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Opinion If you don’t believe systemic racism is real, explain these statistics

Protesters march in Washington on June 6. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Again with the apples. Now comes President Trump, not only blaming “bad apples” for police brutality but asserting that “there are not too many of them.” The problem, in his view, is just “a few” bad cops — and that’s to be expected. “You always have a bad apple, no matter where you go,” Trump offered at a roundtable in Dallas.

No surprise there. A procession of senior Trump officials — among them his attorney general, acting homeland security secretary and national security adviser — have dismissed the notion that systemic racism infects police departments or the criminal justice system more broadly.

Trump might have heard a different perspective in Dallas had he bothered to include the local police chief, sheriff or district attorney, all African Americans. The district attorney, John Creuzot, would have been enlightening. “Well, that’s not reality,” Creuzot told CNN’s Chris Cuomo about Trump’s bad-apples assessment. “I think any serious person who wants to be honest about these issues understands that there is systemic racism not only in police institutions but in most of our American institutions.”

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Trump, ever unimpeded by confrontations with uncomfortable reality, blusters on. But the evidence of systemic racism, as my colleague Radley Balko has concluded after an examination of the academic literature, “isn’t just convincing — it’s overwhelming.”

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police and vigilantes are part of bigger injustices felt by these black Americans. (Video: The Washington Post)

For those who reflexively bristle at the term, Balko makes an important point: To declare the system racist is not to brand those who participate in it as intentionally, repugnantly, guilty of prejudice. It is to say that “we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them.”

If you question the accuracy of that statement, please explain:

● Why study after study shows that police disproportionately stop African American drivers and disproportionately search African American drivers after stopping them, even though they tend to find less contraband.

A study published last month of nearly 100 million traffic stops by police departments nationwide found that black drivers were far more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. But, interestingly, the difference becomes smaller at night, when it’s harder for police to see the race of the driver. Coincidence? I think not.

Meanwhile, black and Hispanic drivers “were searched about twice as often as stopped white drivers”— even though black and, to an even greater extent, Hispanic drivers were less likely than whites to be found with drugs.

● Why a study of police-shooting databases published by the National Academy of Sciences found that African American men were about 2 1/2 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. “Men of color face a non-trivial lifetime risk of being killed by police,” the authors wrote. For African American men, the lifetime risk of dying at the hands of police was 1 in 1,000.

The Post’s own comprehensive examination of police shootings showed that black Americans account for just 13 percent of the population but one-fourth of shooting victims. Among unarmed victims, the disparity was even greater: More than one-third of those fatally shot were black.

● Why African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for petty crimes. A 2018 study exposed “profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate for most — but not all — offense types.” The black arrest rate was at least twice as high as that for whites for disorderly conduct, drug possession, simple assault, theft, vagrancy and vandalism.

A 2020 study of marijuana possession arrests by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that even in an era of legalization and decriminalization, there were “stark racial disparities” in possession arrests, with a black person more than 3 1/2 times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person, even though rates of usage are similar. The disparities exist “across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small black populations.”

This is just one aspect of a broader problem of racial disparities in our criminal justice system, from the use of cash bail and pretrial detention to jury selection to plea bargaining to sentencing to parole and pardons.

Proving systemic bias is complex, and there is evidence suggesting, for example, that class disparities play a significant role in explaining the disparate results. A 2018 analysis published by the left-leaning People’s Policy Project concluded that “mass incarceration in the United States is primarily a system of locking up lower-class men — one which ends up disproportionately imprisoning black men, since they are far more likely to be lower class than white men.”

A 2019 study by Boston University researchers found that black men were far more likely to be shot by police in predominantly African American neighborhoods than in less racially segregated neighborhoods. And conservative writers such as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald assert that evidence of disparities in police shootings fail to take into account “crime rates and civilian behavior before and during interactions with police.”

None of this proves the absence of a systemic problem — it suggests a deeper one, a matter of entrenched and extreme inequality that goes beyond the criminal justice system itself to the broader questions of lingering racial inequities in the United States.

But go ahead, Mr. President, you worry about those apples, and ignore the rot in the orchard.

Read more from Ruth Marcus’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Radley Balko: There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.

Danielle Allen: We seek reforms to policing. But something even deeper needs repair.

Marc A. Thiessen: Purging police of bad cops will require doing something Democrats have long opposed

Christine M. Cole and Charles H. Ramsey : What defunding the police really looks like