Acton Institute Powerblog

How Christians should think about racism and police brutality

I write this on the Fourth of July that we Americans celebrate the 244th year of our independence as a nation and our “experiment in ordered liberty.” That celebration has been dampened by shrill cries from various public figures not to celebrate but rather to own up to – and repent of – America’s “original sin.” This sin, we are told by both black activists and not a few white guilt-peddlers, has its roots in “systemic” or “structural” racism. Never mind the fact that 1) the “original sin” and slavery began on other continents and has been universal throughout human societies; 2) both of these entities are very much alive today on other continents; and 3) the Christian faith played a significant role – in fact, virtually the only role – in addressing and ending this “sin” in the Western world.

Alas, these are inconvenient facts that are refused the light of day in the current plague (shall we call it a pandemic?) of racial unrest. They are inconvenient, because they do not fit the grand narrative and paradigm of “black victimization” that groups such as Black Lives Matter wish to foist upon the wider culture. And God forbid that radical activists would be grateful to people such as William Wilberforce for the breakthroughs that the Christian faith wrought in our own cultural context. Such serious reflection on recent history spoils the party: In the current cultural climate, once a victim, always a victim (and victimhood, like some credit cards, carries enormous benefits).

As of this date, much has been made of George Floyd’s death at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis. Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Floyd, declared at a public viewing that a “pandemic of racism” actually caused his client’s death. While a commitment to truth – a commodity which is increasingly disdained in Western culture – requires that we be mindful of the past and seek to guard the common good, it also demands an unequivocable commitment to accuracy and understanding of the context in which these events occur.

It is in light of this moral requirement that I offer my own reflections on current cultural developments. They are offered in the spirit of truth-seeking and accuracy with which I was confronted while doing public policy work in criminal justice in Washington, D.C., during the 1990s. That decade constituted a period in which sociologists and criminologists for the first time were willing to acknowledge the problem of absentee fathers as perhaps the chief factor in crime. While fatherlessness might be viewed as a contributing factor in virtually all crime regardless of its racial composition, it is endemic – again, perhaps “pandemic” is more the more accurate term – in the black community as the root cause of crime committed predominately by young males.

This sociological reality, which is supported by the best data and should not be controversial, was slow in being accepted in the 1990s. Today, almost three decades removed, it has been confirmed over and over again. The problem, of course, is that it is “politically incorrect” to identify this scourge of fatherlessness and call it what it is: a plague on our social fabric that in many ways is an enduring pandemic.

The focus of criticism, civil unrest, and revolt during the spring and summer of 2020 has been supposed police “brutality” and a purported racial “discrimination” in the application of police force. Virtually all accounts in the electronic and print media have portrayed George Floyd’s unjustifiable death as a window on wider “systemic” or “structural” racism – period, end of discussion. The criminal justice system – which, we are told, reflects the entire white-dominated culture – is racist and biased against blacks.

But is this narrative accurate? What does the best research indicate? And does it really matter to anyone what the evidence suggests? To pose such questions, of course, is heretical in an era when truth is subjective, experiential, and evasive of public scrutiny. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to examine the evidence – the shrill voices of current-day racial activism notwithstanding.

Contributing to the most recent data of note is a study by David J. Johnson and others titled, “Officer Characteristics and Racial Disparities in Fatal Officer-Involved Shootings,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2019. The authors said their motivation for this study, which followed on the heels of several high-profile police shootings of black males, was a “widespread concern about racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings and that these disparities reflect discrimination by [w]hite officers.” The study notes that existing databases of fatal shootings lack information about officers, and past analytic studies have not been particularly helpful in assessing the contributing factors to crime.

For this reason, the study was designed to create “a comprehensive database of officers involved in fatal shootings during 2015,” with a view to “predict victim race from civilian, officer, and county characteristics.” Contributing to the breadth of this investigation was the fact that it obtained officer information from “all 684 police departments who [sic] had officers involved in a fatal shooting” through January 2016.

Their results? “We did not find evidence for anti-[b]lack or anti-Hispanic disparity in police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything, found anti-[w]hite disparities when controlling for race-specific crime,” the authors wrote. Correlatively, white officers were “not more likely to shoot minority civilians” than non-white officers. Rather, the pattern detected is that “race-specific crime strongly predicts civilian race,” which suggests that “increasing diversity among officers by itself is unlikely to reduce racial disparity in police shootings.”

The study also found: a) a person fatally shot by police was much more likely to be white if that person was suicidal and had mental-health problems; b) black and Hispanic officers were more likely to fatally shoot black and Hispanic civilians than white officers; and c) the test for racial disparities in officer-involved shootings should not be conflated with racial bias. While it found that blacks and Hispanics were more than 50% more likely to experience some form of application of police force, it found no racial differences on the most extreme use of force: officer-involved shootings.

The authors conclude the study with the caveat that these findings cannot be used either to incriminate or exonerate officers in any specific case. “Findings at the national level,” they write, “do not directly speak to the presence or absence of bias in individual shootings.”

Buttressing these findings are the results of a 2016 econometric study done by a black professor of economics at Harvard, Roland G. Fryer Jr. This study – “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force” – was conducted jointly with the National Bureau of Economic Research and appeared in the Journal of Political Economy. Like the aforementioned PNAS study, this analysis notes the lack of readily available data is a primary obstacle to analyzing the use of police force. Until recently, data on officer-involved shootings were “extremely rare and contained little information on the details” of such incidents. Moreover, a mere count of the number of police shootings “does little to explore whether racial differences in the frequency of officer-involved shootings are due to police malfeasance or differences in suspect behavior.”

Of the four datasets used in the Fryer study, the first comes from New York City’s “Stop, Question, and Frisk” program. The second is the “Police-Public Contact Survey,” which surveys a “nationally representative sample of civilians” in terms of their interactions with police. The third gathered information from Florida, Texas, and Los Angeles County on all incidents in which an officer discharged his or her weapon. And the fourth contained a “random sample of police-civilian interactions” from the Houston Police department concerning arrests in which lethal force was likely to be justified.

According to the study’s findings, in the context of non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics “are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police.” At the same time, on the most extreme use of force – namely, officer-involved shootings – the study found “no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.” The patterns in the data, according to the study, are said to be “consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.”

Finally, one of the few national studies to explore whether racial disparities were present in officer-involving shootings involving white police officers was initiated in 2015 and subsequently published in 2019 in the journal Public Administration Review under the title, “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?” Although its findings were based on a relatively small subset (19–23%) of all fatal shootings nationwide, this particular study found that white officers were no more likely to fatally shoot black or Hispanic civilians than non-white officers.

The wider importance of these studies for U.S. race relations remains to be seen. Roland Fryer writes, “It is plausible that racial differences in lower level uses of force are simply a distraction and movements such as Black Lives Matter should seek solutions within their own communities rather than changing the behaviors of police and other external forces.” There is some wisdom in this assessment. Tragically, much of what Black Lives Matter affirms – for example, its attack on the nuclear family – only make the problem worse.

And if, as Fryer worries, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that “the world is discriminatory,” then they are bound to suffer in the long run. A belief in permanent victimhood becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fryer counsel is worth pondering.

As of July 2020, the data and wider cultural indicators simply do not bear out the widely trumpeted accusation of racial disparity or discrimination in the police use of force. In fact, as Manhattan Institute fellow and author of The War on Cops Heather MacDonald argued in the Wall Street Journal, “systemic police racism” is a “myth.” Given the current cultural climate and the manner in which news is presented in electronic or print form, people of goodwill – and especially people of religious conviction – are compelled to make a decision. Will they be coopted uncritically by the false narrative on race being foisted upon them by so many sectors of American society? Will they imbibe a grand narrative that exploits a partial truth but which masquerades as the whole truth? And, most importantly, will they have the moral backbone to challenge that narrative?

Despite the whitewashing of George Floyd in virtually all media accounts, a cursory examination of his unfortunate journey reveals that Floyd did not lead a heroic life. This can be acknowledged even while affirming that police malfeasance is real aand unjustifiable. One outraged bystander who attended Floyd’s public viewing intoned, “This [Floyd’s death] could have been anybody in my family.” The evidence suggests otherwise. According to Harris County (Houston, Texas) court records, Floyd had been arrested nine times between 1997 and 2007. Several were related to the distribution of cocaine, and in 2007, Floyd was charged with armed robbery during a home invasion that resulted in a plea deal and a five-year prison sentence.

After leaving Houston for Minneapolis, Floyd worked as a truckdriver and bouncer and was unemployed at the time of his arrest, which precipitated the fatal charge of using a forged $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a convenience store. There was some controversy over Floyd’s state of mind at the time of his arrest. While police reports indicated that Floyd “physically resisted officers” and listed fentanyl intoxication and the presence of methamphetamine in his system at the time of arrest, the latter were not listed officially in Floyd’s cause of death.

No, George Floyd was not a hero, despite the culture’s rush to crown him as such. The more telling story in this tragic narrative is that, with his siblings, Floyd was “raised” by a single mother who was also “raising” several grandchildren in Houston. He had a six-year old child with an ex-partner, whom he was not living with at the time of his arrest – another child growing up without a father.

Yes, we may grant that children who grow up without a father are “victims,” tragically so. But when they reach adulthood and become a menace to society, we only fool ourselves by continuing to call them “victims.” At that point, these individuals – usually young males – bear responsibility for their own actions of victimizing other individuals and society as a whole.

Given this social decomposition, police do not have it easy; they need our prayers and support. But since the best research indicates that there are no pronounced racial disparities in terms of police use of force in the U.S., then we are confronted with a discomfiting reality. That uncomfortable truth, which we will not hear from any media source, is that we must own up to the wider falsehoods and distorted narratives that we have created or permitted to grow.

American culture is imbibing a distorted narrative on race. Even if all policemen were non-white, the fact is that these problems, rooted in our social pathologies, would remain. As a society, we appear to be unwilling to confront the “root causes” of our chaos. In the American context, a root cause is father-absence, and this pathology is particularly pronounced in the black community. If we cannot honestly “face the music” when truth confronts us, then there is no such thing as “civil society.” At that point, law and order, and the common good, disappear.

In the end, it behooves the church and all honest citizens not to allow the wider culture to set the agenda on race relations but to seek the God of truth in this season of disruption and deception. We must be willing to take a public stand for truth and accuracy. Otherwise, we will ensure the collapse of all distinctions between innocence and guilt, justice and injustice. At that point, society descends into darkness.

Yet the church seems to dance to the tune played by the culture. I recently attended an evangelical church in my area whose head pastor preached on Acts 14. The text describes a plot among Gentiles and Jews to trap the apostle Paul. The preacher applied the text, which focuses on intrigue launched by both Jews and Gentiles, to our present racial strife and used it as a convenient method to decry “white privilege.” Sadly, like many well-intentioned Christian leaders, he missed the mark in his preaching, being overly zealous in his desire to be “socially relevant.” Alas, this is not the teaching of the Bible.

In the days ahead, we need Christian leaders who have not been coopted by the culture but who can articulate the Christian faith in a manner that is both faithful and prophetic. Their catechesis, preaching, and outreach will not reduce disparities in the criminal justice system merely – or even primarily – to issues of race, “discrimination,” and “white privilege.” This distorted narrative, even when it contains a partial truth, ends up hurting those whom it aims to help. It tells minorities that race and class distinctions are far more important than our mutual creation in the image of God. As Gerald McDermott correctly observed in his First Things essay “Race and Redemption,” this narrative becomes a “new religion,” with its own “original sin” (white racism) and even a “baptismal liturgy” (a “confession” of whiteness).

Part of the task of being both faithful and prophetic is the ability to discern truth from error. Alas, following the advice of activist movements such as Black Lives Matter will only dilute our social presence and poison the Gospel’s true message. May the Lord have mercy on us – and give us both discernment and moral courage in the coming days.

(Photo credit: A Black Lives Matter rally in Eugene, Oregon. David Geitgey Sierralupe. CC BY 2.0.)

J. Daryl Charles

J. Daryl Charles, Ph.D., is the Acton Institute Affiliated Scholar in Theology & Ethics, a contributing editor to the journal Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, and an affiliate scholar of the John Jay Institute. He is author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 18 books, including Natural Law and Religious Freedom (Routledge, 2018), (with David D. Corey) The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Books 2012), (with David B. Capes) Thriving in Babylon (Pickwick, 2011), Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008), and most recently, (with Mark David Hall) America’s Wars and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) and Wisdom’s Work: Essays on Ethics, Vocation, and Cultural Engagement (Acton Institute Press, 2019). Charles is co-editor of the recently translated Common Grace series by Abraham Kuyper, part of a 12-volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series produced by the Acton Institute. Charles has taught at Taylor University and Union University, served as director of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice, was a 2013-2014 visiting professor in the honors program at Berry College, served as a 2007-2008 William B. Simon visiting fellow in religion and public life at the James Madison Program, Princeton University, as well as the 2003-2004 visiting fellow of the Institute for Faith & Learning, Baylor University. The focus of Charles’ research and writing is religion and society, Christian social ethics, the just war tradition, and the natural law. His work has been published in a wide array of both scholarly and popular journals, including First Things, Pro Ecclesia, Touchstone, Journal of Church and State, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Journal of Religious Ethics, Books and Culture, Cultural Encounters, Philosophia Christi, The Weekly Standard, Christian Scholar’s Review, and Christianity Today. Prior to entering the university classroom, Charles did public-policy work in criminal justice in Washington, D.C.