Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We need a better debate on Ferguson

Following last month's elections, I was intrigued by David Haynes call - or at least longing - for greater civility in our political discourse. I share his objective and his interest in Jonathan Haidt's writings on the topic. I have some differences with Haidt who I think does not understand American conservatives, but that's a topic for another post. We'll get back to Haidt in a moment.

What does it mean to engage in civil discourse? I'd start by suggesting that it requires us to assume - until proven otherwise - the good faith of our opponents. If you find yourself believing that everyone you disagree with is monstrous or corrupt, you are almost certainly wrong. It also requires an openness to the facts; a willingness to at least adjust your argument in the face of the evidence.

Not one, but two Purple Wisconsin bloggers have endorsed - or come awfully close to endorsing - violence in the wake of the failure to indict Officer Darryl Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. They call it "disruption."

What are we to make of this? Imagine that a conservative blogger here called for secession from the Obama "regime" or wrote a jeremiad defending the need to "disrupt" society until the President respected the constitutional limits on his authority or until the rights of the "53 %" who fund our government are respected. Imagine that a blogger had written that "black people" ignore other black people who cause "white death" or were "cooperating" with violent black criminals. Imagine that a blogger had claimed that only a "scarce" number of black people were trying to be "dutiful members of the human race."

The call for - or tolerance of - "disruption" is a very extreme position. Now, of course, if I thought that the white people in the United States were engaged in a systematic campaign of genocide against black people - if I thought there was an "indefatigable pattern of black death at white hands" (in fact, interracial crimes are more likely to be black on white) - I'd call for "disruption" as well. But that would be an astonishing belief. To the extent it is based on a claim of deliberate indifference to widespread homicide, it implies that most of us are very bad people.

And if I thought these things, I would be wrong. While I suspect that race can race play a role in interactions between citizens and the police, there are, in fact, only relatively small differences in the likelihood that black or Hispanic - as opposed to white persons - will be stopped by the police. According to Justice Department statistics, blacks are slightly more likely than whites to report having been the subject of a traffic stop (13% v. 10%) or street stop (0.7% v. 0.6%). Roughly 1 % of the 25 % of all citizens who have had a face to face encounter with the police are subjected to force or the threat of force. The percentage for blacks (3.7% of those experiencing police encounters) is higher than that for whites (1.2%) or Hispanics (2.2%), but the fact is that the use of force or threat of force is a very rare event for blacks generally as well as for blacks who are stopped by the police.

But what about these differences in the reported use of force? A far left group called ProPublica calculates that young black males are much more likely to be killed by police as young white males (31/1,000,000 vs. 1.47/1,000,000), but this does not make such events frequent or even tell us much about police conduct. Statistically, young black males are also much more likely to commit homicides and other violent crimes (even though the overwhelming majority do not do so) and this is going to affect those numbers in ways that have nothing to do with bias. Are these police shootings justified? Is race a factor? We don't know. We do know that they are rare. While the numbers are disputed, it appears that two hundred African Americans are killed by the police each year. But there are over 6200 African American murder victims each year. Even if every one of the deaths caused by the police are unjustified or could somehow be eliminated, the impact on black victimization rates would be negligible. In a very large country, the law of large numbers will mean that there are always incidents - involving both blacks and whites - to talk about, but there simply is not an "indefatigable" parade of the improper use of force against black suspects.

Of course none of this means that we should ignore or minimize police brutality when it occurs (and it does). It does not mean that we should not take allegations of police misconduct seriously. It does not even mean that race is never a factor when interactions between young black men and police go wrong. But calls for "disruption" are predicated on claims that it is somehow "common" for police to wrongfully kill black people. That predicate is wrong. If there is an African American blood bath, it is not the police (or, for that matter, white people) who are causing it. If  we are concerned about reducing black deaths, the police -as imperfect as they may be - are not where we should begin. Indeed, we need to acknowledge that the police are, on balance, the solution and not the problem.

In other words, if, to quote the hashtag, "black lives matter," we have remember that police protection is far more important for people in the inner city than it is for most of us in the suburbs. Black lives in the city are at risk in a way that the lives of people who live in safer areas are not.

So there is simply no justification for calls for - or the tolerance of - "disruption" which will, of course, harm innocent black folks already targeted with high levels of violence - not by the police - but by people that the police are trying to stop.

But returning to Haidt, moral positions are not always determined by the facts. Here, there seems to be a studied indifference to the facts - both of the Brown case itself and the larger issue of police misconduct. There is a certain power and self righteous frisson in imagining oneself to be a sentinel of justice against "indefatigable" oppression; to regard oneself as part of a scarce cadre of decent people. Against that, facts don't count for much.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.


sean s. said...


I saw this comment:

What does it mean to engage in civil discourse? I'd start by suggesting that it requires us to assume - until proven otherwise - the good faith of our opponents. If you find yourself believing that everyone you disagree with is monstrous or corrupt, you are almost certainly wrong. It also requires an openness to the facts; a willingness to at least adjust your argument in the face of the evidence.

On the matter of race and the events in Ferguson, I agree completely: we need to foster civility in our political discourse; heck: we need that in our public discourse entirely.

Of course, in the absence of civility in our discourse, those who feel they have a legitimate grievance are likely to make their case without much concern for “civility”.

I am curious about how your call affects your opinion about another topic: the recent brouhaha at Marquette involving Professor John McAdams. This involves a topic familiar to you and I: same-sex marriage. If you recall, you and I debated the topic at length in the Law School blog about a thousand years ago. And I believe we both maintained a civil disagreement.

I ask you about this controversy because your name has been invoked by McAdams, because of our shared history with this topic, and because I do not think McAdams’s posts qualify as “civil discourse” under your description.

I spent a good deal of Sunday reading all the posts and comments relevant to this topic on Marquette Warrior; some things are quite clear. His comments are often disrespectful and assume bad-faith on the part of his opponents. He appears to forge ahead without regard to facts. He litters his comments with over-broad generalizations.

Let me be clear about something: McAdams’s boorishness is not sufficient to justify shutting his site down. Whether his conduct violates/...ed MU policy is something I don’t feel informed enough about at this moment to opine on. I’d rather let that process run it’s course. But I know that, historically, First Amendment cases usually involve bad manners versus censorship. Bad manners should always win.

Certainly, as an Old White Guy, I am quite familiar with the sins of political correctness. And yes, a discussion about same-sex marriage is appropriate in the university setting; although it is not appropriate in every class, nor on-demand by any student. Whether it would have been appropriate in Ms. Abbate’s class at the time of this dispute is not at all clear. There are certainly “legitimate” arguments against marriage equality, but (IMHO) no VALID arguments. But you already know that is my opinion.

So, vis-à-vis “civil discourse”, how would you rate Prof. McAdams?

sean s.

Rick Esenberg said...

Because I am representing John, I can't get into a general on-line debate about this.