Stoking White Fear With Bad Analysis

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen offers a lesson in innumeracy.

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Jajuan Kelley, of Atlanta, wears a Skittles wrapper over his mouth during a rally in memory of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old who was killed by a Florida neighborhood watch captain while returning from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, Monday, March 26, 2012, in Atlanta.

This week, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen published an inarticulate and very inept interpretation of the demography of shootings listed in the New York City Police Department's 2012 Crime and Enforcement report. In his "Racism vs. Reality" piece, he argued that the post-Zimmerman discourse about racial profiling isn't acknowledging that people are afraid of black men because black men commit more crime.

Cohen writes that blacks make up "a quarter of the population and commit 78 percent of the shootings in New York City." He implies that the city's "Stop & Frisk" program is justified: "If young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk… It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good."

Cohen should be embarrassed by his innumeracy. He cherry-picked one piece of data and drew biased, grand generalizations, which serve no purpose other than to stoke "white fear" and reinforce a long running stereotype of the "Negro Savage," a term used by white supremacists to assert that a slave was a docile creature, content in captivity, but as a freeman, a dangerous menace from the dark continent driven by base and barbaric instincts to rape and pillage white society. The Ku Klux Klan and others used this stereotype to justify lynching and other violence against blacks during the segregation era.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

Today, this stereotype has morphed into the "Criminal Black Man." The dangerous, inner-city, hoody-wearing, gun-toting, drug-dealing man who must be watched, stopped and frisked to ensure that proper society remains safe.  It is a conception that has a long running, insidious and chilling effect on public policy. It shapes ineffective policing techniques and many other ineffective laws meant to lower crime rates. We need to go no further than Mayor Michael Bloomberg's WOR radio interview last month to see how this plays out. He said, "I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little."

Had Cohen read Darell Huff's 1954 book, "How to Lie with Statistics," or attended one of the National Press Club Institutes' recent talks on data journalism, he would have realized his inferences are weak because he misinterpreted the statistics. He committed sampling bias and overgeneralization. Cohen looks at one facet of the NYPD report and superimposes it on the entire U.S. population of black men. He doesn't consider any other angles that may blow a hole in his conclusions, such as: How many shootings ended in a guilty verdict? How many were justified? How many accidental? How many arrests ended in acquittal?

[VOTE: Should George Zimmerman Have Been Acquitted?]

Or for that matter, how does this information relate to the fact that New York City's crime rate is at its lowest since the 1950s, in light of the fact that it's minority population has grown significantly since? Or at the very least, why are the police incapable of conducting race-neutral work. Rooting out potential criminals based on behavior and not race?

Cohen's column would have contributed rather than detracted from this conversation had it discussed how these stereotypes inform public policy choices. Instead of fanning "white fear," he would have helped loosen the emotional grip this trial now has on the national discourse, a stranglehold that is drawing lines in the sand, fueling recriminations and preventing a substantive, solutions-driven conversation about taming the real elephant in the room: Why do we consistently allow stereotypes to stymie our continual efforts to cultivate a fair, just, democratic American Society?

  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Justice Department Pursue a Civil Rights Case Against George Zimmerman?
  • Read Susan Milligan:Rachel Jeantel, Cursive and the Problem With Technology
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