On police legitimacy regardless of social science findings

On Wednesday I wrote about how statistical innumeracy has led to way too much being read into Roland Fryer’s recently released NBER study. Despite my appalling lack of talent ;^), I feel a little like it’s my job to write those kinds of posts in order to help people understand the mechanics of social science. I’m a somewhat unusual planner in that I have spent most of my career in economics before heading into planning and urban studies, and I was fortunate to wind up at USC Price where, though they drive me to drink on a daily basis, I am surrounded by excellent social scientists from both economics and political science. So I’m still learning every day.

That said, I don’t think the answer to #BLM advocacy is going to come from social science. Social science is good for many, many things, but with #BLM and the individual cases like Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, there are two things going on which really have nothing to do with things that social science can detect.

The first are individual injustices: even if we did show, for example, that there were no disparities in police violence by race (which is not the case, but let’s say it was), any person unjustly harmed by representatives of the state–police–is a wrong that should be addressed if the system we have set up is functioning in a manner that people consider broadly just. Each individual case, from Freddie Grey to Sandra Bland, has to be correctly adjudicated even if there are no broad social trends that might be detectable with social science.

Fumbling on the adjudication of one wrong now and then does not mean the entire system is terrible; most people who aren’t Frederich Hayek understand that there is no perfect justice. A mistake here and there might be the best we can do.

But with Black Lives Matter and the issues they highlight, we aren’t talking about a few isolated incidents here and there.That’s the second issue. We are talking about multiple wrongs (or harms at the very least) that, over time, have accumulated so that a subgroup within the political community has lost faith in both policing and courts as public institutions. To some degree, we might be able to use social science to inform experiential knowledge of being subjected to policing. Experience matters, however, in how people know and learn, and it is itself a very important component to public policy formation, as well as institutional conduct.

The lack of legitimacy among police in black communities has been a forever problem in the US. What BLM seeks to do is get other parts of the political community to see and experience what they see: That trust is gone, the way they are treated is vastly different than the way others are treated, and that this policing is done under the tacit consent of all of us in the political community. When that trust is broken, then it’s gone, and it doesn’t come back because of social science. It comes back through governance: by demonstrating trustworthiness through changing behavior and practices.

#BLM advocates are not getting rich doing this. They are not looking for “special rights”, whatever that means. They are going to a great deal of trouble–I strongly suspect they would rather be playing Pokemon Go or watching television or painting or gardening or going for a hike than getting arrested and shoved around, don’t you? But they don’t have that privilege. They are protesting, like all those who protest in majoritarian or elite-dominated systems, because they have, through experience, listening, and observing, identified change they need and they do not have influence through lobbying or other back-door means.

Social science does not really have an answer to any of it, and it’s wrong to ask it to, just as it is wrong to try to use social science to undermine the calls for change.

About that Roland Fryer study and conceptual-level differences in statistical probabilities

(I swear I have corrected and corrected this post, darn it, and I keep finding typos and skipped words. Sorry.)

Roland Fryer, Jr. is a brilliant economist–I’ve always enjoyed reading his work on education, and thus when he produced a study on police shootings, the combination of Roland Fryer/Harvard/New York Times coverage has resulted in a ton of press for it. Here is the paper at NBER. Here is the original NYT piece, which I thought did a nice job writing up the study. It’s super irritating to me that what people have highlighted about the study is that he finds no statistically significant differences in shooting deaths between white and black suspects. For some reason, THAT is getting the headlines. But he finds disparities in _every_other_aspect of police treatment.

Taser use (ow) and rough treatment consistently show disparities. These conclusions are drawn from Stop and Frisk data from NYC and the Police Contact Survey (national data). The data on officer-involved shootings come from data solicited by the author from Boston, Camden, NYC, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, six Florida counties, and Tacoma, Washington.

There is a very detailed discussion of their data collection process from police narratives, where they coded and back-coded nearly 200 variables from these cities. They then do a separate set of codings on Houston, and I’m not sure why, other than what Fryer reports: the Houston data has more detail than the others. I guess the differences in the data were enough to make Fryer think they might find something different in Houston than from the other 10 cities, so they analyzed them separately. I probably wouldn’t have done that; I probably would have kept the coding the same for all the cities and simply had empty cells for concepts missing in the other cities. It’s not clear, to me anyway, what he gets out of the second coding around Houston.

Like any good economist, he beats on the data pretty hard; he does robustness check after robustness check and finds really no evidence in the data that in individual interactions with police, there is a difference by race or ethnicity in the odds that deadly force will be used.

Now, that’s an interesting and important finding, but it’s limited, and people are not listening overmuch to Fryer as he points this out. Fryer’s data are used to model an interaction game among individuals. He’s not able to answer some of the questions that BLM has raised. There is a substantive difference between these two statistical propositions:

1) that, when a policeman has encountered an individual, they use deadly force. This is modeled as an odds ratio that examines the difference by officer demographics, some context variables and the race of the suspect. (if f is force and e is an encounter, we have the posterior probability (P(f|e))

2) that a police encounters an individual and then uses deadly force: the union of two probabilities (I’m too lazy to present the formula as it’s not straight up on my keyboard. Maths types who care about such things know what I am talking about anyway.)

It’s the second he doesn’t have, and that’s important. The first can tell us whether or not, in the statistical sense, individual policemen make racist choices when they have encounters with suspects in various situations. You can envision Fryer’s data as he does: as a series of conditional probabilities that begin to unfold at e. That’s a good thing to know. Whether an individual officer is a member of the Aryan Nation or not–that is, whether the individual police officer is explicitly racist and making explicitly racist choices in individual interactions–does not seem to be moving Fryer’s findings. (It still makes such an individual officer somebody I really, truly do not want having state-sanctioned capability to use deadly force, but the “bad apple making bad choices” idea does not seem to be driving the numbers).

Fryer does not really have P(e)–but his precinct data are suggestive–and that’s a problem. He discusses it over and over in the paper, and then again in his discussion with readers in this very nice NYT follow up. Disproportionality–the idea that relative to their population percentages, African Americans are disproportionately represented in police encounters/arrests/violence–could enter into the probability in proposition #1 at either point (e) or (f), and with out (e), we can’t use Fryer’s study except as a partial answer to BLM critiques of US policing. What we can conclude from Fryer’s study is that the disproportionality in the aggregate statistics are not likely due to P(f).* And that’s important–it’s way more than I’ve accomplished lately.

But anyway:

Fryer argues in the follow up that we should be able to understand whether P(e) is an issue somewhat in instances where police are called to a specific situation. I think that’s a good argument, but not a great one, because I don’t think we can treat race as exogenous in police calls or in police responses to calls. Who gets called on, what types of behaviors prompts calls, how quickly police are able to access the scene of the report (and thus, encounter a suspect), etc–those are all factors where race and place may factor into whether there is a suspect encountered. For instance, one reason his rates on deadly force use among whites may be relatively high compared to those of African Americans might be that white behaviors have to be extreme in some way before the police are called in the first place, and that extremeness, or interpretations of it–could prompt use of deadly force once police arrive. Police are likely to cluster geographically, and so is crime, and so are background populations–race and ethnicity are not geographically random.

* Well, back up. We can’t use one social science study, no matter how good (and this is a good study), as the answer. Social science evidence has to accrue across many, many high-quality studies before we should start deciding we know what’s going on. Here’s another good study that finds significant bias, but the data are aggregate.

Barbara Jordan’s 1976 DNC speech , Black history, Women’s history, LGBTQ history getting made, all at once

With HRC’s presumptive nominee status, people have been remember Shirley Chisolm, who was the first woman to run for president (in 1972). These conversations, and the upcoming convention, have me thinking about Barbara Jordan. I remember her 1976 convention speech like it was yesterday: I was only just in elementary school, but my father was a local politician and he watched the conventions, both sides, obsessively. I thus did, too. To a little kid with a bad stutter and poor diction, she lit up my mind.

Barbara Jordan’s speech was a work of art. And I loved it: I loved the way crowd came alive. I loved the Texas theme song. I loved her pastel mint suit with the unapologetically frilly neck doodad. I loved how the crowd loved.

I still make my students in my social policy class watch the speech because it wasn’t always shameful to discuss the welfare state in American politics, and people should see and remember the work of Black of politicians. I still point people to it whenever I can because she was incredible. It’s also good to remind people that many of the problems we think we only have today have been with us awhile.

Less well known is that Ms. Jordan seems to have had a lifelong partner, which makes me happy.

She only lived another 19 years after this speech, which she gave when she was 40. Too young, damn it. Neither she nor Representative Chisolm lived to see President Obama in the Oval Office, which makes me sad, because they helped him get there.

It was a historic moment, it was a very good vision for the welfare state, and she was magnificent:

Part I

Part II

Part III

On writing about evil

One of my early, arm’s-length mentors at Virginia Tech, the exceedingly kind Ed Weisband, took me out to lunch and got on my case, a little bit and deservedly, about being too timid in my early writing about justice. I remember him saying, with genuine anguish in his voice, “I don’t like writing about evil, Lisa. It breaks my heart writing about evil. But I have to.” At the time, Ed was writing about genocide, and while it took me a really long time to buck up the courage to write explicitly about justice, I have finally started doing so.

Ed is right; it’s hard to write about evil. I blew things up with my book about a month ago. I did so for several reasons; one was simply that this spring has been one hit to my scholarly confidence after another. After one particular incident sent me into a pretty bad tailspin, I got to questioning the basic premise of the project: Whom was I actually writing this book for? For me? That seems like a narcissistic answer. To get promoted? Like most people, I’d love to attain status and prestige, but not enough to do work I don’t believe in. I did that when I was a consultant, and it broke me a little each time.

The other contributing factor was the extreme difficulty of the data collection, management, and analysis of some of the empirical parts of the book. There are some ambitious analyses in the book, and they have required copious amounts of programming in Python, a language I do not know well.

Yes, I could have produced a book in a year if I’d been less ambitious. If there isn’t any risk of failure, it’s not any fun, not really.

And then there is one chapter that I have been writing about Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. This chapter has subjected me to what Ed Weisband told me years ago about the emotional pain of writing about evil. It’s breaking my heart. When I walked away from the book, my biggest feeling of relief–one I didn’t disclose to anybody asking me questions about why I’d leave the book after I had invested so heavily in it–was the possibility that I wasn’t going to have to read one more racist comment about Martin or his parents and that I wouldn’t have to read and sort through stories such as this newest, about Zimmerman selling the gun he killed Martin with for $100,000+.

I still hate touching that analysis every time I touch it. I hate that my neighbors have to worry about their children the way black parents have to worry about their children. I hate that my black students might get hurt or killed because of the hate I am reading in the tea leaves. This is looking straight into American evil. And it hurts me every time I do.

It felt good thinking I wouldn’t have to do it anymore.

But not doing it didn’t feel right either. So I am back, working away on that chapter, and hurting every time. But if it hurts me to look at it, living it is a million times worse. There comes a point where your realize that your feelings don’t matter, and that if you have information that might wake people up, you have to use it.

Your outrage is just entitlement, you coddled kid you, but my outrage at your outrage is Important Political Thinking

From the last week of the NRO, you’d think that some kids at Yale were a bigger threat to America than ISIS. Which led me to a question: if students objecting to things said to them on campus is puerile and self-indulgent, why wet your pants over it? Really? If it’s just kids being kids or lefties fussing over nothing, then get on with the important news of the day rather than pounding on the table telling them to shut up. When I am being disruptive or unfocused in meetings my dean just gives me a look and moves on instead of yelling at me and distracting everybody from what is important.

Instead, it’s been one screed after another lambasting universities for political correctness. I have been wanting to write something about this all week, but Arthur Chu at Salon (of all places) beat me to it. with the best title I’ve yet seen: Go Ahead and Hate on Coddled College Kids: Just Admit that Anti-PC Backlash is Fueled by Outrage, Too.

(Although I don’t think you should hate on coddled college kids.)

Go read his bit. I do disagree with a couple of points. In the case of Yale, people are getting their undies in a bunch in particular over the video of a student shouting that “he didn’t want to debate…he wanted to discuss his pain.”

Oh, quell horror! An administrator! Being expected to listen to a student’s experiences and the hurt caused by those experiences! OMG!!! THAT’S WHAT IS WRONG WITH AMERICA RIGHT HERE! MENIALS EXPECTING VOICE! ELITES BEING EXPECTED TO SHUT THEIR CAKEHOLES AND LISTEN! IT’S ANARCHY. WE GOTTA CLOSE DOWN THE CAMPUSES (except for business and engineering schools) BECAUSE IT’S JUST A HOTBED OF LIBERALS TEACHING OUR KIDS TO BE WHINERS/LOSERS/JUSTICE WARRIORS.

Ahem. I dunno about you, but when I was 20 years old, I didn’t have the guts to shout at an administrator. So there’s that. And the Mizzou students…got a president to resign. When was the last time *the faculty* could do that? Or are people wetting their pants because they LOVE a world where billionaires can yell “dance, monkey, dance” at university presidents, and have them perform, but Heaven Forbid power actually be accountable to the students the institution serves?

What you are seeing is a) typical academic bureaucratic methods of communication that, either intentionally or unintentionally, try to silence a student and b) a student saying, perhaps not in the smoothest way, “Look, dude, we can’t have a debate because you are ignorant. You are ignorant of what is hurting me. So we can’t debate it until you’ve learned it and I have shown it to you.” The shouting may be off-putting, but the student is pissed. Pissed off people shout. If you had to put up with some of the bullshit black students on campuses experience, you’d be pissed off, too.

[And cue all the white people stories about how they were picked on because of this, that, and the other, and they survived, blah blah.]

And my response: yeah, and those things made you feel unwelcome and hurt you. And years later, you still remember it. So why the actual fuck do we want people feeling that way when they are trying to get an education just because you got through it? You didn’t succeed because of that nonsense. You succeeded in spite of it. Bad treatment sucks and it diminishes human flourishing, so what say we conclude that the fact that you were badly treated at some point is evidence that it sucks, and we’re sorry that it happened, rather than as evidence that there’s nothing to see here? There are plenty of things that toughen us up in life without excusing bad treatment. There’s cancer and war and economic futility and our favorite television characters getting killed off.

Instead, yo: the conversation about a student’s rage and pain needs to happen. It’s important. But it is not a conversation that need be the object of speculation while the rest of us ogle and judge and point fingers and opine. The two people in that video don’t need our gaze. They need time. Administrators should be giving these students time. They should be showing up to listen before they talk or debate.

They won’t die if they aren’t the ones talking. I’m 100 percent sure of it.

I don’t agree with Chu, therefore, that the Yale or the CMK controversies are mere contretemps.

But I do agree that the tendency to conflate what is going on there with what happened at Missouri is a mistake because what is going on at Missouri appears, at least from the outside, to be greater in intensity with greater levels of threats and violence directed at black students there. And, btw, if you are out there flouncing around about how inexcusable it is for a black kid to go on a hunger strike and NOT screaming about death threats made against black student protestors, then you should probably look in the mirror and note that behavior makes you part of the problem. Even if you think racism is long gone and the students are wrong, the idea that, somehow, talking about race is more threatening to the world, and thus more worthy of our consternation, than death threats is some seriously -effed up thinking.

But, still, Chu’s essay is a worthy one. Some choice quotes:

What’s really going on, of course, is an argument over what outrage is justified and what outrage is not. The word “outrage” isn’t actually related to the English word “rage”; it comes from the French outré, meaning something that crosses a line or violates a boundary. Our argument over “outrage” is our argument over where the boundaries are, and where they ought to be–and anyone who tells you they don’t have any lines that piss them off if you cross them is lying.


No one at Yale was having their “right” to wear blackface taken away. They were having their “right” to wear blackface and not be made to feel uncomfortable about it by being scolded by members of the community taken away. Just as, in past years when blackface was culturally normal, black people were having their “right” to not be made to feel uncomfortable by being constantly mocked and degraded taken away

As in, you may have free speech, but the rest of us also have free speech, too, and if we use that free speech to say what you say is offensive, then who is the one who should suckitup? If me saying that something you do is hurtful, is that “bullying”? If you are such sensitive widdle flower that you can’t deal with critiques of your Halloween costume, well, I just don’t know what America is coming to.

Cliven Bundy, sociologist

Clive Bundy, the rootingest-tootingest-shootingest big hero of the week because he can’t make a go of his ranch without grazing handouts from all the rest of us had some real insightful things to say about the abuse of public subsidy in the NYT:

so Mr. Bundy used the time to officiate at what was in effect a town meeting with supporters, discussing, in a long, loping discourse, the prevalence of abortion, the abuses of welfare and his views on race.

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

One really needn’t make things THIS easy for the liberal lame stream media.

Beyonce and feminism(s)

I’ve been watching the various and sundry discussion of Beyonce’s feminism, and I have two things

a) it’s entirely possible that she, herself, is a feminist, given that she describes herself in that way; and
b) her art or life may not embody the various possible ideals of feminism, but

(b) does not, by itself, prove or disprove (a); nor does the desire among the rest of us to evaluate (b) through a feminist lens disprove (a); nor do questions raised by the rest of us about (b) mean we are women-hater hater pants; nor does the assertion of (a) mean that all of us have to accept (b) as essentially feminist work simply because of (a), either.

For the record, I’ve always thought she was wonderful, even way back in Destiny’s Child, and I am elated that she has taken up the label of feminism despite the extreme scrutiny it places her under. I cheered for her to her response to an idiot who slapped her on the fanny during a performance (she had security make him leave; there’s no reason why she should put up with that.) I’m less in love with other parts of her recent efforts, particularly the gratuitous dropping in of Ike Turner. I don’t know what Jay-Z and Beyonce think it means, but I, too, am allowed to think about what means as somebody who watching them make art. If they don’t want us to think about it….well, J.D. Salinger had an answer to that.

Sustainable racism, grocery edition

So I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Los Angeles.  I live here because it is close to where I work, which is at my beloved USC. Yes, I still love USC though it drives me nuts sometimes.

As I recently pointed out, there are million dollar homes in my neighborhood because our little neck of the woods was home to the black entertainers of the 1920s onward who had money but were redlined out farther ‘up the hill’ (toward the Hollywood Hills).  My house has 12 rooms in it, and it’s on an 8,000 square foot lot. In the middle of a very expensive regional housing market.   And we own the smallest house on the block, and probably one of the smaller ones in Wellington Square.  These are not people without money to spend. Yes, when the 10 freeway got planted on the neighborhood, the nabe suffered, as things do when you plant 9 to 12 lanes of constant traffic on them.  But there’s suffering, and  then there’s suffering, and there are black professionals in my neighborhood who are dual income earners, both with much better jobs than mine.

Regular readers will also know I am a frequent consumer of South Central Gardener’s CSA Box.  This box of good-for-me stuff (think lots of kale and other yucky vegetables) has been delivered to USC’s campus in various locations, but it has been moved to a location on campus that is just straight up horrible for us to get to. Usually on CSA (aka commie-pinko) box day, Andy just drives the POS Rescue-Mobile to USC’s campus and picks up me and the CSA box at the same time. A better woman than me would take it on the train, but we usually get the big box of kale, and that’s just more than I can lift.

ANYWAY,  I was very excited to see that a locavore organization called Good Eggs was going to begin delivering the South Central Farmer’s CSA for $3 over the base CSA share cost. Hey,  great. Oh, and look! Lots of other wonderful, lovely edibles!  I love edibles!  Granted, not everybody really wants to buy $16 gallons of almond milk, but hey, I’m in. Sustainability requires extra effort, and  yum! Almond milk.  The company has a great concept, and I love it.  Vegan cashew cheese.  What’s not to love?

$170 worth of tangerines, artisanal chocolate, fresh bouquets and other sundries, including my CSA box in my shopping cart, and I go to check out.  Pick out my delivery area. Ok, fine! Great. They say they deliver to Central Los Angeles, which is where my beloved nabe is…..oh wait.  Here is a map of their delivery areas for Central Los Angeles, slightly modified by me:


Early on during our acquaintance, my good friend Richard Green and I were on a panel together, where I was talking about how great it would be to get a Trader Joe’s south of the 10 freeway. He made light of it: “Oh, everybody wants a Trader Joe’s.” I was on my good manners that day, and Richard is a very nice man,  and being almost brand-new to LA  and not being  justice person, Richard didn’t understand: saying that everybody wants a TJ’s belies the fact that some people can ALWAYS FREAKING GET the TJ’s when other people NEVER get the TJs.   Saying a TJs should try to move south of the 10  as a matter of business ethics is, IOW, more controversial than many affluent people really get because, natch, they know that everybody wants what they already have.  Yeah, but for some people, it’s not about the excellent wine selection and the charming holiday plants.  Some  would like fresh oranges they don’t have to drive 6 miles to get and a pretty good job in retail. And is that asking too much of life in a region of over 10 million people?  I don’t think so.   A grocery store south of the 10 and north of the 91 is a revolution of sorts.  It shouldn’t be. But it is.

But more annoyingly, this is a company selling the South Central Gardener’s CSA! The people in south LA are good enough to farm the food, pick it, and package it,  but not able to buy the box through Good Eggs through their own distributor?  THIS is the sustainable, community-oriented alternative to corporate capitalism? Um, yeah, except that it mirrors the same locational racism of  every other corporate grocery chain, except for Walmart and Target.   I mean Ralphs would go south of Pico.

Yeah, I get it, Good Eggs can’t serve every market.  But yet, they can serve Culver City no problem, but not Leimert Park, though both are right next to each other, and Leimert Park is right on the way, just off the 10,  to South DTLA on the east, which also gets delivery, but not the Round Loop of Blackness carved out in betwixt those neighborhoods in the service area.