It’s what you’re guilty of when you draw conclusions about something based on a limited number of examples that point in a particular direction.
For instance, most serial killers are white. But serial killing is also a rare enough event that predicting the race of the next serial killer on that basis can easily turn out wrong. Same with predicting who the next terrorist attacker will be based on 9/11, or Tim McVeigh, for that matter. It’s what you engage in when you say that since you know someone who held off a home invader with a gun, gun possession is, therefore, a good bet for personal safety. If you get a hole-in-one today on your municipal golf course and conclude that you’re ready for the pro tour because of that par-3 chip shot on the 9th hole, well, again, that’s sampling error.
And make no mistake, it is most certainly in evidence if you conclude, based on the Derek Chauvin verdict, that the American system of justice works.
After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day. And even an unjust system can occasionally render salutary outcomes. Brown v Board, we should recall, was decided amid a vicious and racist American society and hardly suggested that the Constitution’s promises had been rendered operative to all on an equal basis. It was important. It was a start. But it was not redemptive for the American system as a whole, which is why even after that decision was handed down, another decade-and-a-half of non-stop organizing for equity followed it.
As for the Chauvin verdict, very good, but let us remember a few things.
First, this verdict is only the product of happenstance, and by that, I mean the fact that Darnella Frazier happened to be at the scene with a cell phone and the wherewithal to record what Chauvin and his colleagues did to Floyd. If there is no video, and even if there are a dozen witnesses, Derek Chauvin is never arrested. Anyone with half a brain or a sense of history knows that. If this murder happened 20 years ago, or 30, or 40 — as such murders did happen, far more often than we likely realize — Chauvin gets investigated by internal affairs because of a witness complaint, gets cleared, and is back on the job to brutalize some more.
Indeed if Floyd doesn’t die but is merely subjected to the painful and crushing weight of Chauvin’s knee for 9-plus minutes and sent to the hospital, Chauvin is never punished. Even though he would be guilty of assault and unfit to serve in uniform for his depravity, he would never have faced the end of his career as a result.
Second, even Frazier’s video didn’t guarantee a guilty verdict. For each such outcome (and there have been others, but pitifully few), we have dozens of cases where police have killed persons of color on camera, much as with George Floyd, and received not so much as a three-day-suspension without pay, let alone a prison cell. Officers who kill civilians even when the latter are unarmed and posing no immediate threat to anyone are rarely charged with a crime and often not even disciplined by their departments.
In the end, it may have been Chauvin’s smug indifference, meted out minute after minute, which sank him; the arrogance, the smirk, the callous disregard for human life. In the killing of George Floyd, these were on display in High Def for an extended period. In most cases, like Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and even Eric Garner, the video isn’t quite as clear, and the officers’ facial expressions not as available to the camera lens.
As such, Chauvin’s undoing may simply have been a result of his hubris, his personal sociopathy, which is to say, hardly an indication that the system will dispense justice to other cops who act in similar ways but with less visible signs of enjoying their handiwork.
But perhaps most importantly, a system that produces abuse and misconduct under the cover of law cannot be said to work just because, occasionally, persons are punished for taking things too far. Holding people accountable after the fact is good. Preventing the act in the first place is what success looks like. And there is no reason to presume the Chauvin verdict will cause most cops to rethink their behaviors, end the “warrior trainings” they gleefully attend, or interrupt their general contempt for many of the people and communities with which they come in contact.
Systems have to be evaluated based on a totality of the evidence before we proclaim them functional. Do we say the economic system worked for Black people in 1911, just because a Black entrepreneur like Madam C.J. Walker managed to become a millionaire that year? Or do we take a broader view of what life was like for Black people at that time, Walker notwithstanding?
Even beyond the racial considerations, do we say the health care system works just because we have some fantastic doctors and nurses and medical technology, all of which save lives every day? Or do we admit that the problem of medical bankruptcy and unequal access to preventive care renders the system less than fully functional and in need of repair?
In short, systemic problems require systemic analyses, not self-satisfied proclamations of how well we’re doing based on a statistical outlier, as with the Chauvin verdict.
That verdict was justice for Floyd’s family.
But for Black America, the jury is still deliberating, and justice has been sequestered for 400 years.
Previously Published on Medium