Race, police and the twin fallacies of American politics

     New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, is shown with his children, Dante, left, and Chiara de Blasio on Jan. 1, 2014, waving to the crowd after the mayor took the oath of office during the public inauguration ceremony. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, is shown with his children, Dante, left, and Chiara de Blasio on Jan. 1, 2014, waving to the crowd after the mayor took the oath of office during the public inauguration ceremony. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    So New York Mayor Bill de Blasio needs to warn his son to be wary of police officers. And his remarks on race and the police make him responsible for the deaths of two NYPD officers last Saturday. Right? Wrong. These much-heard claims reflect two central fallacies in modern American life.

    So New York Mayor Bill de Blasio needs to warn his son to be wary of police officers, who might target the young man because of the color of his skin. And de Blasio’s remarks on race and the police make him responsible for the slaying of two officers in Brooklyn last Saturday.

    Right?

    Wrong. In fact, these much-heard claims reflect two central fallacies in modern American life. Call them the fallacy of statistics and the fallacy of incitement.

    The fallacy of statistics holds that behavior by a group or category of human beings predicts an individual’s decisions and actions. Police officers are at least twice as likely to kill African-Americans as they are to kill other citizens; nearly twice a week, a white officer kills a black person. So if you’re African-American, watch out for the police!

    But that’s exactly the same logic used by racist police officers — indeed, by racists, period — to profile black people. Statistically, African-Americans commit certain crimes at a higher rate than other people do; between 1976 and 2005, for example, blacks — who make up 13 percent of our population — committed over half of the murders in the United States.

    That doesn’t give you — or anyone else — the right to suspect a black individual, simply because of his race. And that’s why it was so distressing to hear Mayor de Blasio admit that he has told his son to suspect the police, simply because of their uniforms.

    “Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face,” de Blasio said, after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. “We’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with police officers.”

    If a certain officer had harassed Dante, he would have every good reason to be wary of that officer. But distrusting a cop, just for being a cop? How is that any different from suspecting a black person, just for being black?

    When I put this question to African-American friends, they often point out that the police have more power — including, of course, the power to use lethal force–so blacks can’t afford to “take chances” or “roll the dice” in their presence. These metaphors of odds, likelihoods, and probabilities speak volumes about the pressures that African-Americans face every day. But they also underscore the bad luck of the police officer on the receiving end in this ugly calculus. Whether he’s a bigot or not, he’s presumed guilty until proven otherwise. And that’s a form of bigotry, in and of itself.

    “You haven’t experienced what we have,” my black friends will reply. But that just repeats the question: Why should experience with a member (or, perhaps, with many members) of a group prejudice you against the entire group? Would these same friends be OK with a police officer following them into a store, just because this officer had experienced misbehavior by other African-Americans?

    And if one of those African-Americans committed a heinous crime, it would be equally absurd to blame their behavior on comments by Mayor de Blasio or anyone else. That brings me to the fallacy of incitement, which holds that words by one person cause action by another.

    So de Blasio has “blood on the hands” for the murders of police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, as Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch charged on Saturday night. Even former Gov. George Pataki got in in the act, tweeting that the officers’ deaths were a “predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric” by de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Holder.

    Nonsense. You might find good reason — like I do — to criticize some of the mayor’s statements about race and policing. But he is no more responsible for the murder of these officers than, say, GOP politicians were for the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh.

    Remember McVeigh? After he struck the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, some Democrats suggested that he was inspired by the anti-government rhetoric of Republicans in Congress. We heard similarly baseless charges after the murder of a Pennyslvania police officer last September by Eric Frein, whose social-media posts showed a strong animus against government in general and police in particular. The GOP created the violent climate, critics said, and Frein simply acted on it.

    Republicans were justly offended by these accusations, noting that you can’t attribute an individual’s actions to the climate that surrounds him. Millions of people hear GOP officials rail against the government every day on TV and the radio, but they don’t bomb buildings or shoot at police barracks.

    So it’s especially galling to hear Republicans like Pataki using a similar guilt-by-association tactic to saddle de Blasio with the police murders in Brooklyn. “Climate” and “rhetoric” don’t kill anyone. People kill people, all on their own.

    Let’s stop profiling individuals because of their membership in groups. And, while we’re at it, let’s also stop blaming groups for the behavior of individuals. That would go a long way towards improving America’s political climate, for all of us.

    Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which will be published in March by Princeton University Press.

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