The demographics of racial inequality in the United States

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators raise their fists as they take a knee for 8 minutes 46 seconds, the length of time George Floyd was held down with a knee on his neck by a Minneapolis Police officer, during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Last year, Edwards, Lee, and Esposito published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where they found that 1 in 1,000 Black men and boys can be expected to be killed by police at some point in their lifetime; that Black males are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white males; and that dying at the hands of law enforcement is a leading cause of death among young Black men. For some, these numbers were staggering; for others, they were not a surprise. As with all academic work, these findings were discussed briefly in the media and subsequently set aside as new, pressing issues captured the attention of the nation.

Recent events, including the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have brought these numbers back into the national spotlight. Alongside careful work from other scholars, journalists, and activists, these estimates of racial disparities in police violence are now being used to motivate the need for significant, structural changes in how we go about policing communities. “Defund the police” initiatives and proposals for reparations that call for the redistribution of resources into investments in Black communities may offer a path forward, toward durable change.

As lawmakers and communities work through what reinvestment in Black communities entails, it is important to take stock of other institutions of oppression that impact the Black community. For example, we must consider the critical warning by Dorothy Roberts (professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania) that we must not render the defunding of police into increased investment in child welfare agencies that have historically surveilled and violently separated Black families.

Demography–or the scientific study of human populations–can help guide policy discussions around reinvestment. Demographers don’t just count, but instead make meaning from numbers; quantifying racial, social, and economic issues, and identifying potential solutions to these issues, is well within the realm of demography.  W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading scholar in the fields of sociology and social demography in the United States, used demographic methods to describe racial disparities in economic and health conditions among African Americans in Philadelphia at the end of the 19th century. Du Bois used this seminal work and his demographic work that followed, as tools for progress. In his activism, he brought numbers to bear from his research in seeking justice and equality for African Americans through policy and practice. He eloquently describes his professional journey leading him to use his scholarship for policy and action in his autobiography.

“My real life work was done at Atlanta for thirteen years, from my twenty-ninth to my forty-second birthday. … I became widely-acquainted with the real condition of my people. I realized the terrific odds which faced them. … In Philadelphia I was their cold and scientific investigator, with microscope and probe. It took but a few years of Atlanta to bring me to hot and indignant defense. I saw the race-hatred of the whites as I had never dreamed of it before,—naked and unashamed! The faint discrimination of my hopes and intangible dislikes paled into nothing before this great, red monster of cruel oppression. I held back with more difficulty each day my mounting indignation against injustice and misrepresentation.”


― W.E.B. Du Bois, “Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil,” 1920

Quantifying racial inequality

As demographers and policy researchers, we thought it would be helpful to share a few important numbers that detail the oppression that Black communities in the United States face today. We draw from the work of many scholars and journalists, but also include new evidence from a survey by the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. The survey interviewed 5,500 nationally representative respondents from all U.S. states from April 27, 2020 to May 12, 2020.

Below are the empirical “receipts” that we hope are considered in discussions regarding where and how to invest in Black communities. We begin here, but do not end here. Our hope is that others can add to and clarify these numbers in the future.

The demographic scope of Black crises is broad, involving not only institutions of justice but also those of education, housing, banking, health care, and social welfare. The numbers provided here only scratch the surface of the realities of racial inequality in the United States. As we begin to reimagine policing, dismantle systems of oppression, and reinvest resources into Black communities, we must use these numbers to help guide us.

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