Will Smith Says “Racism Isn’t Getting Worse. It’s Getting Filmed.” Is He Right? (Video)

Last week, Will Smith was a guest on “The Tonight Show,” where he made a statement about current social affairs that has been resonating on social media for many months. “Racism isn’t getting worse,” he said. “It’s getting filmed.” Smith’s remarks echo the sentiments of millions of Americans in the era of the ubiquitous cell-phone camera, when video footage of altercations between law enforcement and victims is recorded and broadcast for the world to see. What follows is a high prevalence of damning visual proof of repeated deaths of Black Americans, which in turn can make it seem these events are happening more frequently. But are they, really?

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Following the killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and others whose deaths were captured on film, social-media platforms like Instagram and Twitter were flooded with images of the quote “Racism isn’t new. The Cameras Are.” Like Smith’s comment, such a statement makes two arguments. First, that racism is not a new phenomenon and second, it’s only the advent of technology that makes racism seem like a recently sprouted endemic. Even before cell phone cameras, videos captured racism, perhaps, most notably, with the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. But photographic evidence of America’s racist history dates back to the days of slavery, with haunting images of Black people being lynched as White crowds look on still powerfully moving – and painfully familiar.

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Even a superficial analysis of the correlation between video cameras and instances of racism leads to a terrifying realization: think of all of the heinous, race-based deaths, arrests, and injustices which have taken place throughout history that, because footage is lacking, go untold, unearthed, and un-examined. The death of Walter Scott – the North Carolina man murdered in 2015 by a policeman who shot him in his back as he ran away – underscored the value of camera footage perhaps more than any case since, primarily because of Scott having his back turned to his killer. Had the bystander not been walking by, cell-phone camera in hand, there would have been no irrefutable proof of what really happened for public consumption, and the implications of that reality are bone-chilling. How many people have been killed by police that we just don’t know about?

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Questions such as those are central in countless recent news reports, op-eds, and Facebook threads. But as with any hot-button issue, sometimes the data and statistics get lost in rhetoric, so it can be tricky to get down to the bottom of it: is America getting worse, or are we just seeing terrible things more often and more easily? The American Prospect – an online magazine co-founded by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich – recently ran a sprawling investigative article titled “Caught on Camera: Police Racism.” Written by Peter Dreier, it originally ran on July 15, 2015 but was updated and republished in light of recent events on July 11 of this year. In it, Dreier posits “[a] recent wave of police violence against African Americans isn’t anything new, [i]t’s just been caught on video,” and “the harsh reality is that there has been no sudden upsurge of racial profiling, arrests, beatings, and killings of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers.”

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To support his argument, Dreier aggregates federal data from the Centers for Disease Control (it is quite telling that the government body in charge of collecting data related to police-involved deaths has the word “Disease” in it). “[B]etween 1968 and 2011, Black people were 4.2 times more likely than Whites to die at the hands of law enforcement,” he shares. Furthermore, the numbers seem to support the notion that racism, in fact, hasn’t become a bigger problem in the United States – at least not when it comes to the deaths of minorities at the hands of police. “The rate of African Americans killed by police declined significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has remained relatively steady since then. No sudden epidemic. Just routine racism.” It’s important to note that the rate declined in the 1970s and 1980s, as it was during those decades when things like television news, handheld cameras, and portable forms of technology became truly part of the American way of life.

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However, Dreier makes an important point, and one that is important to keep in mind when researching the topic of police-involved deaths. “The FBI significantly under-counts the number of fatal shootings by police officers because it does not require police departments to keep it updated,” he writes. It does not require police departments to keep it updated. Essentially, this means that any federally gathered data on the subject has the potential to be misleading at best and completely erroneous at worst. So the question no longer becomes “is the country more racist or are there more cameras?” but rather “is racism actually worse than we have been led to believe, and how can we find out the real data?”

Dreier cites “The Washington Post, The Guardian, and a website called Killed by Police” as being reputable sources for data that “fill out the picture” about how many Black people are killed by law enforcement. “Through July 8 of this year, police have killed 569 individuals, according to The Guardian,” he writes. “Of last year’s 1,146 victims, 581 (51 percent) were [W]hite,” an important statistic when considering the presumption that police killings are disproportionately affecting non-Whites. But upon closer examination, Dreier argues, that 51 percent is misleading. “[W]hites represent 62 percent of all Americans, according to the U.S. Census. African Americans, who account for 27 percent of the victims, comprise only 13 percent of the population.” This means that in order to properly understand the first set of statistics, the context of the second set must be included. At just 13 percent of the population, Black Americans still manage to represent more than a quarter of all victims of police shootings. That means African Americans are twice as likely as Whites to be the victims of police shootings.

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Dreier also cites organizations like We Cop Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union’s mobile app designed specifically to capture police wrongdoing, and others in his must-read report, which also provides significant historical context that predates video cameras but remains littered with instances of racist killings.

So, no. America isn’t becoming more racist. But that isn’t good news. As history continues to prove time and time again, America is a country with a brutally racist past. The troubling part is the same can be said of its present. Will cameras help change its future?