Check It Out …Black cops, threat-perception failure, and thinking White (Oct. 4, 2017)


Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me” was written as a letter to his teenage son. The message was clear: The White power structure destroys Black bodies like a force of nature and there is no escape.
Coates attempted to make his point with a story about a college classmate that was shot and killed by a police officer. (Research shows this officer was rogue.) But Coates’ tale was inconsistent with his theme of perpetual White destruction, because the police officer in question was Black and the incident occurred in a relatively affluent Black-majority area governed by Blacks. (The Washington City Paper covered this incident in 2000. The headline said: Black victim, Black cop, Black county.)
But the bigger problem was how Coates turned this incident into an example of White destruction of the Black male body. Law professor Randall Kennedy was perplexed by the way Coates presented this police shooting. In his review of Coates’ book, Kennedy wrote, “After pointing out (that the officer was Black) Coates proceeds to discuss the case as if it was a simple replication of more familiar scenarios in which it is a White cop perpetrator who does the killing.”
Coates dismissed the Black racial factors of this particular case when he wrote in his book, “The dream of acting White, of talking White, of being White, murdered (his classmate) as sure as it murders Black people in Chicago with frightening regularity.”
Another critic of Coates’ book accused Coates of suggesting that the shooting occurred because the Black officer was thinking White. In other words, the culprit wasn’t the rogue cop, it was the Black officer’s “White thoughts,” which connects this police shooting to Coates’ theme of the White destruction of Black bodies.
Here Coates failed the task of the writer, which is to state the problem correctly.
In Paul Butler’s new book “Choke Hold: Policing Black Men” he has a section with an odd title: Why Black men should prefer White cops.
Butler, a Black former federal prosecutor, wrote, “Studies have revealed that a Black cop is more likely to shoot a Black person than a White cop is. ProPublica, the public interest news organization, looked at federal data on fatal police shootings from 2010 to 2012. Seventy-eight percent of the people African American officers shot were Black, compared to 46 percent of the people killed by White officers.
A U.S. Justice Department report confirms that African American men are more likely to be killed by Black than White cops.
One study, done in 1998, found that the Black-officer-kills-Black suspect rate was 32 per 100,000 Black officers and the White-officer-kills Black-suspect rate was 14 per 100,000 White officers. An officer of the same race as the suspect committed some 65 percent of the justifiable homicides.”
Butler also explained, “There isn’t enough data in these reports to know whether Black cops have higher kill rates with Black suspects because African American cops are quicker on the draw or, alternatively, because Black officers are deployed in areas where they have fewer interaction with White suspects. It’s also important to note that because there are many more White officers than Black ones, White cops still kill more African Americans overall than Black cops do.”
Butler continues, “Another investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice of the Philadelphia Police Department raises serious concerns about police officers of color. Among other things, the Justice Department investigated ‘threat-perception failure,’ which means that the officer mistakenly believed that an unarmed suspect had a weapon. The threat-perception failure for White officers and Black suspects was 6.8 percent. For Black officers and Black suspects, the threat-perception failure rate was 11.4 percent. For Hispanic officers and Black suspects, the threat-perception failure was 16.7 percent. Hispanic officers were more likely to mistakenly think a Black suspect was armed, followed by African American officers. White officers were actually the least likely to shoot an unarmed Black person.”
Are these higher “threat-perception failure” rates by Hispanic and Black officers a real problem? Of course not. According to Coates’ reasoning these Hispanic and Black officers were under the spell of White supremacy. They shouldn’t be blamed, tried, or convicted for “thinking White.”
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at
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