George Floyd was brutally killed by police officers—probably murdered, in fact, in the technical legal sense of that term. However, beyond that fact, which virtually all people of good will agree on, nearly every aspect of the narrative that grew up instantly around his tragic and senseless death has collapsed or seems likely to do so. The already-standard account is that Floyd was killed by white cops in a vicious display of pure racism, that the killing is evidence of patterns of institutional bias throughout policing and America itself, and that the riots following Floyd’s death represented an almost-justified lashing out at white society.
All of this is questionable or outright false, and the mainstream media, which abandoned a previous frenzied narrative about COVID-19 for this older one of race war, bears great responsibility for presenting it.
The center-left mainstream media has almost universally argued that Floyd’s killing was an intentional act of anti-black racism. Following the tragedy, the BBC website ran a headline that read “George Floyd: ‘Pandemic of Racism’ Led to His Death” and quoted memorial speaker Al Sharpton to this effect. The New Yorker went with “The Killing of George Floyd and the Origins of American Racism,” while Al Jazeera chose “George Floyd: UN Rights Boss Slams ‘Structural Racism’ in USA.” Not to be outdone, the New York Times opined that it was not even racism that felled George Floyd, but rather the even more specific and disturbing problem of “anti-blackness.”
In reality, fairly little evidence points to Floyd’s killing being an act specifically of racism, rather than of criminally bad policing that should be punished by jury and judge. Virtually forgotten in the entire George Floyd conversation is that there were four officers on the scene when he died, at least three of whom apparently restrained Floyd—only two of whom could be considered white. Tou Thao, age 34, is of Hmong descent, while J. Alexander Kueng is a Korean-surnamed speaker of multiple languages with a college degree in sociology. Neither of these officers apparently confronted the knee-wielding Sergeant Derek Chauvin at any point during his restraint of Floyd.
Even the conclusion that Chauvin’s own motivation was “anti-blackness” is far from obvious. The most disturbing of several misconduct charges against him came from white Twin Cities resident Melissa Borton. Moreover, Chauvin was in an interracial marriage with a woman from the Philippines at the time of Floyd’s death. It is also notable that Floyd himself had worked security at the same Minneapolis club that employed a moonlighting Chauvin, and that the two might well have known and personally disliked each other.
Many recent “race violence” stories have shared this tendency—the denial of all-too-human complexity in favor of a simple and crude storyline. The shooting of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in rural Georgia was originally presented to the public as a near-lynching: A “black body” was cut down simply for running out of doors. The reality appears to have been far more messy. During December 2019 and January 2020, residents of the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was killed reported, while posting on the neighborhood’s Facebook page and NextDoor accounts, at least three break-ins or thefts, including one theft of costly firearms. The day of the shooting, a security camera set up to monitor a new-build construction site in the same area observed Arbery illegally entering the building.
Assuming Arbery might be the repeat burglar, three males aware of the security-cam footage—Greg and Travis McMichael and neighbor William Bryan—set off to pursue him in a small convoy of vehicles and initiated the confrontation that led to a fight and Arbery’s killing. Of course, and without question, none of this backstory justifies the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was fired on with a shotgun in a public street and may in addition have been struck by a truck. Racial attitudes may well have played some role in the violence, as an ethnic slur for Arbery was apparently used at one point. More important, in 2020, Americans of all colors are not allowed to resolve neighborhood disputes via “posse.” But these actual facts strongly imply that race was not the sole factor in this case, and possibly not the most important one.
The narratives of undeniable racism surrounding individual tragedies such as Floyd’s begin to lose their clarity upon close examination. But close examination is not what we get from our town criers. The consensus position of the center-left in the United States is that there is an extraordinary wave of widely tolerated police and citizen violence against people of color. Benjamin Crump, the well-known attorney who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in a street-level confrontation by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Florida, recently published Open Season: The Legalized Genocide of Colored People—an Amazon bestseller with 272 posted reviews and a reader rating of 4.8/5. However, the claim made in Crump’s title is untrue to a remarkable extent, and the fact that this is not more widely known is surprising and troubling.
Excellent data on police violence are easily available, and they torpedo the “genocide” claim—and for that matter any narrative about generally out-of-control policing. According to the Washington Post’s police-killings database, the gold standard in this field from a left-leaning publication, the total number of unarmed black persons killed by police during 2019 was 15. There are 42 million Black people in the United States. The overall number of unarmed individuals killed by police during that year was 56. Even adding in all those armed with a weapon or attacking officers, police in 2019 took exactly 229 black lives, out of a total of 1,004 among the 330 million people living in America.
Nor was 2019 an outlier year. While preparing my book Taboo: Ten Facts You Can’t Talk About, I reviewed the fairly typical year of 2015 in depth. That year, not even 365 days into the Black Lives Matter movement and resultant attempts at police reform, police killed at most 1,200 people, 258 of whom were African American and just 17 of whom were unarmed black men killed by white officers—numbers virtually identical to 2019’s. Further, and notably, even the small difference between the 12–14 percent representation of blacks in the U.S. population and the 23 percent representation of blacks among police-shooting victims during these two years vanishes totally if we adjust for the victim-reported black crime rate, which is 2.4 times the white rate as per the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report. No statistical analysis is perfect, and there may be some African Americans contained within the “Unknown” category of the Washington Post database, or the odd “armed” suspect who was merely waving a golf club. But the data simply do not support claims about broadly abusive or “genocidal” policing. It is true that one brutal killing by a police officer is one too many. But to apply a term suitable to describe the Holocaust or the Cambodian “killing fields” is to commit an intellectual and statistical crime against simple fact.
What is true for police violence holds true for inter-race crime in general: There is rather little of it, and it is not overwhelmingly targeted at black people. According to the 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report breaking down criminal victimization in the United States, only 3.3 percent of all crimes (607,727 out of 18,564,780) and 12 percent of violent crimes were violent criminal victimizations involving blacks and whites—the races traditionally seen as having been in conflict in the United States. Rates of inter-racial criminal victimization were unsurprisingly low for all non-Asian groups: Only 15.3 percent of crimes against whites were committed by blacks, who make up 12–14 percent of the American population, and 10.6 percent of crimes against blacks were committed by whites.
Furthermore—and this point ventures into taboo territory and is rarely uttered in mainstream discourse—the large majority of the black/white inter-racial crime that does occur is black-on-white. In 2018, 547,949 serious crimes involved a black perpetrator and a white victim, while only 59,778 involved a white perp and a black victim. This is not surprising, given that there are more whites than blacks in the United States, whites have more money on average, and the overall black violent-crime rate is again 2.4 times the white rate. But these plain facts destroy the narrative of consistent violent victimization of black Americans.
Given this context, the riots following George Floyd’s death must be seen in a new light.
Again, the mainstream narrative has been that aggressively protesting and even out-and-out rioting in Floyd’s name is understandable, and perhaps actively virtuous. The Guardian’s primary headline on the matter was “The George Floyd Protests—and Riots—Are a Rebellion against an Unjust System.” GQ opted for “Why Violent Protests Work,” while a fairly nuanced piece in the Atlantic was nonetheless titled “Riots Are the American Way.” Some articles in this vein lionized rioters, with the Guardian’s Philip McHarris saying: “When people are systematically beaten, killed, and not given the resources to thrive, rebellion becomes inevitable.” He went on to note that, while some scolds might use the word “violent” to describe actions like the total “destruction of the 3rd precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department,” the true violence is “police violence, white vigilantism, and poverty.”
What? McHarris is passionate and doubtless sincere, but knowing the actual “56 people killed, 15 of them black” numbers for fatal police encounters in the U.S. adds a different gloss. What seems quite apparent to me, from police scanners and on-the-ground reports from local papers, is that mobs of rioters and looters torched a great many small local businesses, many if not most of them minority-owned. The Minnesota sub-page of the website bringmethenews.com provides a fairly full list of all of the businesses burned, looted, or badly damaged in Minneapolis during the first several days of rioting. These were stores and restaurants such as Tom’s Barbershop, Mama Safia, Bismallah Grocery and Coffee, Safari Beauty Supply, Plaza Mexico, and the Piff Streetwear urban boutique, most of which were presumably not owned by white nationalists. In fact, the diverse and largely Caucasian composition of the Minneapolis mob specifically paved the way for a truly surreal set of images: On more than a few occasions, Caucasian thugs burned or looted successful minority businesses while chanting “Black Lives MATTER!”
Whether burnt by white criminals or black ones, a great many of the ruined businesses no longer exist to serve the working-class communities that previously depended on them, in Minneapolis and nationwide, following the spread of the rioting. This result is, and has been since the 1960s, one of the saddest but most predictable consequences of urban riots. On June 3, 2020, after just three days of violent clashes in my hometown of Chicago, the website of the local CBS News affiliate ran the heartbreaking headline: “Chicago’s South Side Left with Few Food Options after Weekend Violence.” Criminals had already looted not only small and midsize businesses such as Mariano’s grocery in the Bronzeville neighborhood, but also the one Walmart in the area and a large and well-stocked Jewel-Osco on 75th Street—“the grocery store” for the area.
As a result, CBS reporters noted frankly, “Chicago now has food deserts” in proud working-class black areas that “were not food deserts before.” Actual residents of the area were predictably angry and despondent, with one man named William Wright looking at the ruined Jewel and noting: “I take my grandma here every Sunday.” He went on to add: “What did we accomplish, aside from tak[ing] our property value down and embarrassing ourselves?” Emir Lyons, identified as an activist, essentially agreed, saying: “Now you have to go out of your way to get [basic] stuff. People that do not have a car. People that do not have family and friends.”
There were virtually identical scenes and quotes in 1968, when businesses burned across the country, or during and after 1992’s Los Angeles riots. And a cold reality underlies these comparisons. Without discounting the continuing reality of some racism, those riots are obviously a major reason quite a few poor and particularly black communities in cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles are no longer home to many successful businesses. Businesspeople are unlikely to build out and stock stores in places where people are likely to burn them down. Fighting passionately but on the basis of misleading data, rioters have likely set the economies of many inner-city neighborhoods back years.
However, they do not bear sole responsibility for this disaster. To a remarkable degree, mainstream media and even America’s corporate brands have played a significant role in promoting the conventional police-brutality narrative. In addition to the many headlines already mentioned, the Washington Post printed an essay on June 4 that called for an immediate ban on all television cop shows and heroic movies featuring the police—with these perhaps to be replaced by a depressing version of Special Victims Unit where flawed “characters cleared only 33.4 percent of rape cases.” The USA Today network of newspapers, on May 31, ran an Alexis Williams op-ed titled “Your Black Friends Feel Fear Every Day. Every Single Day.” The author describes herself as having been “absolutely stricken with fear” of police or citizen violence on a day when she wore downscale clothes to go for a short drive, and as generally being willing to go outdoors only in name-brand items so that “no one calls the police and I don’t die.”
Not to be outdone, the New York Times published a piece entitled “White Friends, Fight Anti-Blackness.” It opened: “My book is coming out in a few months, and I don’t know if I’ll be alive to see it, because I’m a black man.” Chad Sanders went on to encourage readers to tell their relatives, presumably including seniors, that “you will not be visiting them or answering phone calls until they take significant action in supporting black lives,” either through actual street protest or “financial contributions.” I have no doubt that Williams and Sanders are pleasant, normal-enough people who truly believe what they are saying. But, by presenting a great deal of this sort of stuff and almost never the real—and calming—numbers on police violence and interracial crime, they and the editors who published them have dramatically failed in their most basic duty to the American people.
This is especially true given COVID-19. For months before the George Floyd protests began, media outlets produced a terrifying daily drumbeat of coronavirus stories, featuring clips of a fellow dressed as Death strolling down the crowded Florida beaches. At the same time, the media (in my opinion) consistently downplayed positive COVID developments such as the CDC’s transition in late May from a projected infection fatality rate (IFR) of 1–2 percent to a projected IFR of 0.26 percent.
And yet we saw the high-intensity narrative of panic end literally overnight, as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of closely jam-packed people filled the streets of every major city. Many journalists and broadcasters approvingly cited a letter from some 1,200 left-leaning epidemiologists and supporters who called for “public health narratives adjacent to demonstrations against racism [to] be consciously anti-racist,” and stated: “We support them as vital to the national public health.” The letter went on to note that such white-coated tolerance did not extend to less-woke events: “This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings…particularly protests against stay-at-home orders.” Even the gentleman who had dressed up as the Grim Reaper now tweeted out a photo of himself enjoying a nice protest on a sunny day.
Viruses, of course, do not care about the political leanings of those packed together in spittle-filled public spaces. If the media were right about COVID-19’s lethality, promotion of the 2020 protests without constantly noting the attendant dangers may end up ranking as the most tragic virtue signal of our time.
The situation surrounding the death of George Floyd is complex, because human beings and the world we occupy are complex. Certainly, the standard three-part conventional-liberal narrative about the tragedy should collapse upon any serious contemplation. George Floyd’s death was an example of brutal and abusive policing, but there is little evidence that the team of officers, 50 percent of whom qualify as “people of color,” was composed of rabid racists. Police brutality certainly occurs and must be punished, but the total number of unarmed black citizens killed by police officers in 2019 was 15. The George Floyd protests may well have been inspired by the best of intentions, but the riots that followed came to consist largely of diverse mobs burning minority businesses.
What to do about all this? Strong leadership from the White House, ranging from a major policy speech on policing to deployment of the National Guard where still needed, would be extraordinarily welcome. At the local and regional level, leaders must protect both the right of activists to peacefully protest and the right of all citizens to be secure in their homes and businesses. But we should also, now and in the future, take an additional step and loudly demand some actual facts from those whose job it is to provide them.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.