A new report has found that the killings of black men by white people are viewed as “justifiable” more than eight times as often as other killings.
The Marshall Project, in collaboration with The Upshot, examined 400,000 homicides committed by civilians from 1980 to 2014, excluding cases that lacked “essential” information or killings by police. The non-profit found that in one in six of the killings of black men by white civilians no criminal sanctions are levied. This means the killing is considered “justifiable,” which includes cases in which a grand jury declines to indict a defendant, or where a jury finds the defendant not guilty or decides that the defendant acted in self-defense.
The report found that just two percent of all homicides committed by civilians that were found to be justifiable. However, in nearly 17 percent of the cases in which a black man was killed by a white civilian over the last three decades, the homicide was considered “justifiable.” One of the most high-profile examples of a “justified homicide” is the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted.
By contrast, when Hispanic people killed black men, around 5.5 percent of those homicides were considered justifiable, when white people killed Hispanic people, 3.1 percent of those homicides were considered justifiable, and when black men killed white people, just .8 percent were considered justifiable.
The Marshall Project noted that the FBI data they studied presumes that in justifiable homicides, the person killed is a felon.
“Self-defense decisions by regular people, much like those involving the police, are made quickly and with imperfect information,” the report reads. “As a result, a homicide can be ruled self-defense when the killer faced no actual threat but had a reasonable belief he or she did.”
The non-profit said this irrational fear leads to killers receiving the benefit of the doubt from authorities and juries when “faced with someone who seemed ‘dangerous.’” And as has been found in previous studies, black men are consistently perceived as larger and more dangerous than white men of their same size.
Study co-author Daniel Lathrop spoke to Business Insider about the role implicit bias could play in creating the racial disparity in “justified homicides.”
“Sources we interviewed told us that the fear associated with stereotypes of black men could explain why the killings were more likely to be categorized this way,” he said. “While disparity does not prove bias, such a large and persistent disparity without any other way to explain it should be disturbing.”
Read more the full report here.