What You Can't Say about Black People and the Cops
With John McWhorter
This is an excerpt from a conversation John McWhorter and I had right around the announcement of the Derek Chauvin verdict. You can tell I’m worked up. Not over the verdict itself, which we don’t discuss here, but over the attitudes about policing and race that the trial revealed.
John and I disagree slightly about the contours of the problem. But we both agree that until journalists and politicians are willing to speak up and address themselves to the facts about fatal encounters with the police, crime, and race, our current predicament isn’t going to get any better. In fact, it’s likely to get a whole lot worse.
GLENN LOURY: Daunte Wright. I saw you had a Substack, John.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I did. And I was more vigorous in that Substack than I usually am in saying a very simple thing. The idea that to be Black is to need to walk around in fear of being killed by the cops is a myth. The data makes it clear that Black people do not need to walk around afraid that the cops are going to kill them because of subtle racism. The data doesn't support it.
And yet here we are in yet another news cycle where a hideous thing has happened to a Black person. It's the kind of thing that has happened to white people too, but we never hear about. If it happens to a Black person, national news. People are protesting, people are breaking things, people are rioting, and we're having all the usual editorials about how to be Black is to walk around in fear of the cops and how Minnesota, of all places, has a problem with race, et cetera. And it's just not real.
The reason that I'm mentioning this now is because we're on kind of a year anniversary. It was about a year ago, I think actually the month of April or May, that we first had a conversation about Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, where things took a turn. I think our audience really jumped. It seemed to strike a chord with a certain number of listeners or watchers that we were trying to address the George Floyd thing squarely.
I asked, at the time, and I genuinely didn't know—this is just a year ago—I said, “Would it have happened if he were white?” And I made up Nils Olsen, this white person. It turns out that Tony Timpa is that person. I didn't know. I heard from people who heard me ask. Now I have tried to spread his name as far and wide as I can. But the truth was that there had been a white George Floyd. We tried to talk about this sort of thing. And here we are now.
Can I just address something? I want to make sure Peter Moskos gets credit, the criminologist at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Because he's the guy that brought that to my attention, who brought it to your attention, and had a chronicle, not just of Tony Timple, but of many other cases. I mean, for every Tamir Rice, for every guy shot in a Walmart holding a weapon that's unloaded, there's a white guy that had the same fate. I just want to make sure Peter got credit for that.
Very important, yes. Peter and I have become friends, actually. This is what bothers me about all of this. What you and I are talking about now is simple fact. And what I say in the Substack, because I've said it several times in writing now, is that yes, Black people are killed two-and-a-half times more than our representation in the population. But Black people are also two-and-a-half times more likely to be poor, and being poor attracts the cops to you. That's not fair, but it's also true.
And yet here we are a year later, and it's clear that the way the national conversation goes is such that facts like that are simply not allowed in the conversation. People read these things and ignore them. People read these things and say something against them that doesn't really make any sense. It's just considered to be unsayable outside of certain circles. And I'm not saying that I'm censored. I can say whatever I want. Fine. But it's not the way respectable people are allowed to talk about this sort of thing. People just have their ears closed.
That to me is evidence of a conversation that's very, very fake. And so if I just say, "No, to be Black is not to have to worry more about the cops. No, it's just not true" is considered heretical. It's treated as heresy. It's not treated as a fact that's refutable. It's just heresy. I'm disgusted with this, because that's at the point where that is the main aspect of race that we talk about. And it's all just a fake conversation.
And I say in the Substack piece, I'm done. Very simply, I just say any time now that you hear about cops killing a Black person—and it's a horrible thing—remember that that happened to a white person too, and almost certainly more than one. Just have it as a mental exercise. Think, would a cop not do that to a white person? And the truth is all you have to do is look in the Washington Post database and you'll see that cops have done that to a white person, where brutally, brutally, the media just never said anything about it beyond where they lived. You just don't hear about it.
And so you have these poor people walking around thinking that the cops are always killing Black men, sobbing in the streets, including the relatives of people who get killed like this—which is a terrible thing—who genuinely aren't aware that it happens to people named Dylan, too, because the news never mentioned it. I think this is such a tragedy of our national conversation about something as important as race. It's just broken. It's fake, it's broken, and it's immoral at this point. How do you feel about this?
I want to get your reaction to a couple of thoughts I have here. I don't think your critique goes nearly far enough. First of all, it's not poverty. It's criminality. It's not poverty. It is true, statistically, that you see more trouble with the police amongst poor people than not, but there are poor communities in which you don't see this. It is criminality. It is the behavior of people that calls the attention of the police. That's point number one.
It's not only coming into contact with the police, it's resisting the police. In other words, it's behavior conditional on contacting the police. If you comply with the police directives, you don't get killed. If you don't run, you don't get chased. If you don't resist arrest, you don't have to be restrained. So the conversation is fake at a much deeper level than what you suggest. We are not actually even coming to terms with the ultimate root causes of what's going on, which are ascribed to racism, but which in fact are the vastly disproportionate over-representation of African Americans amongst violent criminals and the disease of leading people to believe that they can resist the police officer in those circumstances in which they come into contact with police without consequence.
That was point number one. Point number two is, why a fake conversation? Because the media abet it and flourish in the context of it, and because demagogues have a financial and a political interest in fostering it. Maxine Waters traveled from Washington, D.C. to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota in order to inspire crowds to resist, resist, resist. Because if a police officer isn't convicted, we're going to be mad as hell and we're going to burn this motherfucker down. That's not a quote, but that's what she was doing. A member of Congress.
Now suppose a Republican pro-Trump person, in the context of a disputed election, had done something similar? We know what the narrative would be. I am unable to find any commentary anywhere in the press, except right wing sources, critical of Maxine Waters' demagogic incitement of violence.
Finally, mobs around courthouses are a catastrophe and an affront to all of our rights, including Derek Chauvin's. Mobs around courthouses demanding that defendants be convicted irrespective of the evidence—'cause we all saw the video—are contemptible, and they deserve to be denounced. The former president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, refuses to say the simple words, "Let justice prevail here. It's the jury's call." Refuses to say, "Don't resist the cops and you won't end up in a violent confrontation with them." Instead he says, "We have to rethink policing from the ground up."
Okay. So the aberrant behavior of a relatively few vicious criminals who end up resisting the police officers and finding themselves in trouble is about to cause this country to descend into riotous and arsonous mayhem. And the organs of responsible journalism refuse to simply say, "The cops are doing their jobs and they're mainly in the right." The cops are mainly in the right. No, they're not perfect, but they are also not the problem here.
We have a very sophisticated conversation about this, in a way, because the idea is you should be able to sustainedly resist arrest without being killed. And I understand where that's coming from. The cops could definitely do better on that. I don't know if you would agree with that, but there is an issue there.
However, it's telling that no one says stop resisting. And the reason that we're not supposed to say stop resisting is because that seems like it's giving in to the man. So we're not gonna actually comply with what these people are imposing, because it's the white supremacist system. So no, it's the system that has to change. You don't say resist.
It's kind of like with the voting laws, where the idea is to say—and I agree with this in principle—stop coming up with these made up notions. Boy, I've caught a lot for saying that here, but to be honest folks, I haven't seen anything to contradict my basic sense that there is a nasty pragmatism involved here rather than fighting anything that would be considered an actual problem under other circumstances. I'm sorry. I've read. I've listened to you. I just don't see it. And I'm not being religiously resistant. Yes, you change that.
But then too few people seem to say, "Black people, just get IDs," which I have said, too. It could be that you fight against it by just saying everybody get a goddamned ID. But that's not talked about as much because the idea is that you have to address the racism. That's what this is. We're not supposed to say, "Wow, Daunte Wright would have been better off if he had just stayed outside of the car." We're just not supposed to talk about that. That's a problem, because a lot of these people would be alive if they didn't resist
Daunte Wright is supposed to have been killed because he had an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror. He's supposed to have been killed because he had a minor warrant outstanding for his arrest for a serious charge. And the implication is we're over-policing. He shouldn't have been pulled over because his tags were expired. This only happens to Black people. The cops are patrolling the communities looking to inflict et cetera on Black people.
It is not just phony, it's a lie. These things are lies. They are intentional distortions. Where is the media? Where is the press? This social justice journalism debases the currency and actually abets the mayhem. You're going to hear about the Capitol Insurrection riot of January 6 again and again and again in the weeks ahead, because God help us, if the jury inside that courthouse doesn't come to the decision that the mob wants then there are going to be people who will say, "Of course, they're going to loot." They're going to people who have say, "You mean to say Black lives don't matter as much as property?" There are people who are going to say, "Of course they will throw projectiles at police officers, because they're angry." Some of them are members of the United States Congress, and they're going to say this.
So we're in deep doo-doo here, man. This is not just an intellectual cul-de-sac or somehow an ethical or moral mistake. This is political disaster that we're flirting with, and it needs to be opposed not just by people like us, who have essentially zero influence, but by the people who command the heights of the Americans public's attention. Political, journalistic, entertainment. I mean, the narrative here is completely off. I'm going to repeat myself. Criminality, violent criminality is at the root of this issue, and Blacks' vast over real representation amongst those committing violent criminal offenses lies at the root of this issue.
Now we could go into why that is, but goddammit, the cops did not cause it. You want to talk about the family? You want to talk about values? You want to talk about hip hop culture? You want to talk about a victimized mentality, where everything gets interpreted through a lens of “my ancestors were enslaved”? You want to talk about the lack of responsibility in this community? Why is a 13-year-old walking on the streets of Chicago at 2:00 AM with a pistol? You think the cops caused that? The root of this problem is a failure of the social development of African Americans, which reflects pathological deficiencies in some part of this culture. The cops didn't cause it and white supremacy didn't cause it either. Tell me I'm wrong.
Well, I would steer away from that word pathological, because it's code in some circles. There are people who are going to hear you say that, and they're going to say that you're saying there's something almost genetically wrong with Black people. And they enjoy policing thought for somebody who says something like that, and they're going to shout it. So I wouldn't use that word. But other than that, yes.
And I am so disappointed at this point, more than I've been in a very long time. It's funny how we're supposed to apply our intelligence. And so, for example, it's clear from studies that the cops tend to be meaner to Black people. That's been shown, that Black people are more likely to be pushed up against a wall, spoken to in a certain way. That's clear.
And something I would also so add to what you just said is that there is the very important study that shows that Black people are pulled over less after the sun goes down, that there does seem to be a certain bias, at least in some regions, against Black people in terms of who you're going to pull over. Probably subconscious, maybe not. That is there. But it's also clear from just looking at the numbers that the cops do not kill Black people in disproportionate numbers.
And, you know, on the one hand, I think people find it very easy to imagine bigotry would make you kill in a tense moment. On the other hand, I find it equally easy to imagine that killing somebody is such a big deal that whatever your subconscious biases, even if you've got a gun, that that's the last place you're going to go, even in a tense situation, unless you're absolutely desperate. I can see the humanity of white people enough to see that as plausible. I guess that makes me a little old-fashioned, a little Martin Luther King.
But yeah, I can imagine that you might be more likely to call somebody a nigger, push them up against the wall, say mean things, single them out on a drug search ‘cause you kind of think Black people are more likely to have drugs in their car even when they're not. But then when it comes to pulling the trigger and taking them out of this world? No, it might not go that far. That is exactly what the data show.
And yet, we are not to say anything about it. You are not to talk about it. We're supposed to predicate all of these actions and editorials and statements and things that we tell our kids based on something that isn't true, while in the meantime we're supposed to do this very sophisticated mental work of understanding how all white people are complicit in something called white supremacy and must work to battle it, even though the white supremacy, according to this paradigm, never really changes.
We have to wrap our head around that racism is systemic. We've got to do the work, do the work. But when it comes to this issue of the cops and Black people, suddenly everything is simple. Suddenly it's just that the cops keep killing Black people because slavery, Jim Crow, redlining. And that's all we're supposed to do. We're being required to be stupid, and dammit, Glenn, I ... Since the nineties, when I started thinking, "I thought everything was getting better since the sixties and my peers seem to think that we still live in 1940. Why?"
I'm not inclined to say that everybody's just crazy. And I was thinking, what is it that makes these people exaggerate the way they do? It was the cops. I've known this since the late nineties. The OJ thing, that explains all of that. And here we are. In Losing the Race, I wrote all these things that people are talking about, the church burnings, the wage gap, all of it is exaggerated, except the cops. I said, yeah, the cops are still a problem, but it doesn't justify the tenor of the way people are talking. But that's what I thought.
Then I talked to you in 2016, and I said, come on Glenn, it's clear that there's a cop problem. What's the list of white people who get killed? And you told me. That was the most iconic moment I've ever had with you. That's when I learned about Peter Moskos. Now here we are five years later, and I get the feeling, Glenn, that there's nothing to be done. I get the feeling it's part of being an intelligent American to be fake about race and the cops. Nothing we say we'll help. We're just two people, but the facts are in Black and white, so to speak.
It is the job of the good reading American to pretend that we didn't say anything. You know, we've got these professional haters, we've got these hatewatchers who sit and watch us for a whole hour. They watch every one of our shows. And then they go on social media and talk about what jackasses we are. Guys, get a hobby. Do you realize that you can ... have you ever had a hamster? Have you ever bred aquarium fish? Have you ever built a ship in a bottle? Have you ever tried to teach yourself Hungarian? Kayaking. Something. Get something else to do.
But the thing is, what they're doing, they're spraying for heresy. They do have a hobby. They are showing that we are Galileo. They have to show the public what idiots we are. And nevertheless, they will never say anything about what Coleman has written, about what I have written, about what Peter has written, about what you have written. All the facts, all the statistics, as if we've never said anything, we're just jackasses and the cops are all about killing Black people and boo hoo hoo. As if we never said anything. As if there's no other way to look at it.
There's an utter numbness, blindness on this topic. And I've noticed that it's been this way for 30 years. You've seen it longer. This isn't going to change, is it? I think we just have to just have to deal with it. There's going to be this myth about Black people and the cops for at least 50 years. It looks like that's the way it's going to be.