percent were Asian and other races.
His results, posted last week on his blog Cop in the Hood, arrived with several caveats, notably that 25 percent of the website’s data, which is drawn largely from news reports, failed to show the race of the person killed.
Killed by Police lists every death, justified or not, including those in which the officer had been wounded or acted in self-defense.
“The data doesn’t indicate which shootings are justified (the vast majority) and which are cold-blooded murder (not many, but some). And maybe that would vary by race. I don’t know, but I doubt it,” Mr. Moskos said on his blog.
Adjusted to take into account the racial breakdown of the U.S. population, he said black men are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. But also adjusted to take into account the racial breakdown in violent crime, the data actually show that police are less likely to kill black suspects than white ones.
“If one adjusts for the racial disparity in the homicide rate or the rate at which police are feloniously killed, whites are actually more likely to be killed by police than blacks,” said Mr. Moskos, a former Baltimore cop and author of the book “Cop in the Hood.”
“Adjusted for the homicide rate, whites are 1.7 times more likely than blacks die at the hands of police,” he said. “Adjusted for the racial disparity at which police are feloniously killed, whites are 1.3 times more likely than blacks to die at the hands of police.”
Mr. Moskos listed two possible reasons for the racial disparity. The first is that police assigned to largely black neighborhoods face “more political fallout when they shoot, and thus receive better training and are less inclined to shoot.”
The second is that police assigned to black communities with high crime rates are more accustomed to dangerous situations and thus are more likely to be able to resolve them without resort to lethal force.
Figures on police shootings by race are thin on the ground, but Mr. Moskos’s results have some support: The investigative journalism website ProPublica came up with a similar percentage in an Oct. 10 article, reporting that 44 percent of all those killed by police were white, using FBI data from 1980 to 2012.
The fact-checking website PolitiFact concluded in August 2014 that police kill more whites than blacks after the claim was made by conservative commentator Michael Medved. PolitiFact cited data from the Centers for Disease Control on fatal injuries by “legal intervention” from 1999 to 2011.
“Over the span of more than a decade, 2,151 whites died by being shot by police compared to 1,130 blacks. In that respect, Medved is correct,” said PolitiFact.
But PolitiFact gave his assertion a “half true” rating because whites make up 63 percent of the population, while blacks make up just 12 percent.
“Yes, more whites than blacks die as a result of an encounter with police, but whites also represent a much bigger chunk of the total population,” PolitiFact said in its Aug. 21 post.
But PolitiFact did not take into account the percentage of those by race involved in violent crime or shootings of police, as Mr. Moskos did.
Despite the recent flood of media coverage involving police shootings, Mr. Moskos advised his readers to “keep all this morbidity in perspective,” reminding them that very few people, white or black, will ever be shot or killed by police.
“The odds that any given black man will shoot and kill a police officer in any given year is slim to none, about one in a million. The odds for any given white man? One in four million,” he said. “The odds that a black man will be shot and killed by a police officer is about 1 in 60,000. For a white man those odds are 1 in 200,000.”