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Justice and Race: What We Can and Cannot Change

We can talk about power, but we also need to talk about principalities.

Matthew Loftus
Matthew Loftus
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. He is a columnist for Christianity Today and a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org.

The problem of police violence against black people in America is outrageous—and often feels hopeless. It’s been the better part of a decade since protests in Ferguson, Missouri, first brought the issue into America’s broader national discourse. In that time an intense amount of furor, activism, and voting has brought about little change in the overall number of people killed every year by police (and an uncertain decrease in the number of unarmed black people killed by police). Despite concerns that Donald Trump’s long history of both racist actions and words would increase these deaths after he was elected president, this fortunately doesn’t seem to be the case. However, “police violence isn’t getting worse” doesn’t give people much hope, especially when there is still a case every few months or so showing us a black man or woman killed without justification.

There are no known interventions that can definitively reduce racial bias in policing or police violence against black people. There is a much greater social stigma against blatant racially discriminatory speech and acts than there was a few decades ago, which makes finding sources of bias and remedies for it much more difficult. The theory of “implicit bias” promises to help us determine the socially formed unconscious biases that motivate our actions, but this promise is questionable because there isn’t strong empirical evidence correlating one’s degree of implicit bias to racist behaviour. Furthermore, no one has proved that training anyone about implicit bias, especially police officers, changes real-world outcomes for black people.

About three hundred black people are killed in the United States by police every year (and a few dozen of them are unarmed at the time). Why, then, do they hold so much power in our social imagination when so many other things kill black Americans at higher rates?

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