- Killings of black men by whites are far more likely to be ruled “justifiable,” compared to other races. Justifiable homicides often occur when a police officer or civilian kills someone committing a crime or in self-defense. It’s impossible to say whether white-on-black, justifiable homicides are due to racism, but experts say implicit bias could be at play.
When a white person kills a black man, the killer is eight times more likely to face no legal consequences (compared to homicides involving other combinations of races). Courts consider these cases justifiable homicides.
A new report from criminal justice nonprofit The Marshall Project found that there is no criminal ruling in one in six killings (17%) of black men by non-Hispanic white people. That figure is far higher than in homicides involving other combinations of races. Overall, the police say that fewer than 2% of homicides by civilians are justifiable.
For perspective, when Hispanics kill black men, about 5.5% of cases are considered justifiable. When non-Hispanic whites kill Hispanics, it is 3.1%. When blacks kill whites, it is a mere 0.8%.
The researchers analyzed 400,000 homicides committed by civilians between 1980 and 2014, using FBI data provided by police departments. They looked at information on each killer and victim’s location, age, race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as the possible reasoning for the homicide (e.g. due to a “lover’s triangle” or influence of alcohol).
In the data, they found the rate for white-on-black-male killings as a strong outlier, Daniel Lathrop, a researcher who conducted the study and a University of Iowa professor, told Business Insider.
In justifiable homicide cases, the racial disparity in rulings endured across ages, cities, and relationships between the victim and killer. For example, when Houston police investigated homicides of black men by whites from 1980 to 2014, 37% were considered justifiable. But looking at all homicides in the city, just 3% were justifiable.
The report says that justifiable homicides often occur when a police officer or civilian kills someone committing a crime or in self-defense.
Research on the role of race in justifiable homicides that do not involve the police is new. As The New York Times notes, The Marshall Project’s report is on a larger scale and analyzes data over a longer time period than most previous research, much of which has centered on highly debated Stand Your Ground laws.
In the US, self-defense laws, which exist in over half the states, allow Americans to use deadly force when they have reasonable belief it is necessary to defend themselves or others.
From 1980 to 2014, the percent of justifiable homicides has remained relatively stable. When the victim is black and the killer is white, the percentages sharply decreased or increased depending on the year. But compared to 1980, that percentage is roughly the same today (21% then, 18% in 2014).
- The Marshall Project
The report puts white-on-black, justifiable homicides that have made recent headlines into stark perspective. In a number of highly-publicized cases of white cops and civilians killing black men – including Trayvon Martin in Florida, Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Tamir Rice in Ohio – the black victims were unarmed, yet their white killers were not convicted of a crime.
The report also opens a discussion on the increased visibility of violent white extremists in the US. As Slate notes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been 36 deadly attacks (with 242 victims, though not all are people of color) by white extremists since 1995. (Most, but not all, have been convicted.)
It’s impossible to determine whether bias, implicit or not, causes most white-on-black homicide cases. But the racial disparities in how the police classify these deaths can’t easily be dismissed.
“Sources we interviewed told us that the fear associated with stereotypes of black men could explain why the killings were more likely to be categorized this way,” Lathrop said. “While disparity does not prove bias, such a large and persistent disparity without any other way to explain it should be disturbing.”