Killings of Black Men by Whites Far More Likely to Be Ruled “Justifiable”


A new report from the Marshall Project finds that there is often no criminal sanction when a white person kills a Black man in America.

The Marshall Project examined 400,000 homicides committed by civilians between 1980 and 2014, and found that in one in six killings of Black men by a white person, there is no criminal sanction. That rate is far higher than for homicides involving other combinations of races, and the disparity has persisted for decades, regardless of the circumstances.

Police agencies appear to be much more likely to characterize a killing as self-defense or justifiable when the victim is a Black male. Overall, fewer than 2 percent of homicides by civilians are classified as justifiable. But in cases when a Black man was killed by a non-Hispanic white civilian over the last three decades, almost 17 percent were ruled justifiable.

Examining data sets from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reporters found that police label killings of Black males by white people justifiable more than eight times as often as others, and this racial disparity persists across different cities, different ages, different weapons, and different relationships between killer and victim.

Even after adjusting for the ages of the killer and victim, their relationship and the weapon used, the likelihood of a white-on-Black-male case being called justifiable was still 4.7 times higher than in other cases.

In contrast, in cases where a Black civilian killed a white person, just 0.8 percent were ruled justifiable.

The report explains that, while self-defense laws vary across states, typically “a homicide can be ruled self-defense when the killer faced no actual threat but had a reasonable belief he or she did,” even if that belief is based on race-based stereotypes or presumptions about dangerousness.

When a white person kills a Black man in America, the killer often faces no legal consequences.