This premise and its correlating demands and assertions have been the subjects of robust debate for more than five years, including in the past several weeks after the death of George Floyd while being restrained by a police officer in Minneapolis. There’s certainly nuance to the subject that demands close attention. It’s the sort of thing that poses a complex challenge to elected leaders, given its overlap with the complicated issues of race and power.
Most elected leaders, anyway. In an interview with CBS News’s Catherine Herridge on Tuesday, President Trump waved away concern about the rate at which black people die at the hands of police with a comment that amounted to white lives matter, too.
“You said George Floyd’s death was a terrible thing,” Herridge said. “Why are black people still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country?”
It was a bit awkwardly phrased, certainly, but Trump’s response didn’t focus on that.
“So are white people,” he said. “So are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people.”
“More white people, by the way,” he added. “More white people.”
This isn’t incorrect, but it also isn’t the point.
The Washington Post has been tracking fatal police shootings — a category of events that excludes deaths like Floyd’s — since 2015. Over that time, we’ve tallied more than 5,000 such incidents, a bit less than half of which have led to the deaths of white suspects. Those shot and killed by police have been white almost twice as often as they’ve been black.
Suspects who were shot and killed while unarmed have been about as likely to be black as white.
This is indicative of where the problem arises. After all, there are about five times as many white people in America as black, which suggests that whites should be the victims of police about five times as often.
If we control the number of shootings for population, we see what that disparity looks like. Black people are consistently more likely to be shot and killed by police when considering how many black people there are in the country.
If we compare those population-adjusted shootings, we see a consistent pattern: Black Americans are about two and a half times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white people are.
There are a lot of ways to address this data. Some, like former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik — pardoned by Trump earlier this year — try to downplay the scope of the shootings. Others point to crime rates, though crime rates may themselves be a function of systemic racism.
That’s not the tack Trump chose. Instead, he decided to imply that being attentive to the deaths of blacks at the hands of police meant focusing attention away from white suspects who are killed. It was a pure distillation of one of the most common responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, an insistence that addressing problems faced disproportionately by one group is somehow unfair to other groups.
Trump’s comments are all the more remarkable for how knee-jerk they appear to have been. Whites are shot, too! Well, sure. Okay. What about it? Are you therefore seeking broad police reforms beyond what was announced last month from the Rose Garden? Are you going to develop a system for exploring and tracking how people overall are treated by police?
Or are you just saying “what about white people?”
There’s certainly reason to suspect that it’s no more complicated than that. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he understands a concern common among his supporters: that whites are somehow disadvantaged in modern society to the benefit of blacks and Hispanics. Trump supporters have repeatedly told pollsters that they see whites, Christians and men as oppressed and that they are concerned about racism directed at white people. In that context, Trump’s response makes sense.
Perhaps just as telling were comments he made in an interview with Townhall, also on Tuesday. He discussed the armed couple in St. Louis who confronted a Black Lives Matter march near their property with firearms.
Trump’s description of the events didn’t reflect concerns about how the homeowners had approached the peaceful marchers with a long rifle and a handgun. Instead, he offered an exaggerated assessment of what might have happened had they not pulled out their weapons.
“They were going to be beat up badly, if they were lucky. If they were lucky,” Trump said. “They were going to be beat up badly, and the house was going to be totally ransacked and probably burned down, like they tried to burn down churches.”
There’s no basis in fact for any of this. The homeowner in question claimed in several interviews that he felt threatened, but there’s no evidence in video documentation of the encounter that the protesters posed any threat to the house.
Trump depicted the confrontation in stark, surreal terms. He compared the St. Louis protest, with people marching to the home of the city’s mayor, with violence during protests in D.C. in late May that led to a small fire in a church complex near the White House. He presents as fact the idea that these marchers, who sought a redress of concerns about St. Louis police, were a violent mob intent on destruction and assault.
More simply: The black and pro-black marchers exercising their First Amendment rights are necessarily a mortal threat. The armed white homeowners who introduced weapons to the confrontation? Simply exercising their Second Amendment rights. The white couple are, again, the real victims.
With Trump, electoral politics and core beliefs blur together. He touts his focus on running as himself and praises advisers who let Trump be Trump. But he’s also often explicitly pandering in his outreach to groups he thinks he needs in November. It’s hard to tell, then, where the line between what Trump believes and what Trump thinks people want to hear can be drawn on the question of the threat posed to white people by police or by activists.
There’s little reason to think that his responses Tuesday, however, differ greatly from his core beliefs about the threat posed by black Americans to law enforcement and to wealthy property owners.