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by Peter Moskos

February 3, 2016

The Denominator Problem: Throwing stones from glass houses

There's something bordering on the absurd when newspapers write stories about police racism based on claims like, "90 percent of those arrested are African-American while African Americans make up only 65 percent of the population." The assertion, sometimes explicit and sometimes implied, is that cops are racists hunting black men. Same thing with papers that assume that any arrest not prosecuted is a bad arrests. [That link is particularly great because it features a video from 3 days after the riot explaining, in a progressive wet dream, how "Gangs work together to restore peace in Baltimore." Aw, how sweet. How did that work out?]

The absurdity comes from the lack of consideration for the denominator. If you want to talk about race and arrest or traffic stops or use-of-force or anything, you need a relevant denominator. What percent of those with whom cops interact are black? What percent of those who commit violent crimes are black? Answering any one of these won't answer the question, but it does help complete the picture.

I mean, what if I told you that 40 percent of the people arrested for murder were black in a country that is 13 percent black. Knowing nothing else, it's a meaningless statement. Does that imply cops are disproportionately arresting black men for murder? Well, actually... yes. But whether that disproportion is a problem is something else. The arrest and incarceration rates should reflect the crime rate more than the population demographics, I would think. Without looking at the racial disparity in homicide, the racial disparity in the arrest rate for homicide (or incarceration rate or those killed by police) means almost nothing.

Police use of lethal force, I would posit, should reflect the demographics of armed violent criminals more than the US Census count of population.

And yet time and time again you see police blamed for racial disparities in society. I honestly don't know if reporters make these errors out of statistical ignorance or ideological conviction. But either way, college educated journalists should know better. In a similar manner, let me call out some of the same papers that make these claims. The American Society of News Editors calculates minority representation at newspapers. The Washington Post is 31 percent "minority" (and 14 percent black) in a city that is 60 percent minority! (And 51 percent black.) The New York Times is 19 percent "minority" (and 8 percent black) in a city that is 65 percent minority! (And 25 percent black.)

[I put minority in "quotes" because minority percentage is often used as a cover for just how few actual blacks are involved. As if, given America's legacy of slavery and racism, hiring a Chinese immigrant, a "person of color," is the same as hiring a born-in-Baltimore African American. (Fun fact: did you know that Italian-Americans are an officially recognized minority group at my school when it comes to hiring and promotion?)]

So should the workforce at a newspaper represent the demographics or the city? I don't know. Maybe. Or should it reflect the demographics of its readers? Or maybe the demographics of America (36 percent minority). Or maybe just the demographics of those who graduate from journalism school? I don't know. Sure, it's a good debate to have. Just like the debate about minority representation in police departments is good to have. But it seems odd for a newspaper that is 46(!) "percent points more white than the residents" to fault police departments that actually does a much better job and reflecting the diversity of the community it serves.


Anonymous said...

Several good points were brought up in this blog. The way some things were expressed I think are great with the increased attention of racism within the police force in the media. Like you said articles thrive on stating statistics that show the percentage of minorities arrested compared to the percentage of minorities in the population. I agree with the fact that a relevant denominator is needed to support or disprove these statistics. Statistics such as what percentage of those whom cops interact with are black, what percentage of those who commit violent crimes are black, etc. may or may not support the original statistics but it would be interesting to see if they do or not. The comparison to the news media groups that target police departments and how they too have statistics that are not in favor of the minorities was very interesting. Seems like the pot is calling the kettle black.

Anonymous said...

In recent years, the concept of police racism has been a huge topic in our society. It has been true for several decades that the percentage of African Americans arrested is very disproportionate from the percentage of African Americans in the population. The problem is that this information is immediately being interpreted as the police's racial preferences rather than the circumstances. This could be considered an example of the attribution error. I agree that in order to properly interpret the data is to have a relevant denominator.

Unknown said...

In a related vein: http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Deep-racial-disparity-in-homicide-arrests-SFPD-6795709.php