clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is there racial disparity? If you can’t believe the numbers, listen to the stories

Bad data presentation makes for bad conclusions on racism. But beyond the numbers, it’s the lived experiences of others that should motivate us to act.

A group of demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis last week, during a rally at 25th Street and Washington Boulevard in Ogden on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

I’ve seen it floating around: According to a Washington Post database, police fatally shot 20 unarmed white men in 2019, compared to 10 unarmed black men. Clearly, police killed more white men; ergo, no systemic racial bias exists in law enforcement.

A variation of it cropped up in the Deseret News comment section, and the numbers appeared in an op-ed from the Manhattan Institute featured in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

But not only is it a dismal representation of data, it misses the broader aims of a movement to fix long-perpetuated racial injustices.

For clarification’s sake, here’s a look at the numbers. If we believe more white unarmed men were shot by police last year than black men, then we also must believe the rates of death in proportion to national demographics dramatically skew toward African Americans. Whites, according to census estimates, make up 76% of the country, but only 48.8% of the unarmed police shootings recorded last year. Blacks or African Americans, who comprise 13% of the national population, made up 24% of those shootings.

Indeed, the very same Washington Post database concludes the overall rate at which police kill black Americans is twice as high as the rate for white Americans.

Then there’s the academics. The Wall Street Journal op-ed writer points to a recent study published by the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences that reports “no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers.”

What got left out of the op-ed, however, was the researchers’ caution: “Our analyses test for racial disparities in (fatal officer-involved shootings), which should not be conflated with racial bias.” It’s an exercise in nuance. The authors suggest myriad factors influence the data, ranging from the fact that those attempting “suicide by cop” are more likely to be white, to how county demographics partially explain why black officers were more likely to shoot black civilians — they come from the same community.

And neither of those data points say anything about the many holes in data collection spread throughout the law enforcement system, the rates at which black civilians are imprisoned (which, although much higher than whites, are improving), why they’re more likely to receive harsher sentences, why they’re more likely to be profiled by law enforcement, or the centuries of entrenched prejudice that shape communities today.

It’s enough to make someone queasy. Or, as Black Lives Matter Utah founder Lex Scott expressed to me over the phone on Wednesday, “I want to cuss. But it’s the Deseret News, so I won’t.” I appreciated the decency.

Data divorced from a larger context gets messy fast. Like the accountant who, when asked what two plus two equals, responds in a hushed voice, “What do you want it to be?” it’s a cinch to fit the figures to any number of narratives. Invariably, this article will be accused of doing just that.

So leave the numbers for a second; spreadsheets can’t capture the emotional and psychological pressures of living life in black America. If “the plural of anecdote is data,” as political scientist Ray Wolfinger once put it, then listening to the painful stories of marginalized groups across the country ought to be enough to prove we have fallen short of our founding ideals. Hearing them ought to be enough to arouse human sensibilities in favor of empathy, justice and dignity.

“The problem with this whole thing is that people are so uncomfortable talking about racism,” Scott says. Hers is an apt analogy: Would the oncologist tell her patient, “If you stop talking about it, your cancer will go away”?

She implores, “The way that we tackle this is talking about it and thinking about it and not dismissing it.”

And what would she say to someone who’s not on board? “Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that our lives matter more or the most, it means that our lives matter because they do,” adding, with no uncertainty, “People want to be critical of our movement just like they were critical of (Martin Luther King Jr.’s) movement. They’re definitely on the wrong side of history right now. And if they can’t see that, they are blind.”

If mountains of competing numbers are insufficient to open one’s eyes to racial disparities, hopefully the ears can make up for the deficiency.