I’m a data guy, an analyst by both hobby and profession.
In our modern society of short attention spans, viral sound bites, and ever-increasing dividedness – this has a tendency to leave me floundering in irritating, cherry-picked stats, wading through swamps of out-right lies, and hurt by our collective desires to find the fact that fits our pre-existing narratives to scream down anyone who might disagree.
Because of this, I recently set out to try to get my hands around the issues of race that face America today. There are so many conflicting viewpoints and statistics (It’s a big, scary issue - so this should come as no surprise) – but what’s the closest I can get to the truth?
As you read through this – recognize something important. It’s numbers. It’s averages. But what those averages represent are the summation of individual stories and personal realities. So when you read a story, you can always contrast it against another one to ‘invalidate’ it (or so you think) – but you can’t do that with the averages. They are what they are and there’s not too much of a way around them… but what they represent should hurt us deeply and move us to action.
The most poignant lens through which to begin to view this is through the recent police shootings.
Are Black Americans More Likely to Be Involved in Violent Police Interactions?
The argument is that African Americans are more likely to be assaulted and/or killed, particularly unjustly, by police. Is that true? Can we find data to support it or to help us understand it?
The answer is a resounding yes.
- Police are 2.5 times more likely to use force with black suspects than white suspects (3.5% vs. 1.4%).
- Police are about 2 times more likely to use lethal force with black suspects than white suspects (13% of population makes up for 26% of police homicides)
Source: https://thesocietypages.org/toolbox/files/2016/01/Screen-Shot-2016-01-20-at-12.13.21-PM.png (Note: I didn’t see BJS data here, but I recall seeing it previously, unfortunately their site is a little convoluted at best. Will update when/if I find it)
Now – I’ve heard a rebuttal here “But police kill more white people than black people every year” – and while that’s true, there are 5x more of white Americans than black. Of course police kill more white people every year. We should be looking at rate or likelihood - not volume, so let go of that useless statistic right now.
The next question has to be this, though – might there be a reason other than race? Perhaps police are more frequently attacked by black suspects than white? Indeed, we find that it is true:
- Police are 3 times more likely to be assaulted by a black suspect than a white suspect (13% of population makes up for about 39% of assaults)
This is the first major, heart-breaking point in our current day race situation: According to the data, both police and black suspects have reason to come into these situations tense, afraid, or mis-trusting – which can certainly lend itself to a self-fulfilling prophecy for both parties.
Is it Just Race? Or is There Something Deeper?
The next question we have to deal with is this: do we really believe this data is solely a function of race? Or is there another variable that might be the more important one?
While I haven’t found specific data that ties police use of force to income. I think we can use a good proxy: violent crime split by both race and income. When we view the graph below, 2 things stand out
1 “Poor” (Defined here as below the poverty line) is heavily tied to “likelihood of violent crime” – with those below the poverty line being about twice as likely to commit violent crime as the rest of the population
2 Black Americans and White Americans have fairly similar rates across the board – and among the poor, White Americans are actually more violent than Black.
From which we can infer something important: Violent crime is much more closely linked to poverty than it is to race. This likely includes assaults on police officers.
Source: Page 4 of https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/hpnvv0812.pdf
Are Black Americans Poorer than White Americans?Given that – the next question should be this: Are black Americans more likely to be below the poverty line than white Americans? If so – issues of violence are probably what we in analytics call “Mix” issues: situations where because one group is more likely to have a specific feature, they appear more likely generate a specific outcome. For instance – death rates are 10 times higher than average for people who are in nursing homes at the time of their deaths. Given that, young folks like me with our full lives ahead of us should avoid them like the plague and refuse to go in even for a moment, right? Obviously not. Nursing homes are more likely to house the sick and elderly than ‘the average’ – which of course leads to a higher likelihood of death: a mix issue. With that out of the way – let’s keep moving.
We do see a mix issue. Far more black Americans are poor than white Americans – so the violence issue we might point out if we look at an average, disappears when we stack it against economic status:
- Black Americans earn 59% as much as white Americans, on average
- Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be beneath the poverty line than white Americans (26% to 9.5%)
Source: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p60-256.pdf pages 5 and 52/53
So now we’ve got a real insight:
Black Americans and Police are both right to step into conflict on edge. But it is likely that the violence on both sides is actually governed by income instead of race. It’s probably safe to say that most officers who resort to use of force aren’t specifically motivated by race (White and Black officers have similar use of force rates against both white and black suspects) but that race does play a factor in identifying dangerous situations. (Source: http://www.swacj.org/swjcj/archives/7.2/Klahm%20and%20Tillyer%20Article%20(5).pdf pages 224/225)
And a real hypothesis:
Police shootings aren’t the disease. They’re a very painful and public symptom (Though we do ourselves a huge injustice if we fail to pay attention to police after some of the more egregious shootings we’ve seen). One huge facet of the disease is the income and savings disparity between white and black Americans.
A Really Important Question
This leads us to the deeper issues at play: why are there so many more poor black Americans than poor white Americans? Unfortunately, this issue isn’t as easy to illustrate with data, so it may include some background about me, some editorial links, and a few thought puzzles. But for starters – we’ll take a common sense approach to thinking about this problem, then we’ll look at the relationship between race and housing as illustrated in two distinct issues – redlining and predatory lending - and talk about what they *really* mean. Let’s also recognize now that there are a host of others and that I won’t do any of them (including these) the justice they deserve.
The Common Sense Approach
Now – some of this isn’t hard to figure out:
- We’ve made very clear that black America has less income and wealth that white America, thus: worse neighborhoods
- Safe to say that pre-1955, black America received inferior education (on average) and thus inferior pay.
o Probably safe to say that pre-1955, black America also received inferior pay even when equally educated, don’t you think? I do.
o Probably safe to say that post-1955 for a minimum of 30 years (one can probably argue much more) – that equally educated black Americans didn’t receive the same pay (much less opportunity) as equally educated white Americans
So – Your granddaddy couldn’t get money or education, and your daddy couldn’t get money or education, and guess what that means? You’ve now been born into a low-end socio-economic neighborhood, with few legitimate business connections, in a dangerous area, with inferior schools… You’re gonna have a tough time getting money and education. The land of opportunity… just doesn’t have as many opportunities for you.
As a kid from a small town, where we all knew the same business-people, went to the same school, and had access to the same summer jobs – this was the hardest thing for me to get. It’s so easy to buy the narrative of “we all have an equal chance, just work hard and you’ll get there” when you look around you and you do see the same access to all these resources. It wasn’t until I moved to Dallas that I started realizing this wasn’t the same story in large cities. Below is a map, by race, of Dallas. Notice anything?
You should – this is an incredible amount of segregation.
It isn’t until you get out of the city that you begin to see a more regular distribution (Circled in red). I couldn’t find this same map for Plano and Frisco…. But I’ll give you 1 guess which color they are (Hint: ORANGE). So while out in the small towns, we all knew the same people, got the same educations, and had access to the same local businessmen… in urban America – it just isn’t true. The cost of entry to the good schools is a $300,000 home – it’s segregation, but by geography. And guess what? American schools today are more segregated than they have been at any point since 1968. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desegregation
While we “did not own slaves” and we “aren’t racist” – we fail to realize the reality of the situation. The racism of prior generations has a direct impact on the plight of black America today. It’s our fatal misunderstanding of this issue that allows us to justify ourselves while ignoring our hurting and hopeless brothers and sisters.
So, about Redlining and Predatory Lending…
We’ve done some common sense thinking around income and wealth on a broad social level – but what about some specifics? To get into those – we need to answer the question: Where does white America’s wealth come from?
The average American’s house makes up around 60% of their net worth. Well, gee. That was easy.
So the easiest and most likely way to accumulate wealth and transfer it from one generation to the next? You got it. House. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but when my parents eventually pass, there’ll be an inheritance – and the biggest part of it will probably be a house. And, no surprises here, white Americans are almost twice as likely to own a house as black Americans. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home-ownership_in_the_United_States
Why? Because they were kept from buying homes 90, 60, even 30 years ago, and that impact is felt on their kids and grandkids today.
Hopefully at this point I’ve caught your attention. And while I’d love to write out more about redlining and predatory lending, I find that I can’t do it nearly as well as the piece below, so read it with all the context you’ve (hopefully) gained above.
It’s long. It’s a tough read in a lot of ways. Save yourself about an hour, and be prepared to think, read, save quotes, and ask yourself tough questions. You’ll need them. If you want to understand what people mean when they talk about “Systemic Racism” or when they are taking a knee for “Social Inequality” or when they’re yelling that black lives matter – this is it. You may not like the way the messages come across – but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and don’t get lost staring at a symptom instead of the disease. Oppression in our modern-day America is alive and well, and it may take generations of concerted, intentional effort to even begin to resolve. It may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility, and I pray that we’ll pick it up.
Allow me to leave you with an analogy and an invitation.
We like to think that because slavery was ended in 1865 or that because civil rights swept through America in the 50’s and 60’s – “racism is over”. As a white, small-town Texas male married to a black female – I can tell you, we have not had a single direct encounter with a true racist. But that doesn’t mean that the effects of racism aren’t still prevalent. It’s like we began running a mile race. For our first quarter mile – black America wasn’t allowed on the track. In the second quarter, they were allowed to stand at the line, but not run or walk. As we passed them on the 2nd lap, we said “Hey! You can run now!” and gave them a good shove… to the ground. Now we’re 3 laps in and saying “Hey, you get to run now… it’s a fair race, why haven’t you caught up?!” We have to recognize there’s still work to do to atone for the sins of our forebears.
You know where to find me. There’s so much more behind all this data and all these stories that I’d love to talk with you about. Give me a call, shoot me an email, meet me for lunch or breakfast or dinner or a long, slow bike ride and let’s talk.