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Black Lives, Blue Lives: truth on both sides

As originally published by Christian Science Monitor

As with many contentious topics, the issues of police brutality and racial profiling have people drawing sides. We need to be cognizant that the information we get – whether from experts, online searches, our friends, or the media – often comes with a left or right bias.

This makes it difficult to objectively evaluate the facts. Even with the best intentions, bias impacts the way we see things, even how we report facts. Studies show that people are willing to disregard any problematic facts thatchallenge their political ideology.

One-sided analysis doesn’t lead us to the truth. We must look at issues from multiple vantage points to truly see the whole picture.

A typical argument about police bias might go as follows:

“Blacks are targeted by police because they commit more violent crimes.”

“The treatment of blacks by police is uneven and brutal due to racism.”

Which side do you choose?

Evidence supports both views. Acknowledging one doesn’t diminish the other. In fact, finding a resolution to this issue is impossible without accepting the truth in both these statements.


Violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks

According to the FBI, African Americans perpetrated almost 40% of violent crimes in 2013 (the most recent data available) though they are just 13% of the population.


What’s the best way to interpret the facts? Depends who you ask

The hunt for objective statistics on police bias is a dizzying task. Depending on the source of information and the way it’s interpreted, it’s possible to confirm just about any premise one seeks to find.

For example, white people make up roughly 62% of the U.S. population. They are about 49% of those killed by police officers. African Americans account for 13% of the population and are 24% of those fatally shot and killed by the police. Using this exact same data, two media sources made two seemingly opposing points. The liberal Washington Post concluded that “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.” The conservative Wire website emphasized that “cops killed nearly twice as many whites as blacks in 2015.”

What’s the most appropriate way to interpret these statistics?

As Heather MacDonald points out in the Wall Street Journal, “A concentration of criminal violence in minority communities means that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force.”

On the other hand, the Post quotes a study that found that about 13 percent of blacks fatally shot by police since January 2015 were unarmed, compared with 7 percent of white shooting victims. Black individuals shot and killed by police were also found to be less likely to have been attacking police officers than the whites fatally shot by police.


Data confirms racist behavior

It’s a valid point that blacks commit a proportionally larger amount of crimes, so they will naturally be victims of a proportionally larger number of police shootings. But this does not negate the fact that racism is apparent in police behavior.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Louisville, says research suggests police exhibit “shooter bias,” perceiving blacks to be a greater threat than non-blacks. Research subjects were found to be more likely to misinterpret a weapon if they were first shown a picture of a black face. ”We’re taking in so much information,” Nix explained, “we use mental short cuts to try to make sense of the world around us.”

Is this bias justified? It depends how you interpret the data. Between 2004 and 2013, U.S. police officers were killed by 289 white and 242 black assailants. In sheer numbers, more policemen were killed by whites. But proportional to their percentage of the population, blacks murder cops much more frequently.

It’s important to note that bias against blacks isn’t just restricted to white officers. A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on the misperception that they were armed.

Besides shooting deaths, bias has been evident in other ways. A recent study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr. analyzed police interactions with blacks, whites and Hispanics in ten cities. Fryer found that “blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force, such as being grabbed, pushed into a wall or onto the ground, or handcuffed, with police than whites.”

North Carolina was the first U.S. state to mandate police-stop data collection in 2002. Based on a University of North Carolina study analyzing over 18 million traffic stops, the disparity between blacks and whites has risen over time.  In 2002, black men were 70% more likely to be searched than white men. By 2013, this difference was over 140%. (Interestingly, black women and white women were about equally likely to be searched, cited, or arrested during traffic stops.)

Citing “probable cause” (i.e. “reasonably reliable information to suspect there is a fair probability that a person has committed a crime, or that a search will reveal contraband or evidence”), North Carolina officers were 250% more likely to search black men than white men in 2013, despite that police were consistently more likely to find contraband with white males than with black males.


Factors lead to fear and suspicion

Facts show that blacks perpetrate violent crime, including the murder of police officers, at a much higher rate than whites. These statistics are often downplayed by progressive organizations and news sources. Data also supports that racial bias exists in the police force, both subconsciously and consciously. The conservative media tends to omit this evidence in discussion about police brutality.

Fear and suspicion has resulted in paranoia on both sides.

“We can conclude that blacks in North Carolina appear to have good reasons to be mistrustful of the police, and that these trends appear to be growing over time,” concludes North Carolina researchers.

The National Institute of Justice has reached the same conclusion. They add, “Researchers have been working to figure out how much [racial] disparity is because of discrimination and how much is due to other factors, but untangling these other factors is challenging.”

When we are willing to reassess our assumptions and approach these issues with frank discussion, the more likely we are to work together towards the best resolution.


Thinking free: the government as opinion watchdog

Should the government restrict insensitive commentary?

I’m a subscriber to Philadelphia Magazine, and was intrigued by the magazine’s recent cover article entitled ‘Being White In Philly.’ It began with what seemed like bravely honest talk about the uncomfortable race relations in the city. As someone who values open dialogue, at first I was pleased to see the author cut through the typical polite, politically correct language. He frankly discussed issues rarely mentioned in mainstream publications, such as whites’ distaste for discussing poverty in black communities, and blacks’ over-sensitivity and suspiciousness when dealing with white people. I agreed with his premises that treading softly on the subject of prejudice will never lead to resolution, and that one can encounter racism against whites in the black community just as one can find racism against blacks in the white community.

But by mid-article, I found the interesting points negated by the offensive opinions of those who were interviewed. I was put off by the author’s negative generalities on race and his wistful reminiscing about how certain Philly communities were much safer when a smaller percentage of blacks lived there.

Not long after I had cast the article aside, I was interested to find it in the news again. Philadelphia’s black mayor Michael Nutter sent a letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, seeking punishment of the magazine for publishing the article.

“The First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right,” wrote Mayor Nutter. “A publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the ‘speech’ employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of ‘shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater,’ its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction.”

Rue Landau, the Human Relations Commission’s executive director, agreed with the mayor’s concerns and launched an inquiry on the magazine, investigating its “racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.”

Says the magazine’s editor Tom McGrath, “I find it chilling that [Nutter] wants to use the government to censor a news outlet…As a journalist – as someone who thinks free speech is really important – I find that really, really troubling.”

“Any time you write about race you have to be prepared that it’s going to be controversial,” he continued. “In some places to simply talk about race is to be accused of being a racist and some of the reaction has sort of borne that out.”

As discussed in my last post, American freedom means respecting the rights of those with whom we disagree, allowing them to  voice their diverse or even repugnant opinions, and live the way they choose even when their actions conflict with our beliefs. We cannot slander others with false or purposely malicious intent, but we are all entitled to our opinions.

Mayor Nutter, like every other Philadelphia resident, is free to voice his critical opinion about the article. He may publicly denounce the magazine for choosing to publish it. Philadelphians are free to show their displeasure in multiple ways, such as writing letters to the magazine and to local newspapers, picketing in front of the magazine’s offices and canceling their subscriptions.

Tolerance will never come by silencing dialogue. But that’s beside the point. Mayor Nutter equates expressing controversial views to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. He feels speech must be monitored in order to protect the community.

Do government agencies need to oversee the media to makesure no one is caused offense? Should we allow officials to suppress voices because we fear the backlash of those who may be offended?

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