U.S. Attorney General William Barr disputed the concept of “systemic racism” in America’s police departments Thursday, telling National Public Radio “it is wrong to demonize all the police” based on cherry-picked statistics.
Steve Inskeep, a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, interviewed Barr about several subjects relating to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Trump Administration before shifting into a discussion of race and law enforcement, teed up by Barr’s recent remarks contesting “systemic racism” in the wake of several high-profile killings of black Americans like George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
“A black man in the United States, statistically, is far more likely to be shot by a police officer than someone of a different race,” Inskeep asked. “Why do you think that is?”
“There are 8,000 blacks who are killed every year,” Barr replied. “Eighty-five percent of them are killed by gunshots. Virtually all of those are blacks on blacks,” he explained. If put in “perspective,” he argued, the data on police-involved shootings does not fit the narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement — which goes as far as accusing police of “genocide” or saying that black Americans are “systemically targeted for demise.”
There are many whites who are shot unarmed by police. Now, those numbers, as I said, have been going down in the past. Five years ago it was 38 African-Americans who were unarmed were shot by police. Thirty-eight in a year. This past year it was 10. Of those six were physically attacking the police when they were shot. So you have to put it in perspective.
And that’s why, you know, I think it is wrong to demonize all the police and all the police departments, as you know, systemically racist and going out looking to shoot unarmed black men. I’ve seen some cases where it appeared gratuitous, and obviously, those are serious cases and are pursued by the Department of Justice’s civil rights violations, which is the statute we have to address those issues. But some of them, while use of excessive force, you know … during struggles and other things. So I think you have to put these in perspective.
Barr also told NPR that media outlets distort the news about police killings:
These are not events that happen every day. I know that the media is very interested them, as everyone is interested in them [crosstalk]. Well, everyone’s interested in it. But I think the media is ignoring the fact that 8,000 African Americans are killed by crime in high-crime areas, and 10 were killed last year by police, six of whom were under attack when they shot.
A May 2020 report by the Washington Post reluctantly admitted that police killings of black men have dropped by more than half during the last few years:
In 2015, the first year The Post tallied these numbers [of police shootings], officers killed 94 unarmed people, the largest group among them black men: 38.
The following year saw a large drop in the number of unarmed shootings, declining to 51, with 22 of those killed being white and 19 black. The number has remained relatively steady each year since. In 2019, 56 unarmed people were shot and killed by police, with white people accounting for 25 of them, while 15 of them were black.
Barr’s point on homicide and black Americans has been acknowledged across partisan lines. For instance, in July 2016, President Barack Obama said the statistics on this issue are “crazy”:
It is absolutely true that the murder rate in the African-American community is way out of whack compared to the general population. And both the victims and the perpetrators are black, young black men. The single greatest cause of death for young black men between the ages of 18 and 35 is homicide. And that’s crazy. That is crazy.
A study produced by then-President Obama’s DOJ provides similar data about murders and race from 1980 to 2008. The report noted:
Blacks were disproportionately represented as both homicide victims and offenders. The victimization rate for blacks (27.8 per 100,000) was 6 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000). The offending rate for blacks (34.4 per 100,000) was almost 8 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000).
The nation’s murder rate rose sharply after Obama tacitly supported 2014’s anti-police riots and the Black Lives movement. However, murder rates dropped sharply when President Donald Trump dropped Obama’s policies.
Barr concluded that, while President Trump’s economic and education policies have been good for black Americans, there are still more civil rights battles to be fought, particularly that of school choice:
I do think that there are some impediments to the advancement of African Americans in society. The principal, one of the principal ones, not the principal one, is that they are being deprived of equal opportunity to attend good schools. And that’s, I think that’s one of the civil rights issues of our time. I think that they should we should essentially give these inner-city families the buying power to send their kids wherever they want to send them.
The Attorney General has consistently pushed back on broad-brush condemnations of America’s police. “I think the overwhelming number of police officers try contentiously to use appropriate and reasonable force,” he told a New York Times reporter in early June. Later that week, he told CBS News: “the vast, overwhelming majority of police are good people. They’re civic minded people who believe in serving the public. They do so bravely. They do so righteously.”