In his nomination acceptance speech, Democrat Joe Biden cited “systemic racism” as an established fact, despite that the evidence does not support that sweeping notion — most significantly, not in policing. Such loose talk is incendiary.
This summer, the same talk raged inside The Wall Street Journal, eventually spilling into public view. Almost three hundred members of the News division signed a letter to Journal CEO Almar Latour alleging “lack of fact-checking and transparency and apparent disregard of evidence” in the Opinion division, primarily concerning the early June publication of an op-ed by Heather Mac Donald entitled The Myth of Systemic Police Racism.
In the interest of full disclosure, The Journal’s Opinion section has published several of my opinion columns.
Each word in the headline of Mac Donald’s op-ed is important. The title does not call police racism a myth, just systemic police racism. It does not say there are no racial differences, or disparities, in policing.
The headline frames assertively, but fairly and accurately, the column’s central statement that “a solid body of evidence finds no structural bias.”
The News department accused Mac Donald of “cherry picking” a study by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. by referencing only Fryer’s finding of no racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) while making no mention of Fryer’s finding of substantial racial disparities in police use of non-lethal force.
Well, in mid-June, Opinion published an op-ed by Fryer, giving him the opportunity to outline his differing findings on FOIS versus use of non-lethal force and to say “People who invoke our work to argue that systemic racism is a myth conveniently ignore these statistics [on non-lethal force].”
Yet, in the next sentence, Fryer said “Racism may explain the findings, but statistical evidence doesn’t prove it. As economists, we don’t get to label unexplained racial disparities ‘racism.’” Sure sounds like Mac Donald’s argument, which Fryer had just criticized.
The News department also complained that Mac Donald mischaracterized a 2019 study (Johnson and Cesario) which found that minority victims were not more likely to have been shot by White officers.
In April 2020, the authors reconfirmed their findings but corrected an overreaching sentence in the study’s “significance statement,” changing “White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians…” to say a White officer’s victim “was not more likely to be of a racial minority.”
The change was necessary to recognize that “likelihood,” or probability, of being shot must include data about shots and “non-shots,” just as coin toss probability requires data for both heads and tails, and, since the study’s database was comprised only of fatal “shots” (not even including non-fatal shots) they couldn’t speak to probability of possible future FOIS outcomes, but only about the characteristics of actual FOIS outcomes.
Nevertheless, this more accurate and limited portrayal of their findings did not alter the fact that the authors did not find racial bias. Confoundingly, the authors “retracted” their study (whatever that means) in July, because “our work has continued to be cited as providing support for the idea that there are no racial biases in fatal shootings, or in policing in general.”
Except that, as a study that attempted to find racial bias in FOIS and did not, their work does support previous evidence (including Fryer’s) not finding racial biases in FOIS.
Now, what did Johnson and Cesario’s study find? It confirmed previous studies finding that FOIS victim race varies with crime committed by that race: “as the proportion of violent crime committed by Black civilians increased, a person fatally shot was more likely to be Black…” The authors found this factor to be the predominant predictor, “explaining 44% of the variance in the race of a person fatally shot.”
This is significant: logically, to the extent that something other than racial bias explains racial disparities in FOIS, it lessens the likelihood that, or at least the degree to which, as-yet unproven racial bias may explain it.
Contrary to The Journal News division allegations about the Opinion section, it is the signers of the New division’s letter who have misread and misinterpreted the Mac Donald column and the studies cited therein, whose authors have not helped with their confusing and contradictory statements about their own work and the overall issue
What to do about bad policing? As the subtitle of Mac Donald’s column says, “Hold officers accountable who use excessive force.”
This is not just a semantic debate.
Discrediting Mac Donald’s argument that systemic racism in policing has not been proven suggests that it has. This inflames anti-police emotions, endangering everyone.
Fryer points out that aggressive pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments (systems) after major incidents can lead to de-policing and “a stark increase in crime.” He cites the example of Chicago, where de-policing mainly endangers Black citizens.
Delegitimizing the police endangers all citizens, as has become clear since early June as violent crime rates have soared in major U.S. urban centers. Arguably, under-deployment of the National Guard in Kenosha last month – with just 100 troops at first, and then 250, and, only after two protester fatalities, 500 – is a variant of under-policing or de-policing and allowed uncontrolled violent civil unrest in this small Wisconsin city to turn into fatal citizen-on-citizen violence. Months of uncontrolled unrest has led to the same in Portland, Oregon.
Mac Donald pointed out the danger to police, saying “The false narrative of systemic police bias resulted in targeted killings of officers during the Obama presidency.” Her reference is to the five police officers slain in Dallas in 2015. She warned “The pattern may be repeating itself,” an eerie foretelling of this summer’s attacks on police, including the ambush of two cops in Compton, California, last weekend.
It is worth remembering what then President Obama said at the memorial service for the Dallas officers, “We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredible job fairly and professionally,” even though he went on to discuss the greater likelihood of Blacks experiencing police confrontations.
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Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.