Interracial violence is rare in the United States
It just constantly gets shoved in our faces.
Interracial violence is a difficult thing to write about, for the exact same reason that people get so upset by it in the first place. It conjures up the dreaded specter of intercommunal violence — massed attacks of one group on another. Race riots. The Tulsa Massacre. The Gujarat riots. The pogroms of old Russia. The Rwandan genocide. And so on. When we read a news story about one of them killing one of us, it raises the gnawing fear — articulated or not — that the civilized world of laws and police and the courts is just a veneer, a thin wrapping that will soon be ripped off to expose the monstrous primal world beneath, an anarchy where our only protection is the law of kin and clan. A world of them against us, in the streets, to the death.
This ever-present fear presents an especially difficult challenge for a very diverse society like the United States. All societies have episodes of individual violence, and in a diverse society, it’s a statistical certainty that some of those episodes will be interracial or inter-religious. Because of the lurking fear of intercommunal violence, interracial murders, assaults, rapes, and so on tend to get broadcast and politically weaponized in a way that violence between people of the same race doesn’t. The more diverse society becomes, the more such incidents there will be to feed our fears, whether they’re random or systematic.
One way people try to deal with this is to look at the aggregate statistics. Are “they” killing more of “us”, or are “we” killing more of “them”? But aggregate statistics are very subtle things. There are issues of data quality and completeness. There’s the question of which measure to use. There are all kinds of contributing factors that simple summary statistics fail to take into account. So the debates about these numbers can often be as bitter and fearful and full of assumptions as the debates about individual incidents of violence.
That fact was showcased this week, in the wake of an incident where a Black man, Jordan Neely, was choked to death on the New York subway by a White man (with some assistance from two other men of varying races). There were protests about the killing, but on Twitter, some protested the media’s focus on the incident in lieu of other incidents of Black-on-White violence. A chart from the right-wing account “End Wokeness” got an especially large amount of attention:
Statistics PhD student Kareem Carr criticized the chart in a thread. Among other criticisms, he pointed out that the vast majority of violent crime is same-race:
But because same-race violence doesn’t create the same fears that interracial violence does, I fear that Carr is swimming against the tide on this one.
Anyway, Carr’s thread adds some important points to the discussion, but I feel like it’s still easy for readers to walk away from the exchange with all their priors — and all their fears — intact. In fact, I’ve looked at the interracial violence numbers myself, and I feel like I can summarize what we know about interracial violence pretty effectively. My basic findings are:
Interracial violence is uncommon in America, and interracial murder is very rare.
White-on-Black violence is much rarer than Black-on-White violence, though the gap is much smaller for murders than for non-fatal violence.
Black people are more at risk of being murdered by White people than vice versa, while the risk for non-fatal interracial violence is about the same.
How can these last two things both be true at the same time? The answer is that the Black population is simply much smaller than the White population, so the number of attacks isn’t the same as the risk of being attacked.
So anyway, let’s dig into the data.
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