Social movements tap into our most primitive emotions, obscuring the complexities of sociopolitical problems. Reason is traded for ideological fervor and skepticism is swapped with religious dogma. Such was the case in 2020 in the wake of several high-profile cases of alleged police brutality involving black victims. Across the US and Western countries worldwide, activists and average citizens alike vigorously protested against a perceived (but empirically refuted) “epidemic of racist police killings.”
A new survey commissioned by Skeptic Research Center reveals the extent to which the public is misinformed on the issue of police violence. Participants across the political spectrum in the nationally representative survey were asked how many unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019. The results were revealing. Overall, nearly half of surveyed liberals (44 percent) estimated roughly between 1,000 and 10,000 unarmed black men were killed whereas 20 percent of conservatives estimated the same.
Most notably, the majority of respondents in each political category believed that police killed unarmed black men at an exponentially higher rate than in reality. Over 80 percent of liberals guessed at least 100 unarmed black men were killed compared to 66 percent of moderates and 54 percent of conservatives. But, according to a close database compiled by Mapping Police Violence, the actual number of black men killed by the police in 2019 is 27.
The second question the survey asked was: “In 2019, what percentage of people killed by police were Black?” While the survey states that the actual percentage is around 25 percent, the average survey respondent guessed 50 percent (58 percent for liberals and 41 percent for conservatives). The disconnect between perception and reality couldn’t be starker.
These findings are hardly surprising. The media has the power to shape perceptions — and when they consistently prejudge, distort and exclusively focus on high-profile cases involving white police officers and black suspects (such as Jacob Blake most recently), it creates an illusion of pervasive police violence perpetrated toward African Americans.
Meanwhile, unarmed white people killed by cops in highly questionable circumstances while reaching for their license during a traffic stop (mistaken for a gun), failing to raise their hands upon police request, lying face down on the ground, or being suffocated to death by wildly excessive force, are ignored by the media. Consequently, the public likely perceives this problem to be almost nonexistent.
It’s no secret the mainstream press have consciously perpetuated narratives of “racial oppression” across their news and opinion pages, leading to racially skewed coverage of police violence and other forms of injustice. As political science doctoral candidate Zach Goldberg has shown in his research, unarmed black victims of fatal police shootings generate staggeringly nine times as many news search results compared to white victims.
This isn’t to say the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Laquan MacDonald and several other black Americans at the hands of law enforcement shouldn’t catch the media’s attention or be peacefully protested on the streets. It’s that they must be honestly scrutinized, and police violence victims of all skin colors must be reported on to accurately inform the public.
Meanwhile, voices of power continue to exploit these tragedies for social currency and political gain. In a presidential ad campaign last fall, Kamala Harris asserted, “Why in this nation do black Americans wake up knowing they could lose their life in the course of just living their life?” In the aftermath of Ahmed Arbery’s tragic killing early in 2020, NBA superstar Lebron James tweeted, “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes!”
Perhaps the most stunning example of this race-driven moral panic is when more than 1,300 public health officials signed a letter last year in support of nationwide BLM protests, claiming “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.” Despite advocating for draconian lockdown measures, public health experts stated, “we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health.”
The continued blurring of political activism and objective reporting has real consequences. Media outlets, politicians, cultural icons, and other voices must take a hard look in the mirror over how they frame and react to an issue as fraught as police brutality.
Otherwise, this cycle will inevitably repeat itself several times over. The next time a cop kills an unarmed black person — no matter the circumstances — it will be sensationalized to fit broad narratives of “systemic racism,” further misleading the public and fueling radical activists and naive politicians to take measures that only harm black lives.
Rav Arora is a writer who specializes in topics of race and criminal justice. Twitter: @Ravarora1