Facts don’t care about your feelings. This phrase has become the smug rallying cry of those who wave charts and graphs at people in the face of a triggered emotional response. The problem is that the facts and data about police killings of black men and women are simultaneously crucial and irrelevant.
Why the Data Matters
Data is always useful. But it’s important to interpret data carefully.
In the past, data on police killings generally relied on self-reporting by police departments and on the work of under-resourced local journalists and news anchors. But the fog around this data has started to lift in recent years. This has been one of the incredible successes of the vocal political movements to reduce police violence over the past decade. Without data, we are always hypothesizing, but never falsifying.
A fantastic hand-painted sign to carry in any protest would read: LET US STUDY THE DATA AND SEE IF WE’RE WRONG!
Remember how pivotal it was to obtain reliable data about smoking and cancer rates. And recall how fervently the tobacco lobby tried to suppress this data. The gun lobby has famously made studies into all gun violence incredibly difficult. Politicians have joined in this disgraceful game of obfuscation. These are shameful silent admissions of fear of what the analysis may suggest about products and do to their bottom lines.
So, of course, the data matters. And, of course, it is powerful.
A hypothesis such as police kill black people at disproportionate rates and this reveals a high degree of racism in their policies can be evaluated using data analysis. This has been done by several different serious studies.
But, when we account for confounding factors, such as poverty, crime and education rates, nutrition etc., the initially striking disparity that 35% of police killings are of blacks, while they make up only 13% of the total population seems less disproportionate. The results of detailed analysis do not confirm the hypothesis that this is due to racism. In fact, they seem to refute it.
The same kind of data analysis can be applied to the supposed gender wage gap of around 76 cents to the dollar—a shocking number, which leads some to declare that bold-faced sexism must be at play. But, when we consider factors such as the job sectors women are more likely to be attracted to, or changes in attitudes towards corporate responsibilities after becoming a parent, the statistical gap begins to shrink. For example, 89% of elementary school teachers in the US are women, though I doubt that people are charging the elementary school system with deep-rooted sexism or suggesting that they must be discouraging men from entering the field.
Sexism and racism still exist. There seems to be a significantly higher likelihood that a suspect will be roughed up, over-sentenced, handcuffed and generally disrespected by the police if he is black. And women still encounter plenty of sexism, which partially explains the income gap.
There may also be more slippery forms of sexism and racism at play in the confounding factors. Why are elementary school teachers paid so little? Why do women tend to gravitate to such professions? Is that a product of sexism? Why do black communities lag behind others in terms of poverty, schooling and nutrition? Why is the crime rate so much higher in those communities?
Even if poor people of any ethnicity were equally likely to suffer from police brutality, the percentage of blacks being brutalized would be disproportionate to the percentage of blacks in the total population because blacks are disproportionately likely to be poor.
So why are they disproportionately poorer? That is the kind of question that is hard to answer while you are staring at a spreadsheet.
Perhaps we have simply relocated the racism question on a deeper structural level. The explanation that we are dealing with systemic racism or sexism is often invoked to explain why some of the data don’t matter.
Why the Data Don’t Matter
Imagine that you are holding a pencil, when you receive a phone call from the police to inform you that all your car windows have been smashed. You immediately suspect that the culprit was a disgruntled former business partner. You slam the phone down, snap the pencil and throw the pieces against the wall.
A Spock-like alien watching this behavior might be puzzled. Shouldn’t you be angry with the ex-business partner—rather than with a stick of wood and graphite? But, when the rational target of our frustration is not available for direct confrontation, sometimes we punch a hole in a wall.
The black community has plenty to be upset about. Slavery has officially ended, but the legacy of historically racist policies casts a long shadow. The absurd war on drugs, for example, which has profoundly racist origins, accounts for a large percentage of the inflated crime rates in black communities.
If you are angry about historical injustices, unjust laws or the epithets that racist bullies shouted at you in grade school; if you are angry about biased history classes, designed to downplay or erase the crimes of the past, or even about the distrustful glances you get from local shopkeepers, who or what exactly are you going to take your anger out on? The police officer in front of you? A bronze statue? The window of a jewelry shop?
When video of George Floyd’s murder was broadcast, lots of pencils started to break. The data about the frequency or rarity of such an event is irrelevant—even if the role of racism in the killing remains murky after closer analysis. Even if this were a once-in-a-century occurrence, this solo datapoint might have sparked a similarly intense reaction. When anger and resentment build up for long enough, like lightning, they will look for a path to escape.
Now, another black man named Rayshard Brooks has been shot and killed by the police in Atlanta. This time, it is clear that he resisted arrest and armed himself with the police officer’s taser. The data reveals that there were 53 police killings between George Floyd’s death on 25 May and Rayshard Brooks’ on 12 June. Details are still emerging, but, at the time of writing, 43% of those killed were white, 32% were black, 21% were hispanic and 3% were Asian.
You probably didn’t hear about any of these deaths. But, again, the data don’t matter when it comes to deep-rooted anger.
The Exploitability of Anger
We tend to regret a lot of the things we do when we’re angry. In a future, calmer moment, we may be even be able to think through a solution. But, at times, anger is unavoidable and it provides an opportunity. Talented political leaders can transmute anger into hope and use it as fuel for positive change, but anger is volatile stuff.
It is also profitable stuff.
Market incentives prime the media to seek views and clicks. Unsurprisingly, June witnessed record ratings for cable news.
There are reasons why you probably don’t know the names of the 53 Americans killed by cops between Floyd’s death and Brooks,’ despite the fact that some details are beginning to emerge about some of these cases (at least 15 of these suspects were not armed, for example). Brooks’ death was the first data point since Floyd that involved bodycam video and an exploitable racial dynamic (white cop, black suspect, no gun), which supported the systemic racism narrative that is emotionally impervious to the data. The headline Another Black Man Killed by a White Cop tends to do better in A–B testing than the headline Police Kill Too Many Americans.
There are market-fueled media forces actively working to maintain the cycle of angry clicks and views, who are anxiously awaiting more outrageous videos of violence and mayhem to pour into their newsrooms. Even worse, in a vicious downward spiral, these newsrooms compete with social media’s nearly infinite number of cameramen, wandering the streets, ready to steal their viewerships with their unfiltered mobile phone videos of outrage.
If justified feelings of anger and resentment are based on the false hypothesis that there is an epidemic of racist police killings, we may end up doing far more harm than good. The controversial Ferguson effect, which describes the increase in local homicides due to timid policing for fear of public backlash, may account for thousands of additional deaths, a huge percentage of which will be deaths of black men.
There may yet be positive outcomes from this moment. The conversation on police reform could finally highlight the failure of the war on drugs, the inadequacy of police training, the need for unarmed mental health first responder units, the dangerous laxity of gun policies, and much more. But without acknowledging the realities revealed by the data to the right degree—neither too much nor too little—we might hurt the very populations we hope to protect, by either ushering in a totalitarian backlash or, alternatively, reducing the efficacy of police protection against crime.
We’re going to need the right combination of honest data analysis and empathetic understanding of justified but data-blind human anger. But, with a ratings-thirsty media and a divisive, egomaniacal president both trying to push us off this tightrope, keeping our balance won’t be easy.