Racial Inequality and Police Deaths in the US

Racial Inequality and Police Deaths in the US

Alexandra Wilson

In 2015, 26.5% of police killings in the United States were of African Americans (The Guardian 2015), despite African Americans totalling just 12.6% of the population. With the rise of social media and advanced camera technology, the world is confronted with video recordings, news articles and photographs of the biased policing that has existed in America for decades. My youngest brother, 12 years old at the time that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a white police officer, turned to me and proclaimed that if he lived in America he would never call the police as he would “probably be killed just because [he is] black”. The following question struck me: In a climate where black people are being unjustly killed by the police, would young black people be too afraid to call the police to protect them? My research investigates whether this is the reality for young African Americans.

The study explores whether African American youth perceive a greater threat of police violence than other youth, and hence are more reluctant to call the police in a dangerous situation. I propose that if so, this relationship compounds the extent to which blacks are less protected than whites, since blacks may be more willing to try and handle dangerous situations by themselves.

I conducted surveys and interviews at schools and universities in Providence, RI; Princeton, NJ; and Baltimore, MD. I spoke to 71 young people (all participants were under 25 years old), and I anonymised all responses to protect respondents’ identities. All students were asked to complete a questionnaire, and were then invited to discuss their views in a follow-up semi-structured interview.

The questionnaire was composed of 15 multiple-choice questions, divided into three parts. At the beginning of the questionnaire, participants were asked to identify their race; whether they were a domestic citizen/student or an international student); their age and their gender. Part I, ‘The police’, asked participants about their attitudes to the police and about how protected they feel by the police. Part II, ‘Shootings by police officers’, asked participants for their views on police shootings in America. Part III, ‘Scenarios’, asked participants to select an answer which best suited what they would do in various scenarios. In each of the questions there was an option to call the police, and the scenarios varied in seriousness.

I also conducted in-depth interviews with a variety of people who have a particular connection to the issue of police violence. I arranged interviews with a former NAACP Vice President, an African American police officer, and an “Emergency Medical” worker in Baltimore’s John Hopkins hospital.

The responses to the questionnaires and interviews led to the following four findings. Firstly, it was evident that young African Americans felt the least protected, by the police, of all racial groups (blacks, whites, Hispanics and ‘other’). None of the African Americans I surveyed and interviewed felt that they were always protected by the police, whereas at least 30% of people in each other racial group claimed they always felt protected by the police. Secondly, people of all racial groups in this study recognised the discriminatory policing that exists in the US. Over 50% of respondents in each racial group chose ‘whites’ as the most protected group; and over 60% of respondents in each racial group chose ‘blacks’ as being the most likely group to be shot by the police. On each question there was an option for the respondent to deny police bias, so participants were not forced to only choose between racial groups.

The third finding was that the African Americans in this study were the least likely to call the police in all dangerous scenarios, such as seeing a fight with a knife or gun, and seeing a stranger threaten someone with a gun. However, closer inspection revealed that whilst black men were highly reluctant to call the police, black women’s responses appeared similar to other groups’ responses, in that they were willing to the call the police. The explanation I offer for this phenomenon is not that black women do not feel threatened. In the non-dangerous scenario of knowing someone had an illegal gun, black women were the least likely of all groups (including black men) to call the police. This suggests that black women are not comfortable with calling the police unless they directly feel threatened, which distinguishes them from other racial groups.

Hence, the fourth finding was that black women’s experiences ought not to be conflated with black men’s, or non-black women’s. African American women were the only group where all respondents claimed they were either ‘sometimes’ threatened or ‘always’ threatened by the police. Black women have two spheres in which they may feel more threatened. Firstly, on the racial dimension, since African American people are disproportionately killed and imprisoned. Secondly, on the basis of gender, when women are made vulnerable to majority-white-male police forces.

I discovered a correlation amongst black men between their perception of police violence and their likelihood of calling the police in a given scenario. Black men perceived the threat of police violence against them to be high, and were the most reluctant group to call the police in dangerous scenarios. It seems that an even higher perceived threat (or a double-threat) reverses this correlation in African American women and increases the likelihood of calling the police in a given scenario. Whilst black women perceived a high threat of police violence against them, in most of the dangerous situations presented, they remained willing to call the police.  Nonetheless, black women were more reluctant than other groups (even black men) to call the police in non-dangerous situations. I suggest that this finding highlights that black women are more reluctant to call the police than other racial groups, as are black men, but would often choose to anyway, perhaps because being both female and black compounds their vulnerability.

This study has highlighted further opportunities for research. It has shown that black women’s experiences are unique and ought not to be conflated with the black male discourse. This project has revealed that there needs to be further investigation into the differences between black males’ and black females’ experiences of police violence.


Alexandra Wilson completes her undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at University College, Oxford in June 2016. The research reported here was conducted for her honours thesis.

Image: Fibonacci Blue. CC BY 2.0