Opinion: Beyonce, ‘Formation’ and Black Lives Matter

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Contact CU Independent Editorial Manager Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

In the past two years, I have had to write about racial issues on several occasions. First, when protesters in Ferguson faced excessive and militarized police force after the shooting of Michael Brown. Then again, when that city and cities around the country erupted in protests (both violent and nonviolent) after Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson, was not indicted. And yet again last August, as the Black Lives Matter movement dove into the presidential race and garnered even more backlash than before.

And today, I am compelled to write about a Beyoncé video.

To those who have not heard or seen, the hip-hop-R&B superstar took her notoriety to new heights this past weekend with the release of her new song “Formation” and its accompanying video, just a day before her even more aggressive performance of the song at the Super Bowl halftime show. Both the Black Panther-invoking performance and video have netted pushback, both from swaths of social media and the ever-tone-deaf likes of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Like clockwork, we hear the accusations that Beyoncé’s performance was “racist,” “outrageous” and even that it supported segregation — and so, we have a #BoycottBeyonce hashtag on our hands.

It is my hope that more rational minds are not surprised by these labels. We have seen these kinds of reverse racism-esque accusations for decades, and to spend time refuting that logic is to beat a horse that has long been dead. There is no rationale for the idea that Beyoncé attacked all police officers — although she did make a statement against police brutality.

No — today, I want to address the more insidious problem that we face in a society that at times is still foolish enough to believe that it is “post-racial.” And to do so, it seems we need a lesson in statistics.

The great triumph and great detriment of the Internet age is that “facts” and “evidence” to support an argument can be found in little to no time. And as goes without saying, that ability is abused too often.

Such is the case with current backlash against the notorious Black Lives Matter movement, which has flared up in response to Beyonce’s nods to BLM in the “Formation” video and the solidarity Beyonce’s dancers showed after their halftime show. Black Lives Matter developed in 2012 after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted after the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin. The dog-whistle politics of responding to the movement by exclaiming “All lives matter!”  is a response that right-wing media, social media users and, unfortunately, an early-campaign Martin O’Malley have all made, and that the former continue to make.

We have discussed why “all lives matter” is a message that is at best misdirected, and at worst, racist, in the past. We have also discussed the oft-repeated mantra, still being uttered by even presidential candidates, that talking about race is what divides us — as if the divisiveness didn’t already exist.

But the problem that is harder to debunk, and, like a sadistic game of whack-a-mole, keeps popping back up no matter how many times it’s knocked down, is the problem of people using statistics to justify the idea that there actually isn’t a problem with police and racism in America.

The latest example, which CNN’s story displays, was posted on Twitter — to many retweets and likes — by a user named Jared Wyand. Wyand posted a chart that purports to be clear data from the FBI’s 2014 tables, adorned with the phrase “#BLACKLIVESMATTER IS A FRAUD.” (Another tweet on CNN’s page calls the movement’s ideas “a lie.”) Wyand raises a couple claims. So let’s talk about them.

It’s worth noting, first, that the chart Wyand posted is sourced as “2014 FBI data…Google it.” So we did. In the over 85 relevant tables that the FBI website lists, there is only one that isolates race and type of crime by themselves, and another that isolates race of victims and offenders by themselves. In both cases, Hispanic is calculated in a separate total as an “ethnicity,” and not a “race,” as Wyand’s chart would have it — and “Killed by police during arrest” is a category in neither table. Wyand’s data for population doesn’t exactly match up with the most recent census data, and neither FBI chart shows population data.

This would imply that Wyand, or whoever made the chart, synthesized it themselves from the data (although I am happy to be corrected on that). Interestingly enough, Wyand’s count of police killings by race seems to be accurate based on this FBI chart from 2012, but where his count for homicides by Hispanics comes from is unclear, as law enforcement often counts Hispanic as “white.”

And even if we subtract the Hispanic count from the white count (which would be sloppy, as one table uses different totals, and neither states how many whites were counted Hispanic), his counts come out a few points off in one case, and largely off in the other.

But let’s assume Wyand’s chart has some truth to it. He claims that blacks and Hispanics have the same median income — which is incorrect — in order to imply that Hispanics don’t have it economically easier than blacks, yet commit much less crime. But again, his numbers for Hispanics would be inaccurate, so we can’t look at that claim on its face. (He does, however, say that the only black arrest rate that’s proportional to population is DUI. We’ll give him that. And his first claim is probably understated — that 2.4 should be around 3.2)

Next, he implies that police kill blacks disproportionately because blacks have higher crime rates. He’s half right — black arrest rates are much higher than their share of the population on many counts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the arrests were based on proven crimes. He is, of course, right that blacks are killed disproportionately — 31 percent of those killed by police during arrest are black and 52 percent are white (based on 2012 numbers), while only 13.2 percent of the population is black and 62.1 percent is white (based on 2014 numbers).

But the main thrust of his argument — that the black community should take “accountability” to change that pattern rather than put forth “blame” and “excuses” — does not have fact on its side. Putting the onus on any group of people to, well, invite less police killings is tantamount to saying that police are justified in committing the killings. And we should all be able to agree that people should be arrested in proportion to crimes they commit, yes. But not killed.

You may be thinking, “Well, if they’re violent when being arrested, then police have to kill them.” But if we look at what is happening when offenders are killed by police, the bias runs heavily against blacks in a way that cannot be justified by differences in crime rates.

The amount of victims killed when not attacking the officer or anyone else ticks up to 39 percent for blacks, and down to 46 for whites. The amount of victims killed by officers not using rifles or shotguns when the victim is not attacking (which may imply a closer encounter with the non-attacking victim) ticks up to 42 percent for blacks and down to 44 percent for whites.

And if talking uneven numbers is the game, let’s. The ACLU points out that blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, despite that blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates. Human Rights Watch research shows that from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than whites, despite that both races engage in sales and possession at similar rates.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2008, black drivers nationwide were three times as likely to be searched at traffic stops as whites. Furthermore, a study by the University of Chicago Law School noted research that says in 2008, the black male incarceration rate was six and a half times the rate of white males — and no disparity in arrest rates, in Wyand’s table or any table, can pretend to justify that difference.

Statistics like these — and I could go all day — paint the real picture: the reason blacks are so disproportionately killed by police is because of the discrimination that pervades the whole system.

And as to Wyand’s final claim that the black community receives the treatment it does because it chooses “blame, excuses and deflection” over “self-accountability” — it seems we forget that blacks have been legally and socially confined to live in areas with high unemployment and crime for decades after the idea of segregation was only beginning to fall. Show me the sociologist who will tell us that the history of inequality doesn’t hinder black America today, and I’ll show you a lunatic.

I impatiently await the day when we no longer have to write articles attempting to show obvious facts to a country that chooses to be deaf. I impatiently await the day when I no longer have to justify rage at the unjustifiable. I impatiently await the day when I no longer have to wake up and read headlines about how another black man, black woman, black person, has been robbed of their lives by a police officer. I impatiently await the day when black people in this country are no longer robbed of their chance at life, liberty and ‘the pursuit of happyness’ by a society and its institutions that refuse to understand them.

Until that day, we will hear the Black Lives Matter movement. We will hear movements like it. We will hear journalists, we will hear activists, we will hear any sane person with a voice and a heart and a mind who will have no more of it. And when a music artist tells dancers to get “in formation” at a Super Bowl, know that it is nothing more than a reflection of the organizing and the protesting and the speaking that people are doing every single day in this country, because they know that it is too long overdue not to. They treat it like it is life or death because that is exactly what it is. It is, and always has been, life or death for far too many.

I respectfully invite you to understand them.

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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