Stereotyping Vs “Black Lives Matter”: Moral Frames For Understanding The Police Killings

Stereotyping Vs. Black Lives Matter

Moral Frames For Understanding The Police Killings

March 17, 2015        Picture: Nathan Congleton/Flickr.

This essay was revised on June 8th 2015 & publicly updated on July 4th 2015 to include an analysis of the Walter Scott & Freddie Gray cases.

When Guillaume first asked me to contribute to this symposium, the topic he and I picked concerned stereotyping and the role stereotypes play in the killings of young and not so young black men and women. We agreed I would say something about stereotyping in general and what is wrong with stereotyping. I will do that, but as the various other killings of last summer and fall surfaced, and the Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries declined to indict, it seemed to me that stereotyping provides only part of the moral framework we need to get a grip on these incidents. I will focus on four killings from summer and fall 2014—Michael Brown (August), Eric Garner (July), Akai Gurley (November), and Tamir Rice (November). (After this discussion I will add some thoughts on the killings of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, that took place after this article was posted.) I’ll argue that “black lives matter” helps supply a necessary moral resource, beyond stereotyping, for thinking about these killings.

Fibonacci Blue/Flickr.
Fibonacci Blue/Flickr.

Picture: “Black Lives Matter was elected by the American Dialect Society as the 2014 Word of The Year. The first time that a hashtag was selected by the society as its overall winner. Read about the women behind the influential movement here: “Meet the woman who coined #BlackLivesMatter” and here: “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement“, as well as the unprecedented influence social media has given to protesters: “Twitter forced the world to pay attention to Ferguson. It won’t last“.

I will define “stereotype,” for our purposes, as an evidence-resistant association, broadly shared among members of a society, between a group and a characteristic, an association in which the stereotype holder has some cognitive investment that need not be as robust as an actual belief (and so need not be conscious). What exactly is wrong with stereotyping—for example, stereotyping young black men as dangerous and threatening, or stereotyping Asian American students as good at math? Basically the harms of stereotyping fall into two general categories—harms of all stereotyping as such, and harms attaching to particular stereotypes. In the first category, someone can object to being stereotyped, independent of any particular stereotype held of him or her, for several different reasons: (1) the stereotype does not apply to the particular person (he is not dangerous, she is not a good math student); (2) stereotypes mask the internal diversity in the group stereotyped (some young black males are dangerous, many are not; some Asians are good at math, some are not); (3) stereotypes mask the individuality of a given member of the stereotyped group; that is, the stereotype holder is not seeing the particular person as an individual (“I’m a young black male (an Asian American student) and you are not seeing me as an individual but only as a stereotype.”) In addition there are other less personalized cognitive and moral distortions involved in stereotyping—exaggerating differences between groups; leading the stereotype holder to forget that members of other groups possess the characteristic attributed to the stereotyped group; encouraging “moral distance” between one’s own and the stereotyped group. [1]

Thus all stereotyping—young black men as threatening, Asian Americans as good at math—is harmful to individuals within a group, and to the group itself. But these harms obviously do not fully capture what is harmful about particular stereotypes. The real world consequences of being stereotyped as threatening and dangerous are much more harmful and full of risk than being stereotyped as good at math. The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, captured this harm in his reported words to his black son, “Don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone,” and his later explanation of these remarks, “There’s that fear that there could be that one moment of misunderstanding with a young man of color and that young man may never come back. It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country.” [2]

“The real world consequences of being stereotyped as threatening and dangerous are much more harmful and full of risk than being stereotyped as good at math”

This second category of harms is the aspect of stereotyping many people believe has been operating in the four police killings I am concerned with, as well as many others over the years. Officer Darren Wilson said he saw Michael Brown as a “demon” and he brought that stereotype of the dangerous young black man to his encounter with Brown. Officer Tim Loehmann apparently perceived a tall 12-year-old Tamir Rice with a toy gun through the “dangerous black kid” stereotype, so did not recognize Tamir’s youth, nor attempt to assess whether there was real danger. Instead he just shot to kill within two seconds of arriving on the scene. (His initial story that he asked Rice three times to drop his gun and Rice refused is not credible within this time frame.) Because the “dangerous black man” stereotype was operating in Officer Daniel Pantaleo mind, he confused Eric Garner’s resistance to being arrested with his being a threatening black man, and chokeholded him to death. In all three of these cases, it is plausible to postulate that the “dangerous black man” stereotype is part of the motivational mix that produced these three homicides. [3]

As current research on “implicit bias” has demonstrated, these stereotypic associations often operate below the level of explicit consciousness. [4] So, when Darren Wilson was interviewed on television and asked whether he would have acted in any way differently if Michael Brown had been white, he answered without a mini-second’s hesitation, “No.” But there is no reason to take his conscious belief on this matter as the truth about his racial stereotypes or biases.

I do not pretend to have fully established that the stereotype of the dangerous and threatening black man was at play in the four killings, only its plausibility. But the main point I want to make is that this “stereotype” framework, encompassing both the general harms of all stereotyping, and the particular harms of the “dangerous black male” stereotype, does not fully capture the wrong that was involved in these police killings. It doesn’t give us the whole picture. I think the idea of “black lives matter” that has come to be the main label under which the movement to protest these killings now operates, provides a moral framework that we need to add to stereotype for a more complete moral picture of situation. I think “black lives matter” opens us to a deeper moral understanding.

By “black lives matter” I refer to the elemental point that it matters if a black person is alive rather than dead, and matters as much and in the same way as this matters for human beings in general, of any racial group. I will leave aside a richer notion of lives mattering that can refer to flourishing, and how poverty and inequality inhibits that flourishing. (The “Black Lives Matter” movement is beginning to make these larger connections and I think that is all to the good, but it is not my focus here.)

The difference between the stereotype framework and the black lives matter framework is revealed in the way the police officers in all four of our “cases” comported themselves once the black men were dead or subdued. The video of Eric Garner’s last moments is particularly revealing. That video is a truly revelatory document for our times. Millions have seen it and millions more should do so, although it is incredibly painful. I have heard it said that Garner brought his death on himself by not cooperating with the police, that his asthma killed him, that it is not the fault of officer Pantaleo. But the video plainly shows how feeble these defenses of the police involved are. The video shows several officers standing around while Garner protests their trying to arrest him. He is not cooperative, indeed, but nor does he pose any physical threat (he is also unarmed and this is evident) [5], especially given the five or six police officers in his immediate vicinity. We see Officer Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold and take him down to the pavement. We hear Garner say “I can’t breathe” over and over, then go quiet. Pantaleo does not respond; he does not loosen his hold or show any recognition that he might be harming Garner, not merely subduing him. He isn’t deliberately trying to kill Garner. But he shows an appalling indifference to the possibility that he might nevertheless be doing so. The indifference is not only Pantaleo’s. None of the other officers gathered around Garner try to stop Pantaleo, though a sergeant was heard to say “Let up, you got him already.” They stand around, try to clear the crowd of passers-by, providing the arriving emergency medical technicians access—but not showing any sense of urgency about a life being snuffed out before their eyes. No aid is offered for seven minutes. (Garner was dead within an hour.)

NBC News: No Indictment For Eric Garner Staten Island Case

“The video of Eric Garner’s last moments is particularly revealing. That video is a truly revelatory document for our times. Millions have seen it and millions more should do so, although it is incredibly painful”

The apparent indifference to Garner’s life continues with the arrival of the emergency medical technicians. They look at Garner, but they don’t do anything to help him. They do not administer CPR to him. (The president of the EMT union comments afterwards, with an implied though hardly morally adequate criticism of their behavior, “There was a lack of initial intervention. They were not aggressive. If they’re not breathing, assist with their ventilation. This is something that is ingrained in your training.”)[6]

Did any of these many parties to the Garner encounter (with the possible partial exception of the sergeant suggesting that Pantaleo ease up) evince a recognition that Garner’s life mattered? We don’t see it.

The killings of Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice reveal similar unconcern or indifference. When my Racism class talked about the Brown, Garner, Gurley, and Rice killings, some students noted that the cases are very different and maybe we should not group them all together. This is very true about the killings themselves—to what extent the officer perpetrators were blameworthy for the deaths. Yet that difference should not make us overlook important similarities regarding the behavior of officers of the state in the wake of the killings. After shooting Gurley on the stairwell, Officer Liang and his partner Officer Landau did not immediately try to determine whether anyone had been hit. When they did discover that Gurley had been shot, they did not immediately phone in, calling for help, that they had shot this young man. Rather, during the 6½ minutes before they phoned the shooting in, Liang texted his union representative, presumably to check on what kind of trouble he was in, or could avoid, for the shooting. [7] He did so while the two officers’ commanding officer and an emergency operator, responding to a neighbor’s 911 call, tried unsuccessfully to contact Liang and Landau. [8]

The All-Nite Images/Flickr
The All-Nite Images/Flickr

New York Times: Timeline of Tamir Rice Shooting

Tamir Rice suffered the same apparent unconcern for his life and harm. After Officer Loehmann shot Rice, neither he nor his partner, Officer Frank Garmback, checked his vital signs or offered any sort of first aid to Rice. [9] He was alive and they did nothing to help him. Rice died several hours later. Only almost four minutes after Rice was shot did a police detective and an FBI agent in the area try to help him. [10] The point is that once Rice was shot and on the ground, Loehmann could no longer believe he was a threat, nor is Loehmann reported as continuing to believe Rice was a threat to anyone. Even if someone was once a threat, or perceived (wrongly or not) to be one, an entirely different moral framework kicks in once they can no longer plausibly be regarded as a threat. An injured and unthreatening individual requires help, especially from the person who caused the injury and also especially from police officers, whose job is to “protect and serve.” It doesn’t matter if the person had been a threat (or even committed a crime) one minute before. Officer Pantaleo, flanked by several other officers, knew that once Garner was chokeholded to the ground he was no longer a threat to them. His poignant cries of help, then his going limp and no longer speaking should shift their framework of experiencing Garner from “threatening” (again, not to say that this perception was justified) to “a human being who needs help and is possibly in danger.”

Wall Street Journal: Ferguson Timeline of Key Events after Michael Brown's Death

Someone might think that the Michael Brown encounter was importantly different from the others in this respect. Yet suppose we grant for the sake of argument that Brown tried to grab Wilson’s gun and struck him in the face. Let us also bracket the question of whether Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, once the situation changed so that Brown, known by Wilson to be unarmed, was no longer within striking distance of Wilson. [11] After Wilson shot him, Brown lay face down on the sidewalk. Wilson did not check to see if Brown was breathing or if he had a pulse; nor did he render aid in any form. A neighbor also reported that two white police officers on the scene (one of them is likely to have been Wilson) prevented a nurse (also a neighbor) from administering CPR to Brown, which she was begging them to do. [12]

This failure to provide aid is over and above a different matter that has drawn more attention—that Brown’s body was left for four hours in the middle of the street. Certainly this shows a deeply defective regard for Brown as a human being—how we should treat the dead is governed by moral norms that draw on the fact that a dead person is still a human being. And leaving Brown’s body in that way also shows disrespect for the neighborhood, the community, in which this confrontation took place, of which Brown was a part and in which Brown lived, not far from where he was killed. (The police have acknowledged that leaving the body was wrong but have not, as far as I am aware, acknowledged the full scope of the communal insult and human indifference manifested.) I am making a different point—that Wilson and other officers on the scene showed a lack of human concern for Brown, a lack of a sense that black lives matter, manifested also in the Gurley, Rice and Garner incidents. (Other police officers arriving later sometimes did help, further highlighting the actions the original officers should have taken).

Considerations relevant to the excusability or justifiability of using lethal force in the original encounter no longer apply once the victim is “down” and obviously injured. The attitude underlying the officers’ failure in all four situations to proffer the elementary human response (as well as a professional one) of aid to a badly injured party is precisely what the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is meant to call attention to and challenge. As the civil rights leader, Ella Baker, said in the 1960’s, “We can’t rest until the killings of black mother’s sons is just as important as the killings of white mother’s sons.” [13]

“DC Vigil For Delegation of Grieving Mothers” by Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr.
“DC Vigil For Delegation of Grieving Mothers” by Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr.

How do we know that these officers would not have treated a white person in the same circumstances the same way? While such a scenario would hardly constitute moral exculpation, I recognize that I have not proven that the failure to aid was driven in part by a race-related lack of concern, a paradigm of Jorge Garcia’s analysis of the vice he sees as constituting racism, in addition to whatever larger mix of motives were also involved (for example, a concern that one would get in trouble for the killings in the first place). [14] I must leave that race-based unconcern as a plausible hypothesis, and see the burden of proof on those who would deny it. (Here the fact that black men aged 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts is certainly relevant. [15])

“Wilson and other officers on the scene showed a lack of human concern for Brown, a lack of a sense that black lives matter, manifested also in the Gurley, Rice and Garner incidents”.

To summarize, then, I am arguing that stereotyping as a morally problematic cognition is plausibly thought to have played some part in the motivational set that led to the officers killing Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. [16] Stereotyping is morally problematic for two different kinds of reasons, one concerning stereotyping in general, the other concerning specific stereotypes (such as young black men as dangerous or threatening). But these moral wrongs do not fully express the devaluing of black life that seems to have been manifested in these encounters considered in their totality. Seeing someone’s life as not mattering, or not mattering very much, or not mattering as much as the lives of people in other groups, is not the same as stereotyping the person. It is not a question of attributing a definite characteristic to that person, like being dangerous or violent. Seeing their lives as having lesser value is a different moral phenomenon. Stereotyping does not explain why the police officers showed so little concern for the lives of these black people once they could no longer remotely plausibly be regarded as a threat. And that is why I think we have to look elsewhere in our moral repertoire to get a grip on why they showed unconcern, that is, why they did not seem to appreciate that “black lives matter.”

Of course some stereotypes can contribute to the devaluing of life. If I see someone as inherently criminal and violent, I am more likely to demonize or dehumanize that person, and thus to care less about their life, as seems to have been illustrated by Officer Wilson saying as mentioned earlier that he saw Michael Brown as a “demon.” [17] Still, there is a moral difference between stereotyping someone and not caring about his life, and it is the latter that helps us to explain why, and to express what is wrong with, the ways the officers dealt with the men and boys they killed.

Addendum on Walter Scott and Freddie Gray (June 8th, 2015)

In early April, a white police officer, Michael Slager, gunned down a black man, Walter Scott, 50, fleeing from him after a car stop triggered by a broken brake light. Slager was in no way threatened by Scott. He was calm as he pumped eight bullets into the fleeing man. He reported by radio that Scott had wrestled his electronic stun gun, or taser, from him, implying that this made Scott a threat to him. But Scott had no gun. Slager picked up an item from the ground a short distance from where he was standing to make the shots, walked over to Scott silent on the ground, and appeared to drop the same item next to Scott. He cuffed Scott but gave him no medical attention. A second officer arrived and puts on medical gloves but did nothing to help Scott.[8]

New York Times : The Shooting of Walter Scott

How do we know of these events? Not because any officer reported them (a 3rd officer arrives at the scene but also fails to give medical attention), but because a passing citizen, Feidin Santana, videoed it on his cell phone, as happened in the Garner case. At first Feidin, an immigrant, was so disturbed by what he had seen that he considered erasing the video and leaving town. He changed his mind after he heard accounts from the officer involved, meant to excuse the killing, that were inconsistent with what he saw and recorded. [19]

The Scott case is akin to Garner’s in certain respects but is also morally worse. Slager cold-bloodedly murders Scott. It is not a question, as in Garner’s case, of a callous indifference to the black man’s life but without intent to kill him. With Scott there is of course the callous indifference, but there is also a clear intent to shoot to kill. The Scott case collapses the two features I was keeping separate in the four cases discussed in the article—the behavior of the police in apprehending or bringing a suspect under control, and their subsequent behavior once the individual in question was subdued. With regard to Scott, “black lives don’t matter” was fully and unequivocally expressed in the shooting and in its aftermath, not only in the latter. [20] Because of Santana’s video, Officer Slager was arrested for murder and was indicted by a grand jury on this charge, on June 7.

Of course one can only surmise that Slager continued to pump bullets into a fleeing man (and not aiming only to wound but kill) who posed no threat to him, because he thought no one was watching, much less recording his actions, and that his fellow officers would back him up if he needed that. It was only by a fluke that this turned out not to be the case, that Santana happened to pass by and videoed the event. Because of the pure chanciness of Santana’s video, one can’t help but suspect that Slager is not the only police officer who has unjustifiably killed a black person, who thought he would be able to get away with doing so, and who would have done so but for the civic actions of a passerby.

CNN: Footage of Freddie Gray Arrest

Freddie Gray was a 25-year-old Baltimorean, who ran from police patrolling his neighborhood, a high crime area. The police caught him and put him in a police transport van. He was cuffed and shackled by his feet, but not seat-belted, and as a result of the ride in the van suffered injuries, including an 80% severing of his spine at the neck. Six officers involved, including the driver, failed to provide or secure medical attention for Gray, despite several requests from Gray, and at the end of the 20-minute ride, paramedics arrived and took Gray to a hospital, where he died a week later. [21]

Again, the distinction operative in the article between police behavior in apprehending or subduing, and behavior once the subject is subdued blurs here as the offending behavior all takes place once Gray is in custody. As of this writing, the exact cause of Gray’s death has not been determined, although the medical examiner ruled it a homicide. But what is remarkable about this case in contrast to the five others discussed here, and indeed scores of other blacks killed by police officers, is that the state’s attorney of Baltimore charged the six officers involved with various crimes in relation to the incident and a grand jury indicted the officers on most of those charges. The indicted charges included involuntary manslaughter (negligently causing death), second-degree assault (causing physical injury), reckless endangerment (acts that create a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person), and misconduct in office. The driver was charged with a further offense, “second degree depraved heart murder,” which involves killing someone in a way that demonstrates a callous disregard for the value of human life. [22 & 23]

These charges are striking because they do not involve the imputation of intent to harm, an intent that was clearly present in the Brown, Rice, and Scott cases (whatever one thinks about whether those acts are justified). Rather they speak to the very issue of “black lives matter.” The charges impute a culpable disregard for the life and well-being of Freddie Gray. The “misconduct in office” charges are that the officers failed to provide medical assistance when they could clearly see that Gray needed it. The legal basis for that charge is that police officers are responsible for providing that medical assistance. The charge itself does not directly impute or rely on a disregard for the life and health of the arrestee. However, in this case it is entirely plausible to infer that disregard from the behavior on which that charge is made. The other charges—involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment— are explicitly grounded in that disregard (again, as contrasted with intent). They all involve the taking of actions that the agent knows have a good chance of seriously injuring the person, such as shackling his legs and cuffing his hands, putting him on the floor of a van without seat-belting him, thus exposing him to being battered about as the van moves, as apparently happened to Gray. The legal categories here involve the moral judgment that such actions involve a disregard for the subject’s life, while “misconduct in office” does not.

Those charges involve actions on the part of the perpetrator. But inaction can also manifest callous disregard for life and that is what I have argued was involved in the Brown, Gurley, Rice, and Garner cases. I do not know if the legal category of “reckless endangerment” embraces inaction as well as action. But the state’s attorney’s category of “misconduct in office” certainly does. Thus the spirit of that charge seems to me to apply in the Rice, Brown, Gurley, and Garner cases.

Thus it seems to me that what the state’s attorney has done in the Gray case is to construe as crimes actions that are unfortunately quite typical for police in many departments. I have argued that all of these police officers in the six incidents I have discussed violated the truth, if one might put it that way, that “black lives matter.” Their actions suggested that they did not recognize that black lives matter, or matter as much as white lives. I recognize that I have not demonstrated that it was the blackness of these black men’s lives that were the subject of disregard. In polling data a large percentage of white people do not see race as a feature present in these cases, although a substantial minority do and that minority has increased as a result of the large number of these cases that have been brought to public attention in the past year or so. [24]

But I can think of three considerations that might lead someone to question this analysis—that some of the officers were themselves black (3 of the 6 in the Gray case, 1 of the 6 in the Garner case); that (some of) the subjects in these cases had criminal records or otherwise showed themselves to be lawbreakers, so that the contempt toward their lives was not because of their race but because they fell into that category, “lawbreakers”; and that, in the Gray and Scott cases, the subjects were running from the police, thus putting them in the category of resisting arrest.

Starting with the last point, both Gray and Scott had reason not to want to come to the police’s attention. Scott had outstanding child support payments of a considerable amount. Gray had committed several minor crimes and served jail time. In some people’s minds, these facts demote these men’s moral status in such a way as to make it seem as if they “had it coming.” One sees this in some of the “commentary” on the cases on the internet. Sometimes the point is made that anyone running away from the police should expect to get in trouble. A friend of Freddie Gray made such a comment. But the friend did not mean that anyone fleeing a police officer is fair game for being shot in the back, or treated as if his humanity had no value. Nor should we. I would just reiterate the argument made earlier—once a suspect poses no physical threat to a police officer, there is absolutely no basis for violent or abusive or reckless treatment of him. It is hard to see how someone who reflected on this matter could really believe that running away from a police officer warrants being shot.

This same point applies to the second consideration. What this point should lead us to do is to question why so many people implicitly or explicitly regard black people who have violated the law (even laws whose value has been soundly questioned, such as many drug possession laws) as having forfeited their humanity, or their right to be treated as human beings. It is quite surprising and disturbing to see how many “comments” on media articles on these incidents take the form of pointing to criminal or other misbehavior of the subjects as if this (unrelated to whether they pose a threat to the police officer) justified or in any way contributed to a justification of the police killing them.

The first point—that some of the officers especially in the Baltimore case were black—is worthy of more attention. One might think that a black officer cannot devalue black lives unless he or she devalues her own life, and that is very unlikely. But it is an entirely common human phenomenon that members of a larger group may look down on sub-groups of that group, and not value their humanity as much as their own sub-group. Rich white people often demean poor white people. Middle class blacks look down on poor blacks. Why would it be surprising if black police officers do the same with black men (especially but not only younger ones) who live in largely black or Hispanic poor unban neighborhoods? “Black lives matter” says that all blacks lives matter, that their mattering is not contingent on such characteristics that differentiate among black people. Failing to value black lives independent of those characteristics thus violates the black lives matter principle.

In addition, black police officers are members of police departments, almost always white dominated ones. We have strong evidence that the cultures of many such departments disrespect black people and black communities. This disrespect is implicit and explicit in official reports on those departments, such as recent ones on Cleveland and Ferguson (MO), the sites of two of the killings. It is implied in the distrust that these reports, as well as the Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, March 2015, highlight. [25] Especially given the powerful in-group culture of police departments it would be extremely surprising if black police officers were entirely unaffected by this disrespect toward young black men in poor, urban communities.

Finally, I have focused in this article only on recent high profile killings. What I have said about stereotyping and the moral insight and framework of “black lives matter” is meant to apply specifically to these events. I want to conclude by mentioning other matters that, from a social, moral, and human perspective, would have to be taken into account for a fuller picture of the wrongfulness of these particular police killings.

The first is police practices in black communities more generally. Killing is only the most extreme of a range of abusive practices. Department of Justice reports on police practices in Ferguson, Missouri (where the Brown killing took place) found that many police officers “appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominately African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” in part due to city policies. [26]

A recent DOJ report on Cleveland (where the Rice killing took place) found a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force that resulted in dangerous and reckless behavior by officers, pointing out the kinds of problems that have angered black residents here and touched off demonstrations across the country in recent weeks. The abuses cited in the report included excessive use of force by the police involving not just firearms, but also less-than-lethal weapons like Tasers, chemical spray and fists, which were sometimes used for retaliation. The report also said the police had … employed tactics that escalated potentially nonviolent encounters into dangerous confrontations.” [27]

I have focused on the underlying attitudes and sentiments that feed police behavior—stereotypes, and devaluing of black lives. But one would also want to look at the policies and legal terrain that have permitted and encouraged those attitudes and their expression in unjust and violent police behavior. [28] In addition one would want to look at the social sources of those attitudes themselves. Finally, any reckoning with police and criminal justice system practices in black communities would have to set them within the larger framework of intensifying inequality and the rise of neoliberalism. [29] My goal in this article has been much more modest, but I want at least to point to where a larger inquiry would have to go. At the same time I would emphasize that on the explanatory issue, purely structural/legal considerations cannot supply the full explanation. We cannot avoid the devaluing of black life that seems unfortunately to be a widely-shared sentiment among police officers in many districts.

Footnotes & References

[1] On these harms of stereotyping in general, and their contrast with harms connected with particular stereotypes, see L. Blum, “Stereotypes and Stereotyping: A Moral Analysis,” Philosophical Papers, 33(3) (November 2004): 251-290.

[2] Michael Greenberg, New York Review of Books, “The NY Police vs. the Mayor”, February 5, 2015, 39.

[3] The Gurley situation differs from the other three in that Officer Peter Liang apparently did not see Gurley before he shot him. But it is at least plausible to think that Liang would make the assumption that any individual he encountered in this largely black housing project was black, and so when he pulled the trigger, perhaps accidentally, in response to an appearance of a human being in the dark stairwell, anti-black stereotypes could well have been operating in his mind also.

[4] Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte Press, 2013).
In fact the level of violent crime in general and in black communities in particular has continued to decrease over the past 20 years; for example the murder rate is half what it was in 1993. In New York city, the homicide rate has dipped from 2245 in 1990 to 328 in 2014 (“In a Safer Age, U.S. Rethinks its ‘Tough on Crime’ System,” New York Times 1/19/15.) Yet the stereotype of dangerous black males persists unchanged, suggesting its at best only weak responsiveness to actual evidence.

[5] See excellent discussion of the Garner events, including an assessment of the chokehold, in John Kleinig, “Chokeholds, Eric Garner, and Police Ethics,” (

[6] A later article, based on a wider range of evidence, provides much more detail, making clear, for example, that there were two different videos, one of the officers taking Garner down, and a second (by a different individual) of the medical response. The article says it took 12 minutes for EMTs to upgrade the seriousness of the situation to “Segment 1,” the highest priority; and it reports the taker of the second video telling how the prosecutor at the grand jury hearing tried to pressure her to back off of her testifying the officers had Garner in a chokehold. Al Baker, J. David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller, “Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death,” New York Times, June 6, 2015.


[8] Officer Liang has now been indicted for manslaughter in the shooting.

[9] Shaila Dawan and Richard Oppel, Jr., “Many Errors by Cleveland Police, Then a Fatal One,” New York Times, Jan. 25, 2015, A14.

[10] Accounts of Rice, Garner, and Gurley incidents also from Shaun King, “About the strange behavior of officers after they killed Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner,” DailyKos 12/8/14.

[11] Shaun King, “Video: Police lied. Mike Brown was killed 148 feet away from Darren Wilson’s SUV,”… On March 5, the Department of Justice issued a report clearing Wilson of civil rights violations in regard to the shooting of Brown. The New York Times account of the report said that the preponderance of evidence is that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him (again). (New York Times, March 5, 2015, p. A15). It does not explicitly address the distance between the two men nor whether it was necessary to use deadly force to stop Brown. Perhaps there is more evidence on this matter in the full report, which I have not read at this point.


[13] “Interview with Crystal Feimster on Ferguson, Police Brutality, and Activism,” Broad Recognition: A Feminist Magazine at Yale, Dec. 21, 2014.

[14] Officer Liang, who killed Akai Gurley, is said to have been concerned that he would be fired for discharging his gun, even before he knew he had killed someone. For Garcia’s view, see Journal of Social Philosophy, 27(1) March, 1996: 5–46.

[15] Gary Younge, “About ‘Black-on-Black Crime’,” The Nation, December 29, 2014, 11.

[16] Of course other factors plausibly contributed to the deaths, for example, patterns of overly aggressive policing; laws that give too much discretion for the use of deadly force; and, in the Rice situation, that the Cleveland police department apparently had a record of using excessive force “suggesting that the police were often hostile with residents and were rarely accountable for misconduct.

[17] Wilson’s full statement: “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Charles Blow, “This is Your Moment,” New York Times, Dec 10, 2014.

[18] This account is from various sources but is brought together in New York Times editorial board, “The Walter Scott Murder,” April 8, 2015:

[19] On Feidin’s role, see Bruce Smith and Jeffrey Collins, “Man who recorded Walter Scott shooting speaks out for first time,” Associated Press, April 9, 2015:

[20] Remember that I did not deny that inadequate regard for black life was expressed in the shootings in the four cases discussed in the article—indeed I personally believe it was so in all four. Rather, I was leaving aside this issue for the purposes of the argument.


[22] Alan Yuhas, : The Guardian, “What Is Depraved Heart Murder?

[23] Cornell Legal Information Institute:

[24] Reason Public Opinion Survey.

[25] “The public confers legitimacy only on those whom they believe are acting in procedurally just ways. Procedurally just behavior is based on four central principles:
Treating people with dignity and respect
Giving individuals ‘voice’ during encounters
Being neutral and transparent in decision-making
Conveying trustworthy motives.” (p. 7)
The Report makes it clear that these principles are frequently not honored by police departments.

[26] One DOJ official said that there are many municipalities that engage in the same practices as Ferguson, and that federal officials hope other cities and towns near Ferguson will take note of the findings and make changes of their own.

[27] The Department has also opened a civil rights investigation regarding police practices in Baltimore.

[28] Much of that legal and policy history is detailed in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color-Blindness (New Press, 2012), and other works of a similar nature.

[29] Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (University of Chicago, 2009). Loic Wacquant Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009).

Lawrence Blum
Lawrence Blum
Lawrence Blum is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Author of “I’m Not a Racist, But…”: The Moral Quandary of Race (Cornell, 2002) and High Schools Race and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community (Harvard Education Press, 2012), Blum works in the areas of race studies and moral and political philosophy.
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