When Right-Wing News Write About Race and Police

The right-wing magazine Quilette just published an article by John McWhorter, who is an associate professor in the linguistics department at Columbia University with the title “Racist Police Violence Reconsidered” Given his training in writing, he knows how to draw his readers in with an emotional story about a White victim of lethal use of force to make the point that police sometimes kill White people, too. This is followed by the statement that “plenty of evidence indicates, however, that racism is less important to understanding police behavior than is commonly supposed”.

In a scientific article, this would be the time to mention the scientific evidence that is supposed to support this claim. But McWhorter is no scientist. He is a writer and cannot be held to the scientific standards of criminologists and other social scientists. With one sentence, a fact has been created. The idea that police is racially biased and kills disproportionately African Americans is wrong. But why does everybody believe it to be true? McWhorter has a ready explanation for this. The biased liberal, reverse-racist media cover police brutality only when the officer is White and the victim is Black. “Had Tony Timpa been black, we would all likely know his name by now. Had George Floyd been white, his name would likely be a footnote, briefly reported in Minneapolis local news and quickly forgotten.”

Well trained in propaganda, McWhorter then presented more cases of White victims in equal numbers to Black people. For every Black victim, there is a White victim in his narrative that is based on his personal selection of cases. After creating the illusion that there is a White victim for every Black victim, he is ready to repeat his claim that we have been manipulated by the liberal media. “So, the perception that the police regularly kill black people under circumstances in which white people would be merely disciplined is in fact a misperception.”

But is it a misperception? That would require actual scientific information about the influence of race on lethal use of force by police officers in the US. This evidence is reviewed after the conclusion has already been offered that the common assumption of racial bias against African Americans is a misperception.

McWhorter next explains correctly that African Americans are a minority in the United States. If police were unbiased in the lethal use of force, we would expect a lot more victims to be White than Black. He then correctly states that ” it remains true that black people are killed at a rate disproportionate to their percentage of the population.”

So, it is NOT a misperception that police kill disproportionately more African Americans. There is racial disparity in the use of force. This invalidates the claim that we all believe that racial bias exists because we have been manipulated by the liberal media.

McWhorter then makes a distinction between racial disparity and racial bias. “However, these figures are not necessarily evidence of police racism. According to the Washington Post‘s database, over 95 percent of the people fatally shot by police officers in 2019 were male, and no serious-minded person argues that this is evidence of systemic misandry. So what, then, accounts for the disproportionate representation of black men among those killed by cops?”

This is a controversial topic that has been examined in numerous articles by social scientists in scientific journals. But McWhorter does not cite these studies, presumably because he lacks the training to understand the sometimes complicated statistical methods that have been used in these articles.

Like a novelist, he creates facts with the stroke of a pen. “The socioeconomic gap between blacks and whites is doubtless an important contributing factor.” and “This disparity in poverty rates means black people are also disproportionately presented in violent rates of violent crime” Here we go again. Police is not racially biased. The real reason why they kill more Black people is because Black people are more criminal. Blame the victim. To give this biased narrative some credibility, McWhorter cites only one scientific article that supports his story. “Contrary to his expectations, Harvard economist Roland Fryer has found that while white men are actually more likely to be killed by cops,” as if an economist is more credible than criminologists or other scientists because he is at Harvard. That is not how science works. You also have to cite evidence that contradicts your claims (Young unarmed nonsuicidal male victims of fatal use of force are 13 times more likely to be Black than White).

In the end McWhorter softens his stance a bit. “This disparity cannot explain every fatal police shooting,” “This is not to say that race has nothing to do with policing issues in America.”   But these sentences are mere rhetorical devices to signal that the author is balanced and reasonable, when the truth is that the author is ignorant about the science on racial bias in policing, including use of force.

I have no reason to believe that McWhorter wrote this terrible article because he is motivated by racism, but it is not clear to me why McWhorter wrote such a biased article that is so hurtful to many African Americans who are traumatized by the callus killing of innocent African Americans. All I can say is that McWhorter lacks the competence to write about this topic because he is either too lazy or not trained to follow the actual science on this topic. In Germany we say “Schuster blieb bei Deinen Leisten” (“Every man to his trade.”) Please follow this good advice, Dr. McWhorter.

10 thoughts on “When Right-Wing News Write About Race and Police

  1. Correction: in my point #2 above, the rate of fatal police shootings of White civilians is about twice (2x) as large as that of Asians, according to my calculations based on WaPo data and census data (White = Non-Hispanic White), not 4x.

  2. I appreciate this response, though I think it’s offensive and unnecessary to accuse the author of not being capable of appreciating statistics. He’s an Ivy League linguist. Those guys are pretty smart. The article you’re critiquing wasn’t a scientific article. It’s a popular media opinion piece aimed at persuasion. Some people are persuaded by statistical analyses, but most people are more persuaded by concrete examples. (For better or for worse.) That said, I agree with you that what’s really needed on BOTH sides of the debate are stats.

    I have a question about the “13x times more likely to be black stat” at the end. Do you know how much more likely young black men are to encounter the police than young white men? You could argue that, plausibly because of racism (but there are other possible explanations as well), unarmed black men are much more likely to have encounters with the police. Perhaps 13x more likely. And then the fact that they are 13x more likely to be shot could be accounted for just in terms of their more frequent encounters.

    (Suppose that for every hundred unarmed suspects a cop encounters, he is going to shoot ONE of them, regardless of their race. But he encounters 13x as many black men as white men. Therefore he will shoot 13x as many unarmed white men.)

    I don’t know the stats on this to know if this is a possible reading… do you?

    1. 1. I have no problem with examples, if they illustrate a general pattern. I have a problem with examples that suggest a false pattern.

      2. Ivy league and IQ don’t mean we are good at everything. Understanding complex statistical analyses to tease apart causal factors is something you need to learn. Without training, you should at least read what experts have found out.

      3. The issue is very complex. The 13 x more does not say why they are killed 13 x more. In the end, nobody knows the exact numbers. So, we shouldn’t write articles that imply we know. What we do know is that BLM is fighting a real problem even if some Black anti-liberal Ivy league professor claims otherwise. Just because he is Black and conservative doesn’t mean he sees the issue clearer than others.

      1. He’s not conservative and he’s anti Trump… so maybe you should actually try to understand who he is before painting him as such.

      2. He is anti Trump. Sorry if I said he is pro-Trump. Otherwise, I think he is pretty clearly anti-liberal. In a one-dimensional world that makes him a conservative.

  3. ” it is not clear to me why McWhorter wrote such a biased article that is so hurtful to many African Americans who are traumatized by the callus killing of innocent African Americans” — Is it really unclear why the McWhorters and Lourys of the world write what they do? *Really*?

  4. You do realize that McWhorter describes himself as a liberal, correct?

    And what definition of “racism” are you using?

    You state that you “have no reason to believe” that McWhorter is racist? But then you say you don’t know why else he would write a hurtful article, which sounds to me like you are implicitly suggesting that he just might in fact be racist. Have you read his other writings? I would say they give “some reason” to believe the contrary, that he is not racist. Also, shouldn’t you perhaps grant him at least the presumption of not being racist because he is black himself? At a minimum, since you claim that people should offer both side of an argument, shouldn’t you at least mention that, since he is black, he is unlikely to be racist?

    By the way, I disagree w/McWhorter’s article due to other research on police shootings. But I certainly would not suggest there is any possibility he is racist.

    There is a name for assuming (as you do) that black people might be lazy without first analyzing all the facts carefully. It is called…being racist.

    1. I admit that I have a hard time getting into the head of Black conservatives. Maybe it is a class thing. Just like some White people call some other White people White trash, he may think of some black people who are not at an Ivy University as Black trash. Whether that makes him a racist or not depends all on the ambiguous meaning of the term. In any case, his article on racism in policing was insensitive and stupid.

      1. I was disappointed that your article did not present any data or examples to support your opinion. You clearly communicated that you disagree with McWhorter and believe he is not qualified to present his opinion. It would have been more enlightening if you had argued for your opinion using your “qualifying” data and expertise.

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