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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.

 

Are journalists thinking freely?

While we fully expect partisan opinions from our politicians, we often don’t think about how our views are subtly manipulated by other influences as well.

As I wrote in my previous post, the way in which information is presented to us influences our opinions and shapes how we think about things.

The average American goes to his favorite news service to interpret current events for him. That’s fine, provided he understands that it’s not possible to attain a completely objective and fair presentation of the facts from any one source.

With the barrage of information out there, we want to know we have reputable sources to rely upon for our news. Ideally there would be one source that presented a balanced account from multiple points of view. But on the contrary, today’s news outlets helps perpetuate the splintering of American opinion.  Why? It’s an interesting dilemma.

Back at the advent of television, the broadcast spectrum allowed for only a few channels. Networks, if they wanted to compete, needed to attract a diverse audience and couldn’t afford to cater to just conservative or liberal viewers.

Now of course we have a plethora of cable, satellite and Internet options at our disposal. News sources today vie for their own particular ‘niche’ of consumers who think in a certain way. This has encouraged journalists to break free from the restrictions of impartiality, and present stories in a subjective manner to appeal to a specific audience. News and editorial pieces have blurred to the point to where it’s now difficult to distinguish the opinions from the reporting.

In 2005 comedian and political pundit Stephen Colbert created the term “truthy” to satirize the use of emotional appeal as fact. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” says Colbert. “But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist…What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?”

This shift in news reporting has happened slowly over a period of several decades. Imbalanced perspectives are often presented so insidiously that the change in reporting may not be obvious to the average viewer.

When I was in college studying journalism in the early 1980’s, students were trained to produce a story in an inverted pyramid containing the simple who, what, where, when and why without a trace of editorializing or embellishment.

When I grew tired of having any dramatic description or sentiment slashed from my articles, I switched my career path to advertising, which allowed me to use my creativity to persuade people to think a certain way. Because I haven’t been a part of the reporting world all these years, I still look at news stories with a classic eye, wanting to pull out the red pen and deleting all that is subjective and misleading.

Which stories are selected to run is just as important as how the stories are presented. For example, in a USA Today series on gun control, nearly every story was written from the viewpoint of those who supported stricter gun laws. The only gun advocates featured were a manufacturer whose livelihood depended upon guns and those who shot for sport.

Is profit and fun the only rationale for opposing stricter gun laws?

A more balanced and informative series might also include pieces such as these:

·         an article discussing the rapid rise in crime and murder in Chicago, despite the most restrictive gun laws in the country, even though crime has decreased in other parts of the nation with fewer restrictions,

·         a report quoting the results of “most comprehensive survey ever” of police officers, in which 71%  believed that  a federal ban on semi-automatics would have no effect on reducing violent crime, and more than 20% believed a ban would actually have a negative effect on reducing violent crime.

When we are presented with facts from all sides of an issue, we can come to our own more informed conclusions.

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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?

Comment here

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Thinking freely about integrity

When a company spends recklessly, cannot afford to pay its debts, and then asks hardworking taxpayers to bail them out, is that fair?

Bailing out corporations in financial distress has recently been deemed a responsibility of government. Not surprisingly, it’s created a great deal of resentment from citizens who don’t want to pay the price of others’ greed or mistakes.

  • The Office of Management and Budget estimates TARP will cost taxpayers $63 billion.

But what about a government that spends recklessly, cannot afford to pay its debts, then asks hardworking taxpayers to bail them out? Is that fair?

  • In 2011 we spent $711 billion for defense, double what we were spending a decade ago. That’s more than what China, Russia and the next dozen top military nations spend combined.
  • Our government is borrowing 35 cents of every dollar it spends.  In 2012, taxpayers spent twice as much on interest payments as it did on transportation infrastructure, and three times as much as it spent on education.

When taxpayer dollars are spent irresponsibly, be it by CEOs or politicians, Americans are straddled with a debt that’s unjust.

Integrity must be upheld on every front

Americans need to demand honesty and integrity from both the public and private sector. If we’re thinking freely, we know we can’t allow politicians to get away with fraud or deceit that we wouldn’t tolerate from the private sector.

In August 2011, Democrats and Republicans promised to work together to reduce future federal budgets through the Budget Control Act.

The White House issued a press release assuring Americans that

  • legislators would place “caps on discretionary spending that will produce more than $900 billion in savings over the next 10 years,”
  • recover “savings of $350 billion from the base defense budget – the first defense cut since the 1990,” and
  • reduce “domestic discretionary spending to the lowest level since Eisenhower… through entitlement and tax reform.”

The deadline for this deal was January 2013, two months after the 2012 elections.

In the ensuing 17 months, both Democrats and Republicans failed to budge in any negotiations, delivering on none of these promises.

When an automatic “sequester” budget cut of 1.2% kicked in, the President called it “brutal” and “severe.”  (Though after many media stories prove this to be an overstatement, he backpedaled, changing his protest to, “This is not the apocalypse. It’s just dumb.”)

But if shaving such a small percentage from this year’s budget seems so arduous, how are we to believe that our representatives ever intended to hold up the bipartisan agreement in the first place?

Why is such a minor reduction so difficult?

We’ve been warned of the major effects the sequester cuts may produce. Supposedly branches of the military will be cut to the bone, we’ll be waiting for hours to go through airport security, national parks will shut down, etc.

What neither Democrats nor Republicans are explaining is that more than two-thirds of federal spending is labeled “mandatory” and isn’t on the negotiation table. To maintain this constraint, we’d have to nearly shut down the rest of government to actually balance the budget.

No double standards

Compare the situation above to the following: Ford offers a car that will get 50 miles to the gallon. After deciding to purchase it, you learn the car actually has the same mediocre gas mileage as your old car. When you complain, you’re told by Ford’s president that you were dumb to expect a car to get that kind of mileage. But if you insist, he’ll take the doors off to get the mileage down a bit more.

Of course, the company expects you to buy their cars again next time.

As discussed in my previous post, it’s as unethical for a politician to make promises he can’t keep as it for is a businessman to do so. In fact, ethics in our public sector is even more crucial, since we have no choice but to pay for the things our legislators pass into law.

That’s my opinion. Let’s hear yours.

 

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Thinking freely: the sequester

How does partisan bias affect our reasoning? The fallout from the sequester is a good illustration. As usual Democrats are blaming Republicans, conservatives are blaming liberals. Are we thinking freely, or are we simply allowing our ire to fall along party lines?

Who’s really to blame for this predicament?

Last week President Obama told us, “Republicans in Congress face a simple choice. Are they willing to compromise to protect… education and health care and national security… or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?”

Republican House Speaker John Boehner claims that what most Americans “might not realize from Mr. Obama’s statements is that it is a product of the president’s own failed leadership… Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he’s already back for more.”

The press has done a thorough job of reporting the partisan finger-pointing and the government’s catastrophic warnings. But it’s not as easy to find facts on the heart of the issue.

  • Congress and the Executive branch mutually agreed to the sequester as a stipulation for raising the debt limit back in August 2011. In the “bipartisan victory” press release issued by the White House back in 2011, the administration called the deal “A DOWNPAYMENT ON DEFICIT REDUCTION BY LOCKING IN HISTORIC SPENDING DISCIPLINE” (their bold and capital letters, not mine.)
  • It sounded like a worthwhile endeavor at the time:  it provided the government some immediate cash and gave Washington 17 months to come up with a plan to cut $900 billion from the budget.

Irrelevant distractions:

As we’ve all learned from arguments with our significant others, bringing up a side issue can keep us from dealing with more difficult, deep-seated matters that lie at the root of our problems. Sometimes it’s easier to fight about who took the trash out last than admit that neither of you have been living up to your promises.

  • The tax debate is a completely separate issue from the sequester agreement. Any discussion as to whether taxes on the rich, the middle class or anyone else should be raised is merely a diversion. Both parties mutually agreed to cut $900 billion from the budget. Tax revenue is immaterial.
  • All the clamor might lead us to believe that, even if this situation isn’t ideal, at least we’re headed towards curbing government’s excessive spending. But the $85 billion sequester cut is less than one tenth of what was agreed upon in August 2011. Washington’s spending problem is virtually the same as it ever was:

Capture

The heart of the problem:

  • Discretionary programs rarely get cut because it’s generally not in a politicians’ best interest. For every lawmaker who is attempting to make cuts to a program, there’s another who is championing its cause, supported by a lobby of constituents who benefit by it.
  • We rarely see groups demonstrate their gratitude when politicians make tough budget decisions. But when programs are cut there are always angry factions. Unpopular politicians don’t get reelected.
  • Deal making (“I’ll save your program if you vote to save mine”) is rampant.
  • There’s no repercussion to politicians when budgets aren’t passed or if we spend more than we have. The government simply borrows more or the Federal Reserve prints more money to pay the added expense. The House and Senate have not agreed on a budget since 2009.

We need to focus on solutions to the root problem. If Congress’ pay, future pensions and/or ability to run for reelection were tied to passing balanced budgets, lawmakers would have a much greater incentive to be judicious about spending.

If Americans were no longer sidetracked by partisan battles, legislators would quickly learn that there was no place to pass the blame.

Please share your thoughts (anonymously if you’d like) here.