March 2, 2018
9:04 AM ET
On the afternoon of April 13, 2014, Dontre Hamilton was lying on the ground near
a bench in a Milwaukee city park. A police officer on patrol walked over to
Hamilton and asked him to stand up. Their encounter would end in disaster.
The officer patted Hamilton down for weapons — which the police chief later said
was not in line with department policy as Hamilton posed no apparent danger —
and Hamilton, who had a history of mental health issues, grabbed the officer's
baton. The officer in turn pulled out his service weapon. By the end of the
interaction, Hamilton was dead, shot 14 times.
What happened to Hamilton part of a larger national phenomenon, in which unarmed
black people are more likely to be shot and killed by the police than unarmed
white people. And according to new research from the Boston University School of
Public Health, there is no state where that disparity is larger than in
The study's authors say that the biggest reason for that difference is
That finding was part of a study that the authors say is the first of its kind:
an examination of how much structural racism shapes fatal police shootings. But
in order to examine structural racism, the researchers first needed a way to
capture it. So they created a metric called the "state racism index." It took
state-level data on black-white residential segregation, as well as disparities
in educational attainment, employment status, economic status, and incarceration
status, and scored each of these variables. Those scores were then tabulated
into a number on on a zero to 100 scale; the higher the number, the more
pronounced the structural racism in a state.
Wisconsin topped the researchers' list with a state racism index of 74.9,
followed by Minnesota (70.0), New Jersey (68.5) , Illinois (67.8) and
Connecticut (63.9). (For comparison, the lowest state racism score belonged to
Montana, at 25.9, followed by Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Nevada, which
all had scores below 35.)
According to Michael Siegel, one of the study's authors, one variable in their
racism index mattered more than the rest. "The more racially segregated the
neighborhoods in a state, the more striking the ratio of black to white police
shootings of unarmed victims," Siegel said.
"It came as a surprise to me personally," Siegel said. "Traditionally, we're
taught that racism is [most visible] in the South, but we're seeing here that
it's the Midwest and the Northeast."
Siegel said the findings underlined the different regional mechanics of American
racism. In the South, the oppressive systems of slavery violently entrenched
racial caste in a way that, paradoxically, brought black and white Southerners
into fraught social and geographic proximity. But black Southerners who moved to
the North in the early 20th century for jobs in big industrial centers like
Milwaukee, Chicago, and Newark, settled into racially and economically isolated
neighborhoods and ghettos. That separation was maintained through insidious
housing policies like redlining. While the legal underpinnings of segregation in
the South were formally, if not practically, overturned by the courts, the ways
cities in the North and Midwest maintain segregation are enduring and hard to
see. That means major metro areas outside of the South are among the nation's
most diverse and most deeply partitioned.
So why does black-white residential segregation influence fatal police shootings
of unarmed black people? One theory is that segregated black neighborhoods tend
to be more heavily policed than others. That's definitely true in Wisconsin: the
state incarcerates a higher percentage of its black male population than any
other in the country — and it's not even particularly close. A study from 2013
found that in Milwaukee, the state's largest city, half of all black men between
the ages 30 and 40 have been behind bars at some point in their lives. And the
city's 53206 ZIP code is 95 percent black and has the highest incarceration rate
of any in the country.
But Siegel says that doesn't explain the whole story, and instead suggests that
residential segregation manipulates implicit bias — the way people of all races
subconsciously internalize ideas about the dangers of certain racial groups. "We
know that officers...have to make split-second decisions in situations of high
perceived threat, and you can see how officers who work in a so-called 'black'
neighborhood can perceive a much higher level of threat than officers who are
working a similar beat in a white or mixed community," Siegel said. "It doesn't
seem to be the case that all police officers out there have an equal level of
implicit bias — of course they all do to some degree — but we're finding that
implicit bias is much more marked in states that have higher degrees of
In other words: the more segregated a place, the more intense the personal bias
of its police officers; the more pronounced that bias, the more it creeps into
their interactions with black residents, with sometimes deadly results.
Siegel said he hopes the research helps move debates about police violence away
from the language of rogue cops and "bad apples" and toward addressing the
conditions that make those shootings more likely.
Writing about the wave of deadly encounters — many caught on
video — between unarmed black people and police officers often draws a
particular criticism from a particular subset of readers.
It is some variation of this:
“Why are you not writing about the real problem — black-on-black crime? Young
black men are far more likely to be killed by another young black man than by
the police. Why do people not seem to protest when those young people are
killed? Where is the media coverage of those deaths?”
This to me has always felt like a deflection, a juxtaposition meant to use one
problem to drown out another.
Statistically, the sentiment is correct: Black people are more likely to be
killed by other black people. But white people are also more likely to be killed
by other white people. The truth is that murders and other violent crimes are
often crimes of intimacy and access. People tend to kill people they know.
The argument suggests that police killings are relatively rare and therefore
exotic, and distract from more mundane and widespread community violence. I view
it differently: as state violence versus community violence.
People are often able to understand and contextualize community violence and,
therefore, better understand how to avoid it. A parent can say to a child: Don’t
run with that crowd, or hang out on that corner or get involved with that set of
A recent study by scholars at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at
Yale found that homicides cluster and overwhelmingly involve a tiny group of
people who not only share social connections but are also already involved in
the criminal justice system.
We as adults can decide whether or not to have guns in the home. According to a
study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, having a gun may increase the chances
of being the victim of homicide. We can report violent family members.
And people with the means and inclination can decide to move away from
high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.
These measures are not 100 percent effective, but they can produce some measure
of protection and provide individual citizens with some degree of personal
State violence, as epitomized in these cases by what people view as police
abuses, conversely, has produced a specific feeling of terror, one that is
inescapable and unavoidable.
The difference in people’s reactions to these different kinds of killings isn’t
about an exaltation — or exploitation — of some deaths above others for
political purposes, but rather a collective outrage that the people charged with
protecting your life could become a threat to it. It is a reaction to the
puncturing of an illusion, the implosion of an idea. How can I be safe in
America if I can’t be safe in my body? It is a confrontation with a most
discomforting concept: that there is no amount of righteous behavior, no
neighborhood right enough, to produce sufficient security.
It produces a particular kind of terror, a feeling of nakedness and
vulnerability, a fear that makes people furious at the very idea of having to be
The reaction to police killings is to my mind not completely dissimilar to
people’s reaction to other forms of terrorism.
The very ubiquity of police officers and the power they possess means that the
questionable killing in which they are involved creates a terror that rolls in
like a fog, filling every low place. It produces ambient, radiant fear. It is
the lurking unpredictability of it. It is the any- and everywhere-ness of it.
The black community’s response to this form of domestic terror has not been so
different from America’s reaction to foreign terror.
The think tank New America found in June that 26 people were killed by jihadist
attacks in the United States since 9/11 — compared with 48 deaths from “right
wing attacks.” And yet, we have spent unending blood and treasure to combat
Islamist terrorism in those years. Furthermore, according to Gallup, half of all
Americans still feel somewhat or very worried that they or someone in their
family will become a victim of terrorism.
In one of the two Republican debates last week, Senator Lindsey Graham of South
Carolina seemed to be itching for yet another antiterrorism war, saying at one
point: “I would take the fight to these guys, whatever it took, as long as it
Whatever, however, long. This is not only Graham’s position, it’s the position
of a large segment of the population.
Responding to New America’s tally, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post
“Americans have accepted an unprecedented expansion of government powers and
invasions of their privacy to prevent such attacks. Since 9/11, 74 people have
been killed in the United States by terrorists, according to the think tank New
America. In that same period, more than 150,000 Americans have been killed in
gun homicides, and we have done … nothing.”
And yet, we don’t ask “Why aren’t you, America, focusing on the real problem:
Americans killing other Americans?”
Is the “real problem” question reserved only for the black people? Are black
people not allowed to begin a righteous crusade?
One could argue that America’s overwhelming response to the terror threat is
precisely what has kept the number of people killed in this country as a result
of terror so low. But, if so, shouldn’t black Americans, similarly, have the
right to exercise tremendous resistance to reduce the number of black people
killed after interactions with the police?
How is it that we can understand an extreme reaction by Americans as a whole to
a threat of terror but demonstrate a staggering lack of that understanding when
black people in America do the same?