Sometimes it is not only reasonable, but morally imperative, to point out that the lives of a particular group of people matter. It would have been right in Turkey in 1915 to shout as loudly as possible that Armenian lives mattered. In Germany in 1944 that Jewish lives mattered. Or today in South Africa that white farmers’ lives matter, or in Indonesia that Papuan lives matter.
Wherever a particular ethnic or cultural group is being treated as less than human, anyone with integrity should not hesitate to say “These people are human too. Their lives matter.”
That is the claim that is being made now in relation to black people in the USA, and aboriginal people in Australia. That the way they are treated by police and prison guards demonstrates that they are considered less than human. A cartoon panel circulating on Facebook makes this claim: Black people are considered expendable by police and the governments that employ them.
If this claim is true, then we all ought to be horrified. If people in the US are stopped and murdered by police simply because they are black, and the police involved routinely face no meaningful consequences, and if 434 aboriginal people have been killed by prison guards in Australia since 1991 with not a single criminal charge being laid against those responsible, then we should all be on the streets shouting “Black lives matter!” and demanding change right now.
If this claim is not true, however, then we should be almost as horrified, because it is a vicious and dangerous libel against our government, our society, and the prison and police officers who work to protect us, often at considerable risk to their own safety. Dangerous because repeating those claims, as much of the media and many politicians and celebrities have done, leads not to hope and healing, but to hatred and division. It creates a view that our police and prison guards behave exactly like Nazi concentration camp guards, and that if the government won’t take action, then perhaps a violent response is justified in order to bring about real change.
Are black lives endangered by police and prison guard brutality, and white people who are either complicit or simply don’t care?
In the USA, black men comprise less than 7% of the population, but they commit 52% of murders, 38% of other violent crime including bashings and rape, and 60% of all robberies. They are also more likely to resist arrest and to respond to police with violence. In any encounter between a police officer and a black suspect in a violent crime, the police officer is 18 times more likely to die during that event than the black perpetrator. You might think that this would make police more apprehensive, and more likely to respond with fatal force. Although regrettable, that might be understandable. But it is not the case.
In 2019 US police shot and killed 1004 people. All of these were armed or posed a threat to police or members of the public. 235 of those, about a quarter of the total, were black. This is a far lower proportion than would be expected based upon the number of police interactions with violent criminals or suspects. Black and hispanic police officers were more willing to use the same levels of force against black offenders as they would with white offenders than white police officers, suggesting white officers hesitate for fear of being denounced as racists.
On October 5 2019 a female police officer in Chicago was beaten unconscious by a suspect in a car crash, who repeatedly bashed her face into the concrete and tore out chunks of her hair. She survived and said later that she refrained from using her gun because she didn’t want to become the next viral video in the Black Lives Matter narrative. Police officers are at far greater risk from black offenders than black offenders are from the police.
If anything, this disparity is even greater in Australia. Although aboriginal males make up just over 1% of the Australian population, they account for 15.1% of homicide victims, and 15.7% of perpetrators. Black Americans commit seven times as many murders as might be expected from their numbers in the population. Aboriginal Australians commit more than 15 times as many. Aboriginal women are 25 times more likely than women of other races to need hospital treatment for domestic violence, and in some aboriginal communities, 90% of children are reported as victims of neglect, or of physical or sexual abuse.
In Australia, as in the US, the rate of lethal force used against aboriginal offenders is lower than would be expected from the number of interactions with police. The main cause of complaint in Australia, however, is the number of aboriginal deaths in custody. Since 1991, 434 aboriginal people have died in prison or in police custody. It is often assumed by protestors that this means 434 aboriginal people have been beaten to death by psychopathic racist police and prison guards, and they point to the fact that no one has ever been convicted in relation to any of these deaths as proof that there is systemic racism in Australia, from the government down.
Quite frankly, that claim is simply silly. People do not stop suffering from heart disease or diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as soon as they get into prison. They are not suddenly immune to cancer or strokes. People in custody mostly die from the same things that would have killed them if they been outside. They just don’t die as much. The death rate in the general Australian population is about seven people per thousand per year. In the prison population it is 1.7 per thousand for aboriginal prisoners, and 1.8 per thousand for prisoners of other races.
The difference between 1.7 deaths in custody per year for aboriginal prisoners and 1.8 per thousand for other races is hardly significant. But when you take into account that aboriginal prisoners have lower general and mental health, are more likely to be suffering the effects of long-term drug and alcohol abuse, and are more likely to become involved in violent altercations with other prisoners, it is clear that far from carelessness or targeting aboriginal prisoners for racism and violence, prison officers take extra care to protect and support them.
Part of the explanation for the difference in mortality rates in prison and out is age. The older you are, the more likely you are to die, and there are few prisoners over seventy years of age. Also, far fewer prisoners die from road or sporting accidents or drowning than the outside population. But two more factors are required to explain the lower death rate for people in custody.
For members of some demographic groups, the mortality rate declines while in custody because in prison they have good nutrition and good medical care. Many in those same demographic groups are more likely to survive in prison because prison is far safer than their home communities.
In 1999 the Guinness Book of Records named Palm Island as the most violent place in the world, outside of actual war zones. Nothing much has changed in the last twenty years, despite vast expenditures of money, including, for example, the announcement last year by the Queensland government of expenditure of $893,000 (for a community of 3000 people) on new domestic violence support services.
Are black lives in the US and aboriginal lives in Australia in danger? Definitely. Everyone who cares about black lives wants that to change. Policies to bring about positive change are only effective to the extent they are based on reality. The empowering reality for black Americans and Australian aboriginals is that that danger comes from within their own communities, and consequently, that they have the power to stop it.