“We choose truth over facts!” from a former Vice President Joe Biden campaign speech[i]
Mistakenly believed to be one of Joe Biden’s frequent verbal gaffes, his talking point is instructive and defines the reality of political life across the ideological spectrum: the narrative is all encompassing. The truth is what we say it is, and the facts be damned. Facts, particularly statistics, [ii]are leavened, kneaded, baked, and circulated to influence the social media mob and especially voters to push us to get off our recliners and out of our summer hammocks. Confusion thrives: what has suffered most is universal credibility. We do not believe much of what we see and hear. We strive to discern what to believe out of the onslaught of data and information that hits our screens and speakers every day. But more often, we filter what we read and hear through our “mythscape,” our accepted narrative, retain what fits it and reject what does not. We give that filtering a serious sounding name: “confirmation bias,” but attribute it as a shortcoming of others and never one of our own.
A project manager with two large apartment construction contracts going once emailed me[iii] on a Friday afternoon after an exceptionally outrageous week, “Would someone please throw a tent over this circus?” It stuck immediately as the motto of our group, and it seems to me suits our current situation.
“Would someone please throw a tent over this circus!”
George Weigel in his excellent 2018 book, “Fragility of Order,” comments on the historian Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the First World War that in so many ways was not only the first act of the bloodiest century of human history, but like all good plays, was what spawned so much of what followed. “Christopher Clark usefully reminds us that, in seeking to understand how such a cataclysm could have begun, we must reckon with the fact that all the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections, and interests masquerading as maxims.” When we filter our new experience through our “mythscape,” we merely render social media debate farcical. However, when our leaders will not (or lack the ability to) put in the hard work, study, and introspection necessary to understand complex reality and then offer us their banal wisdom as predictable regurgitation of their narrative, disasters inevitably follow.
”Order, it has become clear, is a very fragile thing; and order is especially vulnerable under the cultural conditions of a postmodern world unsure about its grasp on the truth of anything.” George Weigel from the introduction to “The Fragility of Order.” Ignatius Press, 2018
We tend to hold our beliefs as binary: One predominant narrative without exception or the other. Is it not possible that reasoned arguments could be made, listening could be our first response, and the purpose of discussion is to put aside our embedded presuppositions and work mutually to discover some objective truth about these matters? Every issue seems to bleed over into rote political diatribes and expands quickly into all the contending issues. We start out talking about racial injustice and within a sentence or two we are citing the talking points of Trumpism or anti-Trumpism, transgender pronouns and abortion. As an exercise, sticking to one subject means examining some of the assumptions of both common narratives regarding one complex emotional issue.
The current frenzied muddle of destroyed statues, looted stores, brutally slain arrested men, sincere non-violent protestors, and pandering politicians wearing Ghanaian Kente ceremonial cloths is just the most recent version, albeit a poignant and troublesome one. Because it has become a circus, does not mean we just can wait it out until the next headline grabbing tragedy pushes it below the fold of the front page.
One narrative’s axiom is that the police are hunting and shooting black men, so the cops should be defunded and gutted with the money being redistributed to social programs. A common statistic cited is that a black man is 2.5 times more likely to be shot by a cop than a white one. Is that a valid reading of the numbers? On first look, black men comprise 6% of the population and are consistently year after year 23% to 25% of those killed by police while being arrested,[iv] so that makes sense. On a second look, black men account for 53% of the murder arrests in a year and 52% of robberies. [v]Most of those crimes are black on black. An in-depth Harvard Economics study in 2018 by Roland Fryer, found no evidence of racial trends in those killed by police once arrest statistics were factored in.[vi]
Perhaps what needs to be looked at is how the poverty and desperation and alienation of black men account for such a high percentage of violent crime. A major contributing factor is that over 72% of black children are raised in single family homes, up from 21% in 1960. [vii]While children in single family homes are up across all demographics, in black families, it is a catastrophic rise. Another study found that for every 10% increase in the rate of single parent households, there is a 17% rise in crime rates. Study after study shows the best environment for children regarding educational and career success as well as lower incarceration rates and almost all other indices is a household with both a father and a mother. Not even close. A single mother is five times more likely to wind up below the poverty line than one with a spouse.
As we redistribute funds from police services to social programs, we must try to anticipate the unintended consequences of those programs.[viii] After Lyndon Johnson’s poverty and welfare programs became institutionalized with their “no man in the house” rule as a qualifier to receive aid, the single-family rate among the poor in general and especially in black families soared. Great care must be taken in designing salvation from the government, and most of all with programs that have a hidden agenda to secure votes.[ix]
Surveys also show most law-abiding black citizens with high violent crime rates in their neighborhoods do not want to see a lowered police presence.[x] When terrorists with semi-automatic weapons start killing dozens in night clubs in Miami or country concerts in Las Vegas or someone is cruising our streets murdering our neighbors in drive-by shootings, do we really want the best option to be sending in the community organizers?
“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” –- Helen Keller
Now fairness demands an examination of one of the alternative narrative’s truisms: that there is no evidence of systemic racism and unjustified excessive police force employed against minorities. The same Harvard study that finds no racial trends in those killed by police shows remarkable racial tendencies in the use of force, excessive or otherwise, during confrontations with police. So, shootings, no correlation, which is not surprising when we realize that those decisions are made in fractions of a second as a response to a perceived threat. But there is a full 50% increased chance of force being used by police against minorities than against white suspects. Is this due to minorities offering resistance or seeking confrontation? The study found that among those who remain compliant during police interactions, there is a 21% greater risk of force being used against minorities. Black men are not being unreasonable when they are wary about any interaction with police. Whether that is evidence of rogue cops that are not culled from the troop due to over-protective unions or timid supervisors or whether it is evidence of systemic racism is not addressed by the study, but the statistics are clear.
When we consider that some of the most egregious recent examples of deaths of black men caused by police are not shootings, but arrests gone bad, the propensity for police using force with minorities gives us great cause for concern. George Floyd was killed when a cop knelt on his neck and throttled his breathing for eight and a half minutes. Eric Garner died in a police choke hold in NYC in 2014. Nor are white men exempt from excessive force. Joseph Hutchinson was killed when a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy knelt on his neck, cutting off his breath after he acted erratically in a police station. The rules need to change on proper use of force in every department and police officers with disciplinary actions against them for excessive force need to find another job or go to jail. Some things are one and out.
For those of us sheltered from the black experience, several recent articles call out an inherent bias built into our assumptions if we are not black, no matter how innocent we judge ourselves to be of it. A black Catholic priest tells of being in a grocery store in his ‘civvies’ without his collar and being followed around by security, and that this was not a unique experience for him. A black off duty policeman out of uniform tells of being pulled over by other police several times when he was driving through a white neighborhood and breaking no traffic laws.
The most moving was an enlightening article explaining what is meant by white privilege by a professional young black writer chronicling her experiences growing up and in school at UCLA and Harvard.[xi] She relates in detail the incidents that are most illustrative, then ends each with a quote to tie them together. Below are a few of those quotes. I cannot do the article’s detail justice; please take the time to read it. White privilege was something I told myself was exaggerated. I was wrong.
- if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.
- if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.
- if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.
A personal anecdote causes me no small embarrassment. Recently I was waiting at a busy discount gas outlet. The lines were long. Two ahead of me was a sparkling luxury car worth five times more than any auto I have ever owned. The line was held up as the fueling of the sedan was taking a long time, and I was growing increasingly impatient. I could not see the person pumping gas. When it was full, the owner moved to return the hose to the pump, and the driver was a younger black guy. I was resentful of the wait and of the luxury car owner. Was my first thought that he was a partner in a law firm or managed a portion of a hedge fund or owned a real estate development company or was a cardiac surgeon? No. My first thought was wondering if he played for the Patriots or the Red Sox, and if I recognized him. My assumption was not what it may have been had he been a young white guy holding up the line.
I congratulate myself that I’ve never worn a white sheet and pointy hat; I’ve never knowingly discriminated against anyone in the workplace or socially because of race; I’ve demonstrated for civil rights: I am superior to those that do espouse such ignorant and mean spirited beliefs, right? But am I free of innate prejudice buried deep? I think not. I have more listening to do. A lot more listening to do.
“Gradually it was disclosed to me the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. . . . And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
[i] Jolting Joe and his Freudian slip.
[ii] Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”
[iii] For younger readers, emailing was what we did last century instead of texting or posting pictures on Instagram.
[iv] See Washington Post comprehensive compilation of all police caused deaths. I put the listing into a spreadsheet to make it easier to analyze with a Pivot Table. Every name, every weapon they carried, if any, how they died and their race. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
[v] Here is a link to the FBI tracking of crime rates for various offenses by race. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/topic-pages/tables/table-43 Consistent percentages within a narrow range since 2015. The latest complete one is 2018, which I also put into a spreadsheet to do some analysis. I’ll email those downloaded spreadsheets with the totals to anyone who wants them.
[vi] Here is the abstract from the Harvard study: This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On nonlethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we find no racial differences either in the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of whom have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.
The full report can be found easily on line in PDF form at this link: https://www.nber.org/papers/w24238
[viii] When Rita was working as a student nurse at the old inner city Boston City Hospital, the head nurse on her floor with thirty years’ experience was discussing the new Johnson Aid to Families with Dependent Children war on poverty welfare program with its ‘no man in the house’ restriction on which families could collect. She presciently told Rita that it would be the ruination of the black family. Truer words, etc.