If you are white and enjoy any level of public platform—politician, professor, policy wonk—and you use said platform to address social issues, you are certain to be accused of seeing life through the distortive prism of white privilege. Black leaders and social justice firebrands will make the allegation in the most austere terms—witness that spicy moment during a recent debate on political correctness when Michael Eric Dyson bluntly labeled his conservative adversary, Jordan Peterson, a “mean, mad white man.” Even those on the Left, such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have not enjoyed immunity from this charge. Privilege is framed as a condition that, once acquired, can never be cured. However, it defies credulity to propose that Dyson and other leading social justice voices are alone in seeing life for what it really is, stripped of all parochial subtexts. Common sense suggests the existence of a complementary malady afflicting the accusers: racial paranoia, one might call it.
If some are inclined to miss the unfairness around them, is it not equally possible that others see unfairness where none exists? Nowhere in the public arena do paranoia and privilege collide more explosively than on the topic of unequal treatment under the law. In making their case, black advocates uniformly cite the videotaped incidents that by now have become an eponymous part of the national conversation on race: Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile. All gave oxygen to Black Lives Matter, and later to the NFL’s take-a-knee protests. Surely videos can be dramatic exhibits in mounting a case for extrajudicial violence. What a video cannot do, of course, is show us whether excessive force is excessively applied or racially motivated. For that we must turn to facts and figures.
A study out last week suggests that the view of law enforcement as a hotbed of racism is indeed highly inflected by paranoia. “Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force?” examines available data from police shootings in 2015 and 2016. The authors observe that determinations of bias normally are made simply by “comparing the odds of being fatally shot for Blacks and Whites, with odds benchmarked against each group’s population proportion.” That necessarily yields an incomplete picture, the authors assert, because of the substantial per capita difference in crime among blacks: “When adjusting for crime, we find no systematic evidence of anti-Black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects.”
Even without such adjustments, the raw numbers are telling. In 2017, American cops killed 19 unarmed blacks. There are 30 million blacks over age 18 living in America. The 19 killings thus represented a death rate of .00000063333—less than one ten-thousandth of 1 percent. Nothing can be deduced from a sample that small. Across the spectrum of America, random events take a much higher toll. In one recent year, 84 people died after being mauled by “a mammal other than a dog.” Each year some 340 Americans die in their own bathtubs. If this year half of them are black—well above the expected distribution, given blacks’ Census representation of 13 percent—we would not investigate whether bathtubs had developed racist tendencies. We might, however, adopt a commonsense behavioral lens, investigating whether any new behaviors were exposing blacks to greater danger at bath-time. Interestingly, such reasoning is considered impolitic in assessing contacts between blacks and law enforcement. As a society, we are seemingly proscribed from ascribing black misfortune to black causation.
In any case, police unquestionably target and hassle blacks much more often than they do whites, right? Not so fast. In the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), conducted semi-regularly by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and based on a sample of some 60,000 US residents aged 16 or above, respondents describe their recent police encounters. Both blacks and whites are overwhelmingly approving of police conduct, resulting in but a minor difference in the perceptions of the propriety of their respective stops: 83 percent approval for blacks, 89 percent for whites. Although whites also appear to benefit from a modest imbalance in the use of force, force is surprisingly rare overall, occurring in just 3.5 percent of contacts for blacks and 1.4 percent for whites. Keep two things in mind here: One, this includes some percentage of encounters where force was required to apprehend a suspect or stop a crime. Two, for the purpose of this analysis, ‘force’ encompasses such relatively benign practices as “shouting, cursing, threatening, pushing or grabbing.” Finally, for all the anxiety over the supposed metastasizing of ‘stop and frisk’ policies throughout society, there were no statistical differences between blacks and whites in the frequency of street stops—less than 1 percent for both.
And yet, with each new incident one observes that knee-jerk inclination for leading black voices (and their media allies) to view it metaphorically, as confirming evidence of a well-known truism. Case in point: The damning original narrative out of Ferguson, MO was quickly discredited (and later debunked in a DOJ investigation). No, a passive black man was not ruthlessly gunned down while trying to surrender to a cop; rather, he was trying to wrestle the officer’s gun away from him. Nonetheless, the Michael Brown case kicked Black Lives Matter into overdrive, while “Hands up, don’t shoot!” became a ubiquitous slogan, chanted even by CNN hosts as they sat at their desks. (To this day the incantation appears on t-shirts worn by social justice activists everywhere.)
How does it happen that a young man is miscast as the poster boy for a malaise that doesn’t exist? One might argue there are three factors in play. The first, unsurprisingly, is mass media, with its sensationalized wall-to-wall coverage of incidents that do occur. The second is the spectacular valence of so-called Black Twitter, with its exponential multiplier effect. The third and newest factor is the ascendancy of a phalanx of African-American authors, who have a developed a perverse interest in the commodification of racial pain. They include Mr. Dyson, the New York Times‘s Charles Blow, columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., Marc Lamont Hill, and the much-celebrated Ta-Nehisi Coates. Collectively they cook up for their hungry audience a distasteful stew of slavery, Jim Crow, KKK lynchings, mass incarceration, the emergence of the ‘alt right,’ and—above all—the primacy of so-called ‘lived experience.’ Think of the psychic damage done to their audience by this never-ending immersion in white malfeasance.
And so I will close by making a a simple request of Mr. Dyson and all purveyors of such unremitting racial grimness: check your paranoia.
Steve Salerno is a widely published essayist and professor of journalism. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the self-improvement industry’s wider footprint in society. You can follow him on Twitter @iwrotesham