There’s a critical question about George Floyd that we need to ask ourselves, as a culture, before we take stock of what needs to be done: Is his death an outlier?
I think we can safely say there’s almost nobody, at this point, who’s watched the video of Floyd’s final moments and thought that this was effective police work gone tragically wrong.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, and if you found someone who disagreed with the charges they were likely of the opinion he was getting off easy.
Everyone is entitled to his day in court, of course, but Chauvin has become the embodiment of the darkest side of policing.
The question is, however, whether he represents something pervasive, particularly in how people of color experience police officers, or whether the incident was some sort of outlier.
In an interview with Fox News, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, an African-American, argued that the encounter didn’t represent the black experience with law enforcement.
“What I’m a little concerned about is that a lot people out there protesting are doing so because they’re convinced that this happens all the time to black people every day, that we walk around in fear of law enforcement treating us like this — and I don’t think that what I saw is representative of either police behavior or what black people go through on a daily basis,” Riley said.
But is this evidence of racial disparities in policing?
Riley doesn’t think so. Instead, he said, it’s a matter of “blanket media coverage when they happen because of social media and so forth — but this does not mean that this is happening more often.”
“Those two things are not distinguished in much of the coverage, and I find that very disturbing,” Riley said. “Based on all the data we have, police use of force has actually gone down considerably since the early 1970s so these events happen less frequently.
“And yet because when they do happen they get more attention, people have the opposite impression.”
It’s the social media amplification cycle, of course, and it can have both good and bad effects.
In terms of the good, no matter how ugly this video is, it can’t be unseen — and that’s why Derek Chauvin is now facing third-degree murder charges. It’s also why any other cop depraved enough to believe this is within their power has been put on blast.
The bad is less obvious: We’ve come to believe this is some kind of normal, that police officers not only racially profile but use force in such a disparate way that black men are literally hunted and the violence has become normalized.
The best summation I can offer would be NBA star LeBron James’ post after Floyd’s death in which he implied white America was disgusted with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests but not with the alleged murder of Floyd:
Except there’s nothing to bear this out. No one was as outraged at Kaepernick as people are at Derek Chauvin, who’s looking at spending a decent chunk of the rest of his life in prison. Is this really the comparison anyone wants to make?
A study four years ago found no racial bias in police shootings, which was not what its author — who is black — expected.
“It is the most surprising result of my career,” Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard, told The New York Times.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying that policing tactics in America can be improved. There’s nothing wrong with saying that we need more accountability.
However, it becomes a problem when we argue that this kind of policing is systemic — that the only reason we know about it is that, in this one instance, an individual with a camera was present to record someone’s last moments on earth.
The evidence for this is always anecdotal — and yet it’ll never go away when confronted with real evidence because someone’s always behind it. And that’s the danger here — when these fictions are amplified, particularly by the media, unrest can and does become violent.
This isn’t to say there aren’t changes to be made or ways our law enforcement can better build trust with minority communities.
However, this one horrific aberration cannot be used to further a narrative that simply doesn’t have evidence backing it up.