Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

One of the ways we often try to argue that racial discrimination persists is to cite statistics about the over-politicing and over-incarceration of people of color alongside numbers relating to health care, poverty and education attainment.  The problem with arguing in this way (discrimination exists because a disproportionate number of Black people are poor!) can lead to reinforcing negative stereotypes (Black people = poor) and do nothing to actually move the conversation. The person we are arguing with can always fall back on “the cultural argument” to explain the statistics (it’s a character problem, not a societal problem!).

In The New York Times today, the essential Charles Blow makes another point; those statistics are also a reflection of our nation’s biases. As he puts it in talking about crime, “the troubling association — in fact, overassociation — of blacks with criminality directly affects the way we think about both crime and blacks as a whole.” He goes on to cite a recent report from the Sentencing Project that is a must-read for anyone interested in how assumptions of criminality shape the lives of Black men and boys.

The report finds, amongst other things, that White people overestimate the amount of crime committed by Blacks and Latinos by 20-30%, and that White people who associate criminality with Blacks and Latinos are more likely to support harsher punishments. It also details some of the many ways that government and media, whether intentionally or not, create a climate in which Black people are unfairly assumed to be criminal.

As Blow puts it, “there is no way in this country to discuss crime statistics without including in that discussion the myriad ways in which those statistics are informed and influenced by the systemic effects of racial distortion.”