MEMPHIS / STORYLINE: What explains that disproportion?


Also, does anyone care?: As we noted in Wednesday's report, the editorial board at the New York Times made one accurate statement.

It came near the start of an editorial. It might also be said that, to some extent, it came from preferred Storyline:

Watching the Watchmen

American communities need robust law enforcement, and the vast majority of police officers are public servants performing dangerous work with dedication. The footage of Memphis police officers killing Tyre Nichols in early January, however, is all the more unbearable because Americans have seen the likes of it so many times before. Too many Americans today live in fear that they may suffer abuse or excessive force at the hands of police officers who are sworn to protect them.

Police officers killed 1,096 people in the United States last year, according to The Washington Post, which painstakingly tracks the death toll because the government does not keep a complete count. That was the most such deaths in any year since 2015. The victims, including Mr. Nichols, are disproportionately young Black men.

As we noted on Wednesday, the editors misstated the nature of the Washington Post's (highly valuable) "Fatal Force" web site. Also, we noted this:

In fact, police officers killed more than 1,096 people in the United States last year. The Washington Post only tracks those who were shot and killed. That doesn't include the late Tyre Nichols, a wholly innocent person who was recently beaten to death.

To our era, the editors seemed to be a tiny bit fuzzy concerning this highly serious topic. It's also true that the Post's efforts at its Fatal Force site seem to be much less "painstaking" than they were when the site began. 

More specifically, the Post is currently making much less effort to record the race and ethnicity of those who were shot and killed by police. In principle, that is a very important statistic—but the Post has been slacking badly in recent years with respect to that part of its effort.

Who gets shot and killed by police officers? Here's how the Post has recorded the race / ethnicity of the 1,096 decedents from last year:

People shot and killed by police officers, 2022
White: 389
Black: 225
Hispanic: 120
Asian: 13
Unknown: 341

Total: 1,096

That's a whole lot of "Unknowns!" For background, consider this:

It seems clear that the Post has been putting less effort into this important endeavor in recent years, even as it strives to offer massively increased amounts of piffle from its Advice, Lifestyle, Well + Being and Help Desk departments.

For the year 2018, only 9% of the deceased are listed as racial / ethnic Unknowns. The percentage rose rapidly after that, presumably as the Post reduced its investigative effort.

For that reason, the Fatal Force site has become less valuable than it was at one time. For the record, here are the total numbers as they currently exist for the 9-plus years the Post has maintained the site:

People shot and killed by police officers, 2015 - present
White: 3,622
Black: 1,906
Hispanic: 1,287
Asian: 141
Unknown: 1,082

Total: 8,166

According to this once valuable site, police officers have shot and killed about twice as many "whites" as "blacks" over that nine-year period. That said, the statement by the Times was accurate, even understated:

The decedents plainly are "disproportionately young Black men." (Very few women of any description get shot and killed by police.) 

Indeed, the disproportion is quite large, even though the numbers at the Fatal Force site do not include Tyre Nichols, an innocent person who was beaten to death in Memphis just last month.

The editors didn't seem to be real clear about the nature of the Fatal Force site. We wonder how much attention they actually pay to the very important topic which is catalogued at that site.

That said, their statement about the disproportionate number of young black decedents was certainly accurate, perhaps even understated. Meanwhile, does anyone actually care about this? 

We aren't sure how to answer that question, which very rarely gets asked.

More specifically, we don't know how much anyone cares about this topic except with reference to Storyline—except with reference to the desire to keep repeating the stories we like.

For the record, the beating death of Tyre Nichols presented a bit of a challenge to preferred tribal Storyline. That was caused by the fact that the five police officers who beat this innocent person to death were all black, as was Nichols himself.

This fact produced a bit of a challenge to preferred tribal Storyline. Over the course of the past dozen years, our upper-end mainstream press has established an unmistakable preference in the matter of deaths at the hands of police officers:

They prefer to highlight deaths of black victims at the hands of white police officers. As John McWhorter explains (again) in this new essay in the New York Times, other types of death at the hands of police have been almost wholly disappeared.

We aren't going to go through the examples all over again. We've done so in various instances in the past, and an eternal truth remains eternally clear. It's an anthropological truism:

Especially in matters with high emotional content, Storyline will always triumph over information / nuance / fact.

Our human minds run on Storyline, and they always have. Our blue tribe has a Storyline on which it insists in the case of these many deaths—many of which, it ought to be said, are sadly justifiable.

Some of our tribunes like to posture about these shooting deaths. Some of our tribunes are angry, and there's no obvious reason why they shouldn't be.

That said, anger isn't necessarily helpful, even where it's understandable. Anger, even understandable anger, may not produce good journalism—journalism of the type which helps a nation understand important topics and events and proceed in constructive directions. 

Journalism can become the servant of Storyline, and it has, again and again, over the past dozen years. During those years, our news orgs have told one type of story about one type of police shooting death, while disappearing all the rest. 

("A man [sic] hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.")

Certain shooting deaths get publicized; others get disappeared. And it can get quite a bit worse:

In their pseudo-reporting of these important events, our news orgs and our millionaire tribunes have routinely embellished or disappeared accurate facts while inventing bogus facts in service to Storyline. 

Selective examples and bogus claims! Such behaviors are intended to let us see how much our cable stars care!

The question of death at the hands of police is a very important question. That said, what explains the large disproportion to which the Times referred? 

Almost surely, there is no single answer to that important question. For today, we'll start by offering this for the three thousandth time:

GRAHAM (11/2/22): [Mary] Wainwright is the kind of person you’d want as a neighbor: She’s quick with a joke, blunt and no-nonsense, and ready to help out. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, she canvassed the neighborhood handing out masks. When vaccines first became available, she knew that many of her neighbors didn’t have computers or internet access to make appointments, so she convinced officials to set up a pop-up clinic at her church. The line stretched around the block.

Even so, you might not want to live near her in Smokey City these days. Crime and violent-crime rates in the area and its next-door neighbor Klondike are routinely two to three times as high as in Memphis overall, according to statistics gathered by Whole Child Strategies, a nonprofit that works in the neighborhood. The homicide rate is four to five times as high.

When Wainwright got a new car not long ago, her son begged her to get something other than the Infinitis she’s long preferred—drug dealers like them too much and she might get carjacked, he warned. Wainwright has seen two people killed on her street. “One was laying up under my car. The other one, he got shot, ran around the church,” she recalls.

Wainwright’s sister, who lives nearby in the house they grew up in, is paralyzed on one side, but she doesn’t want to leave the neighborhood where she’s always lived, and her disability checks won’t cover much else anyway. “She spends 40 percent of her time on the floor, because of guns, shooting, just every day. During daylight hours,” Wainwright says. “That’s how bad it is in the neighborhood. You know, it is what it is. We live from day to day, and we pray at night, pray all day, pray in the morning when we get up, that we can survive the neighborhood.”

Almost surely, that sad report from one part of Memphis helps explain the large disproportion found in those death statistics. 

Memphis is dogged by a very high murder rate—roughly, three times that of Nashville. For reasons which extend deep into our nation's brutal racial history, those murders are heavily located in the city's black neighborhoods.

Sensibly enough, that brings increased police surveillance to those parts of town. What happens after that is, in part, a function of some city's police culture, not excluding the willingness of (white and black) city officials to play dumb and play along.

What explains that large disproportion? To what extent does that disproportion reflect acts of racial animus on the part of (some) police officers? To what extent does it reflect the types of dislocation and despair which may lead to increased violence in certain communities?

You rarely see a major news org attempt to address such questions. With respect to this particular topic, our news orgs run on Storyline, and that's pretty much where it ends.

Meanwhile, there's Mary Wainwright and her sister, living in fear for their lives. You will never see Rachel Maddow interrupt her mugging and clowning to discuss the lives these good, decent people are forced to lead in their dangerous part of town. 

You'll never see Lawrence or Nicolle attempt to go there. The Wainwrights don't count on our own blue cable. What counts is the profit-seeking, corporate food product known as Trump Trump Jail.

No one will talk about Mary Wainwright, or about her siblings, or about her children or grandchildren, or about their schools. The New York Times discusses Stuyvesant High and that is where it ends. 

When someone gets shot and killed in predefined circumstances, the performance of virtue begins.

Sadly, many killings by police are justified. Plainly, quite a few others are not.

That said, as McWhorter has noted in the past, for every unjustified killing of a black victim by some renegade white officer, there is an example of some white or Hispanic victim being killed in a similar way.

To its credit, the Washington Post has tried to call attention to some such unjustified deaths over the past dozen years. (We refer to a version of the Post which used to exist in the world.)

To its credit, the Post has tried. In each case, it has tried and failed.

You never hear about those deaths because our news orgs don't want to go there. This keeps us from understanding the wider nature of this important part of American life.

What can we do to improve policing in Mary Wainwright's neighborhood? What can we do to address the dislocation, disorder and despair which lead to high rates of community violence?

What can we do to reduce the numbers of people who die at the hands of police officers, justifiably or otherwise?

The tribunes we're encourage to love will never conduct real discussions of the problems which confront people like Mary Wainwright. On cable, our tribunes are paid millions of dollars—you aren't allowed to know how many!—to serve us the pleasing tribal porridge we prefer to spoon down before we go to sleep.

The performative virtue is impressively high. In service to Storyline, the journalism has routinely been quite poor.

The beating death of Tyre Nichols presented a bit of a challenge to preferred tribal Storyline. Pundits did the best they could and then they quickly moved on.

Pundits returned to the pleasures of discussing the utterly pointless George Santos. Meanwhile, what explains the (large) disproportion mentioned by the New York Times? 

It's a constant part of Storyline, but what explains that disproportion? Also, is there any conceivable reason to think that anyone actually cares?

Next week: The Joshua generation


  1. What's with this Memphis thing, dear Bob?

    Some darwin award idiot gets hisself killed by resisting arrest; so what? Who cares? Let it be, dear.

    ...and what do you think (if you're allowed to) about your tribal chiefs committing a massive terrorist act in Europe last year, as documented by incomparable Sy Hersh? Any reaction to it, dear Bob?

  2. Biden's war crime benefits us all.

  3. “What explains that large disproportion? To what extent does that disproportion reflect acts of racial animus on the part of (some) police officers? To what extent does it reflect the types of dislocation and despair which may lead to increased violence in certain communities?”

    Without examining individual cases, it is a facile conclusion to say that police disproportionately kill black people because a (relatively large) number of black people live in high crime urban areas.

    That doesn’t explain (or justify) the death of Tyre Nichols, nor does it explain the deaths of, for example, George Floyd or Eric Garner. The latter two may have been suspected of committing some sort of minor infraction, but that should not have led to their deaths. Not to mention the death of Breonna Taylor, an innocent bystander. You can still fault the police in these incidents without providing exculpatory explanations.

    For each death, you would need to decide if it was “justified”. Was the victim caught in the act of committing a crime? Was he/she armed and dangerous? Etc.

    In my recollection, Somerby has previously stated his belief that the majority of these deaths were justifiable and not the result of policing issues.

    Finally, do we really know how many such incidents there are, especially if they don’t involve a shooting? Is there a national reporting mandate? (There wasn’t previously). Are police departments diligent about reporting them? We know they sometimes lie, as they did in their report about Tyre Nichols, so perhaps they are not always reporting pertinent information, such as the race of the victim? Of course, Somerby chooses to attack the Washington Post for not reporting the race, without asking additional questions.

    Side note: Someone mentioned this previously: “A federal investigation by the United States Department of Justice initiated in the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson unrest, found that the Ferguson police department routinely stereotyped and discriminated against African American residents in violation of the Constitution”

  4. “To what extent does that disproportion reflect acts of racial animus on the part of (some) police officers?”

    Conservatives didn’t care when white police officers killed unarmed black people.

    They care even less about the Tyre Nichols incident, since it involved black police officers.

    Let me rephrase: they don’t care about the victims, or whether there is a policing problem. They are happy that black people are being killed, and they, like Somerby, like to throw incidents like Nichols into liberals’ faces, to “own” the libs, as it were.

    Meanwhile, the only people who do care about the victims and the problems of policing are liberals, because they are the only ones reporting, discussing, and critiquing it in any meaningful way.

    I’m not holding my breath for conservatives to start caring about this stuff even if you start highlighting whites killed by cops.

  5. What does a leftist historian think about Communism?

  6. Biden's ecoterrorism is good for the economy.

    I think I speak for all Democrats when I say I support his attack.

  7. One will draw different conclusions depending on how one splits the sample of people shot and killed by police.

    Splitting by race, a disproportionate number shot by police are black. Split by sex, a very disproportionate number are male. Split age, a disproportionate number are below age 50. So, one might think that police prejudiced against young black men, but prejudiced in favor of older black women. That's not typical racial. Traditional racists were prejudiced against all blacks and certainly not in favor of some subgroup of blacks.

    It can be more edifying to split the conduct of the victim. If one splits by whether he cooperated with police or not, think that would show a highly disproportionate parentage of victims were not cooperating.


    1. "prejudiced in favor of older black women."

      Only an ass like you might think that.

  8. Somerby seems to think that if he mentions "Storyline" he doesn't have to tell us explicitly what the storyline actually is. Quoting someone doesn't do the job, because there are usually several things mentioned in such quotes. How are we to know what storyline Somerby is objecting to?

  9. There was a black woman who was sleeping in her car in Los Angeles. She was in a bad neighborhood, so she went to sleep with her gun within reach. In the morning, some people saw her there and called the police. The cops arrived and called orders to her, which she didn't hear because she was sound asleep. When she didn't respond, they shot her dead.

    So, yes, women are killed by police too.

  10. I don't think Somerby can draw any conclusions about what news media people care about, based on what they write or talk about on their shows. Such shows are driven by current events in the news cycle, not the personal interests of the hosts or of reporters.

    Based on the TV shows about media process (yes, I know that is fiction), a committee or staff meeting tosses around ideas and an editor or producer decides on the final line-up of stories. Sometimes stories are cut due to length or space constraints. Everyone seems to care a lot about all of the stories they are assigned.

    Only those who write opinion pieces seem to get to choose their own content.

    For Cecelia -- the difference between Maureen Dowd and cable news reporters, analysts or guests, is that she gets to choose her own content because she is an opinion columnist. What she writes may thus be considered an actual reflection of what she cares about. A person's job title matters.

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