The racial politics of police violence in the United States

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In the United States the police kill about three people per day. This figure places the U.S. among the countries with highest levels of lethality by law enforcement officials. The distribution of this violence is uneven as minorities are killed by police at a higher rate. African Americans in particular are three times as likely to be killed by police compared to their White counterparts. Over the past several years there has been a spike in protests following lethal force incidents as well as an increased public interest on the issue of police violence. Unsurprisingly given the racial disparity in rates, the prevailing narrative surrounding police killings and the patterns of protest in response have been heavily racialized as well. Existing research has only narrowly examined the veracity of this narrative and until recently there has been a dearth of data-based analysis related to the circumstances of police killings and the dynamics of protest following lethal incidents. In this dissertation I explore the interaction between police violence, racial identity, and protest by answering three key questions: Do the police kill Blacks and Whites under different circumstances? Who do civilians think are deserving targets of state violence and how do those perceptions vary by race? And finally, why is the rate of protest following police killings so low for Whites in comparison to minority decedents? The first empirical chapter of this dissertation addresses the racial disparity in the rate of police killings by examining whether it may be due in part to differences in the observable circumstances of police killings. To assess whether and how these circumstances predict the race of a decedent, I use machine learning techniques and a novel dataset of police killings containing over 120 descriptors. I find that decedent characteristics, criminal activity, threat levels, police actions, and the setting of the lethal interaction, are not predictive of race, indicating that the police are killing Black and White decedents under largely similar circumstances. The findings suggest that the racial disparity in the rate of lethal force most likely stems from higher rates of police contact among African Americans, rather than racial differences in the observable circumstances or officer bias in the decision to use lethal force. In the third chapter I explore how racial identity shapes attitudes towards state violence. While many have been taking to the streets to voice concerns that the police are targeting civilians inappropriately, the majority of Americans appear to trust that the state administers violence when it is deserved. These opinions appear to be divided along racial lines with nearly twice as many Blacks as Whites expressing very little or no confidence in police (Gallup 2014). Given these patterns, I ask whether and how opinions regarding who deserves police violence are affected by outward perceptions of race as well as internal experiences of racial identity and race-based attitudes. I advance this research agenda by using a survey experiment on a large sample of White and Black Americans (N=11,166) to assess how race-based attitudes and racial identity shape views about who deserves violence from the state. The results reveal that respondents' own racial identities and race-based attitudes more strongly shape deservingness evaluations than the race of the person targeted in a violent police interaction. In particular I find that respondents' structural versus individual attributions of blame for racial inequality dictate their deservingness evaluations. Both White and Black respondents who attribute racial inequality to individual failings were more likely to blame citizens who are abused by police and less likely to blame officers. However, because on average Whites place more blame on individuals, perceptions of who deserves state violence are racially dependent. Although police violence affects racial minorities at higher rates, White Americans are not immune to this phenomenon. Whites comprised over half of the 2,238 police-related fatalities which occurred between 2015 and 2016. Despite the frequency of these deaths, the police killings of Whites do not generally enter the popular narrative of police violence and spark much less public reaction than the deaths of minorities. I find that only 5% of police killings of Whites triggered public protest, a very small rate when compared to Latinos (14%) and African Americans (36%). In the fourth chapter of this dissertation I build upon the results of the previous two chapters and explore how racial differences in views on acceptable violence have suppressed the frequency of protest after lethal force incidents. In addition to providing historical and qualitative evidence for the argument, I support this theory by ruling out the alternate explanation that White communities protest less frequently following police killings because they are less capable or have lower access to resources and political opportunities. I also rule out competing motivation-based explanations for why Whites would be less willing to protest following police killings. I conclude the chapter by discussing how the lack of protest and political activation following the police killings of Whites has led to an imbalance in the political and academic discussions of police violence. As a whole, this dissertation demonstrates that the narrative of police violence—the ways that affected communities and the general public make sense of what happened—is highly dependent on the race of those creating the narrative. Because, on average, Whites and Blacks have different worldviews regarding whether responsibility for police violence should be placed on the individual or on policing structures, they respond publicly to such incidents in very disparate ways. By expanding the existing narrative regarding the role that race plays in police killings and their aftermath, this dissertation demonstrates that the problem of police violence is not strictly a racial one but touches all segments of the American population.


Type of resource text
Form electronic resource; remote; computer; online resource
Extent 1 online resource.
Place California
Place [Stanford, California]
Publisher [Stanford University]
Copyright date 2019; ©2019
Publication date 2019; 2019
Issuance monographic
Language English


Author Streeter, Shea Alysse
Degree supervisor Laitin, David D
Thesis advisor Laitin, David D
Thesis advisor Hall, Andrew B
Thesis advisor Magaloni, Beatriz
Thesis advisor Weinstein, Jeremy M
Degree committee member Hall, Andrew B
Degree committee member Magaloni, Beatriz
Degree committee member Weinstein, Jeremy M
Associated with Stanford University, Department of Political Science.


Genre Theses
Genre Text

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Shea Streeter.
Note Submitted to the Department of Political Science.
Thesis Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2019.
Location electronic resource

Access conditions

© 2019 by Shea Alysse Streeter
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).

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