19 September 2020

Focusing on the wrong issue (PART 1) (Part 1 of a series on race based on emails to my family)

I personally don't have especially dark skin, nor the accent or clothing or other cultural signifiers that not only mark a young man as of African descent, but more specifically as an American Black, “African American”, (as opposed to an American from Africa).  However, I grew up in an area with plenty of people who did, and a poor, high crime neighborhood at that, so I was absolutely exposed to interactions between stereotypically urban young black males and police.   Having the opportunity to witness it, but as an outside observer, gave me a more useful view than if I had been either party, or had any particular stake in either party.  I didn’t identify with either, so I didn’t start out picking sides.  And I saw first hand the contrast between what I was watching directly, and how it was categorized later.

Just a few months before deployment I took my son to what looked like an amazing little community built playground in the Iron Triangle.  It looked like it had some unique play structures, I liked that it had been designed and built by people who lived in the neighborhood, and I thought it might offer a chance to expose him to some diversity in skin tones and cultures.  I thought, “this is 2020, the crime rate in
Richmond is way down, I’m sure the Iron Triangle is at least relatively better than I remember”.
As we arrived, there was a large group of kids around 7 to 12 years old, some Black and some Latinx, each arguing their case to an adult
Latina woman who was listening to each but seemed she preferred not to get involved and just wanted them to move on and play nicely.  Apparently several days before two kids, one from each group (but one of whom seemed not to be present) had gotten into an argument, and one of them may or may not have threatened the other, possibly threatened to kill them, (but not in any sort of immediate or credible way).  It was unclear what resolution any of them wanted, they just seemed to each want acknowledgement from an adult that the other had “started it” and was the guiltier party.
One kid (of each color) played in a sandbox together, ignoring the commotion.
The adult eventually left, and most of the kids started playing again – many of them mixing - but a couple kids couldn’t let it go.  One of the Black girls said she was going to call the police.  Some time later the police show up.  They come up to the kids, ask what the problem is.  The cops let one kid talk at a time. The cops listen patiently while these 7 to 12 year old children air their grievances from last week about some playground dispute.  The cops reassure each side that the other isn’t going to harm them, gets them to verbally agree to get along.  They all go back to playing, while the cops go back to their car.  The girl apparently had also called her mother, who shows up after it's all over…
She walks up, already visibly angry and belligerent before anyone has a chance to say anything.  She starts with shouting at the cops, what are you doing here?  Why are you threatening my children?  What makes you think they did anything wrong?  They are just children!?  They try to talk to her but it doesn’t matter what they say, she isn’t even listening, she shouts over them.
A child dispute including death threats was bad enough, but now I really regret having ventured back into the Triangle.  Another woman comes out, followed by a man, I think they may have also been parents, or relatives.  Neither are belligerent, but they support the first woman and make no effort to calm her down.  Now with 3 angry people, one shouting and crazy, surrounding the two officers… they continue to be quiet voiced, calm, patient, respectful.  Regardless of what they say, or how they say it, the mother is offended by it.  If they contradict her claim that they threatened to arrest her child, she says they are calling her a liar.  She says the fact that they are even there is racist.  I’m expecting at any moment for them to lose patience, to yell back or warn her against doing something which would lead to her doing that thing and it escalating to an arrest.  I’m wondering how it would look to Seku if I suddenly interrupted his playing and we left, but he seems mostly oblivious to the commotion and is focused on his play – plus if it does escalate I want to be available as an independent witness – so we wait it out.  Eventually the cops have other things to do, and since no one is actually asking for anything in particular, and there is no crime afoot, they extricate themselves from the interaction and leave, while the parents stay behind and speak to each other from far enough away that its easy to hear their entire conversation. Of course, they talk about how this is part of a pattern and how bad the cops are and how racist everyone is and how everything that happened is the Latino kids’ fault.  At some point the other woman asks me if I was there for the whole thing, and I tell them how both groups of kids were arguing about something that happened last week and it seemed like nothing really and no one more at fault, that it was about an idle threat, but that I think it was one of their kids who called the police – and they listen to me, and they acknowledge that they heard me and then go right back into the conversation as though they hadn’t learned any new information.


This specific story comes readily to mind, with lots of detail, because it happened so recently, while I was an adult, close by, paying attention.  But it is by no means unique, or even unusual, in terms of interactions between police and residents of Richmond and Oakland that I have personally witnessed.  I have seen a decent number of examples of what some people later recall as racism.  I have also seen cops be less patient and forgiving, with less provocation – with people of a range of colors, including whites (usually “punk” styled people) and seen situations escalate in a way that each side would claim the other entirely at fault.  I’ve seen people express fear who had absolutely no personal experiences on which to base it
(come to think of it, I’ve experienced it, for example when I tried to hide from a cop after having tied my own hands together with a zip tie I found at a construction site, to fear he would assume I was an escaped suspect.  He found me, asked what I was doing, I answered with what sounded like a really stupid excuse, and he cut the zip tie off – I hadn’t realized that if a suspect had escaped he’d have heard about it by radio.  Also, every time I saw a cop, nervousness, even when I was doing absolutely nothing wrong).

I am not claiming that because of these things I have seen first hand I think that there are no racist cops or police brutality or profiling.  I don’t doubt those things are real.

What I can say with absolute 100% certainty, from having seen it personally dozens of times in my life, is that no individual’s self-report is at all a reliable source of information; to the point where they aren’t even useful. 

Perspective and expectation affect perception, interpretation, attention, and recall to a significant degree in ordinary life, but they get enhanced enormously when it’s a topic that generates strong emotions, and/or a topic which relates to identity and especially group identity.  We all know better than to trust people’s recall of how big a fish they caught. 90% of people believe they are better than average drivers, (while the other 10% concede to just being average) which is why accidents are almost always “the other guy’s” fault.  People watching the same sports game will see their team getting bad calls by the ref and the other team cheating.  People don’t experience things that happen to them objectively, and they report them after the fact even more inaccurately.


Just like people choose between faith and science, a world view can be based on personal experience, other people’s opinion, conjecture, media reports, OR statistics and verifiable facts.

The first 4 are all forms of faith. All are filtered by expectation and belief – with in-group loyalty often being the single largest factor in perception.
The last is the closest one can get to science. Basing beliefs on anything other than data is religion.

Yes, my own personal experiences provided somewhat more varied perspectives than average: growing up a mixed person in a mixed community allowed me to see different perspectives, different worlds, all from up close, but never from the inside. I was allowed to hang out in every group in junior high (in elementary school the kids didn’t self segregate yet) but none really considered me (nor did I consider myself) “one of them”. People of different races don’t self-censor around me the way they do people they consider full outsiders (I can tell, because of how it changes when full outsiders are around). 
I got in (minor) trouble my fair share of times, and interacted with cops myself, I watched my friends and acquaintances (of various races) interacting with police, watched strangers interact from across the street.  Of course I witnessed street fights and drug deals and non-criminal but generally antisocial behavior.  I saw that white and black people both love doing drugs - and specifically that white people tend to do both their drug trades and consumption indoors, while black people often do them on the street or other public places.
As a child I went to rallies for various causes, as I grew older I had political and philosophical conversations with friends and acquaintances ranging from communist to anarchist to libertarian, (and even the occasional Christian mixed in for good measure). I eventually worked as a security guard and for the Coast Guard, which not only provided a few more first hand experiences from a different role, but also exposed me to more different people’s perspectives, law-and-order types, words unfiltered and relatively honest because they feel that they’re speaking with peers – there are a lot of current and former and aspiring cops in both security and the military reserve.

I believe the effect those various experiences had was not to create my understanding of the world.  The effect was, by exposing me to different sides of the same question, to allow me to realize that everyone was fitting information to their own narrative. It made it easier for me to question everyone’s narrative.  It’s what gave me the chance to even realize there was a narrative filtering everyone’s experience in the first place, rather than just choosing one and fully internalizing it to the point I’d have ceased to be aware I had one.


The effect of that exposure was to allow me to look critically at all claims, to question what was really going on, and inspire me to look deeper.  But the specific conclusions I have finally come to come from ignoring all the anecdotes, including my own, and focusing on the statistics.
Human brains don’t tend to spontaneously parse statistics accurately, especially when it comes to risk.  As a result of being social, we overemphasis risks that some other person could do to us “on purpose” while downplaying risks that are caused by non-human forces or that another person or ourselves might do “by accident”.  We are less focused on the actual result than on the intentionality. 

The rate of stranger child abduction and murder is literally 1 in a million (actually less, at about 50 per year, it works out to 1 in 1.47 million).
Because of just two random, highly publicized and shocking cases - and the human psychological need to “do something” to control bad outcomes that are the result of someone else’s intentional action - we have
1) the California 3 strikes law - the first and most extreme of it’s kind - which was followed by versions in 27 other states, and is a significant contributor to the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and
2) 28 states “Megan’s Laws” (which I’ve written about previously how awfully it is implemented: http://www.randomthoughts.fyi/2015/04/sex-offender-registry.html ).

A survey found that 75% of parents said they feared their children might be abducted, and one-third said this was a frequent worry -- a degree of fear greater than for any other concern.
Compared to the 50 kids killed each year by strangers, around 4000 die each year as passengers in motor vehicles, making it an 80 times higher risk – but of course car accidents don’t register the same emotional impact, because they aren’t done “on purpose”.
Largely as a result of this fear, the rate at which children walk to school dropped from almost 50% to just over 10% over the past few decades, with concern about child predators being the most often cited justification. Instead, concerned parents drive their kids to school, increasing their chances of a premature death by a factor of 80, as a way to “protect” them.  There is exactly zero correlation between statistical risk and fear. 


Over the past 20 years, there have been 85 acts of terrorism in the United States.
In total they resulted in 3346 deaths (of which 3008 were on Sept 2011 alone, with the other 84 causing an average of 4 deaths each).   That is in relation to around 53 million total deaths, so around 0.006% of all deaths are caused by terrorism – only 0.0006% not counting 9/11.
The risk of any one random American personally, directly, experiencing a terrorist attack is one in 75,000.
Despite how rare it is, and how unlikely any given person is to ever experience it, it is cited as the 2nd highest concern of Americans.  That fear, however, is not uniform across everyone – it is significantly higher among political conservatives, with them rating it as the single top fear.  Having some outsider, some Muslim extremist terrorist, come and try to kill good decent (Christian) American’s because they hate our way of life, our freedom, fits perfectly with their narrative, and so any time an incident actually does occur, it resonates. It fits with the preconceived conclusion, and becomes further evidence and reinforcement that they were right all along: “See, I knew this would happen, those evil people are just waiting for the chance”. 
The numerical facts about how rare it actually is, or how small a percentage of Muslims actually are responsible is irrelevant, because the belief comes from both a desire to fit in with others who believe the same things and a fear of someone considered “other”.
The imaginary huge risk presented by this particular possibility that is caused by something someone does “on purpose” – which caused 0.006% of deaths over the past 20 years - has resulted in our society feeling like we have to “do something!” and collectively agreeing to several wars, as well as creating the DHS and TSA, body scanners, indefinite detention sometimes without charges, indiscriminate secret surveillance of US citizens, the PATRIOT act (1 and 2), the Gitmo detention center, and two actual wars (repeated for emphasis, cause it's a big deal) costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

Interestingly, though terrorist attacks are done deliberately, political liberals and the left rate stopping it as less high of a priority, and less scary of a personal threat.  The idea that Muslims are fundamentally evil people who hate us for no good reason doesn’t fit their narrative, and so the threat doesn’t hold the same emotional saliency – believing the narrative isn’t a requirement for social acceptance.
Unless of course the attacker uses a gun…
This is a rather bizarre dichotomy that somehow avoids producing any cognitive dissonance what-so-ever on either side of the political spectrum. 
When it comes to mass shootings, liberals are the ones who feel they are a really big deal, and are more afraid it might happen to them personally, while conservatives are relatively nonchalant.
But this makes absolutely no sense, on either side, because mass shooting fall within the definition of terrorism!  One is a subset of the other, you can not distinguish them.  Of all the Islamic terrorist attacks in the
US since 9/11, almost half were mass shootings.  Of all mass shootings, just under half were by Muslim extremists (along with 6 more attempts that don’t technically count as “mass” shootings because not enough people died).
They are both parts of the same thing, but different aspects get played up or played down to match the narrative of the speakers and listeners.


There was a study a few years ago that has become very popular with the political left and liberals, suggesting that conservatism was related to brain chemistry, that an overactive amygdala made them prone to be afraid of everything, and suggesting conservatism might be a response to that fear.
More recently, the methodology of that study has been called into question: the questions they used to gauge fear were not politically neutral.  The questions were about things like terrorism, or immigrants’ effect on the economy, that had to do with people’s accepted narrative and self-identity as a conservative person.
When different questions are used – for example, fear of mass shootings, concern that Trump will refuse to leave office essentially declaring himself dictator, sea levels rising 10ft over the next decade, COVID killing ¼ of the population, or
Gilead taking over America and turning it into a Evangelical theocracy, liberals show the higher levels of irrational fears.

Along with Islamic jihadists, White nationalists, racists, and neo-nazis make up the majority of US terrorists.  A much smaller portion (around 10%) is made up of left-wing extremists, and every once in a while it’s an independent nutjob with no particular known agenda.
Muslims make up 1% of the population.  They are responsible for nearly half of all terror attacks.  White people make up most of the rest – but they also make up 60% of the population.  That’s a dramatic difference in relative proportion: Muslim Americans commit (or attempt) acts of terrorism at a rate 8.9 times higher per person than White Americans.

However, that 9 times higher rate is still only 44 terrorists out of 30 million people, for a percentage of 0.000146%

Its unconfirmed whether it was really Stalin who said it, but the psychology of his statement is true:

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” 

It’s hard to conceptualize big numbers and still feel human empathy for the victims.  If 175,000 people are murdered, that is 175 thousand tragedies, that many lives cut short, hundreds of thousands of surviving family members and loved ones suffering, each one as personal and poignant as any one instance we hear about in detail.
Between 2009 and 2019, there were roughly 175,000 murders in the
US.  This does not count accidental homicide, killing in self-defense, or most police officer homicides. 

175,000 cases of one person deliberately ending the life of another person over a decade, or 17,000 per year, 46 per day on average.

Of those, 53% of victims are black (77% are male). When you think about how tragic a death you hear about is, think about the 174,999 others you don’t hear about, too.

For reference, there are roughly 400 “justifiable” homicides by police officers every year (according to official sources), of which roughly 24% are black. Granted, an unknowable number of those may have not been truly “justified” but merely “gotten away with”, though the majority of cases have relatively clear cut circumstances, such as a victim who was actively shooting at officers or others.
Even if we consider 100% of police shootings to be murder, regardless of the circumstances and actions of the victim/suspect, that’s 96 Black people killed (24% of 400) as the (unrealistically high) worst case scenario - compared to 9,275 black people murdered by non-cops each year.  That’s including “victims” who were actively shooting at cops after having been caught committing a felony.

In reality, while there are probably still some cases which are successfully covered up, we are in an age where everyone carries a video camera from age 15 and up, and official news media is supplanted with the universal access of social media, so cover-ups have become increasingly hard to pull off.  Everyone who has a message has access to an audience, and if the topic is one which people have a strong emotional response to, it is likely to spread.  Because this is an issue that so many have strong feelings about, it shouldn’t be surprising to find non-official sources keeping tabs, and we can get a reasonable estimate for cases that don’t get nationwide attention.

There have been about ten highly publicized cases of Black men (and youth) that were killed by police while unarmed since 2009.

Not counting people armed with knives, bats etc or realistic looking pellet guns, or unarmed but physically assaulting officers; the actual numbers of unarmed, nonviolent, black people killed by police without reasonable justification may be somewhere in the range of 15-60, (with the large range being due to conflicting reports, unclear circumstances and lack of evidence - for example when an officer claims a gun grab, and there were no witnesses or video, and family files a suit because they insist the person would have never done such a thing).


The most clear cut examples with strong evidence always get nationwide attention, (although in some cases there is a nation wide response even though eye witnesses agree the victim was a violent aggressor – those cases result in protests nonetheless.)
Assuming 100% of questionable cases were unjustified, this puts the high end of unjustified killings at around 60. 

Not per year, 60 total cases, from 2009 to 2019. 
That is the number to compare to the 92,750 (civilian perpetrated) murders over that same span.

That’s a murder rate by other private citizens 1545 times higher than the rate of being murdered by police, assuming every questionable case counts as murder.  It is 9,275 times higher if all the questionable cases were actually justified by the circumstances. 

Let’s assume some but not all unknown cases were essentially murders, and say there are twice as many actual cases as ones that get major social attention.  That puts the rate of murder by citizens at 4,600 times higher than the rate of murder by police.
For a movement which focuses exclusively on police misconduct to claim its primary interest is in protecting black people is clearly either dishonest or delusional.

There are approximately 1 million sworn police officers in the country, which puts the percentage of cops who murder black people at between 0.0001% and 0.0006% (depending which cases you consider murder)

In other words: to make a conclusion about police officers generally based on a few high-profile bad examples is, statistically, exactly the same as drawing conclusions about all Muslims based on a few terrorist attacks.

6 black men a year, out of 9,137,433 Black males between 15 and 44, makes a rate of 1 in 1.5 million; which means if the police shoot at unarmed Black men completely at random and every Black man has an exactly equal chance of being murdered by police, his chances of being murdered by police are still 20 times less than the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack.  In reality it isn’t random – nearly every case involves a victim who had just recently committed at least a minor crime.  The majority of Black men don’t commit crimes the majority of the time, which puts their risk of being killed in a terrorist attack at hundreds of times higher than being murdered by a police officer.

Incidentally,  almost as many people have died in riots triggered by police brutality cases, 53 killed by rioters alone after the Rodney King verdict (plus 10 killed by law enforcement) and at least 17 killed in the most recent rioting (plus 2 shot by law enforcement both of whom were armed themselves, and 1 who apparently died of tear gas).

This is what the data, plus a little mathematics, says.
If you ask people to give their subjective beliefs, you will get emotion and narrative driven answers, which will lead to entirely different conclusions than the data leads to.

We derided conservatives for fearing terrorism when the chances of experiencing it first hand are only 1 in 75,000. We see easily that their fear is based not on a realistic threat, but on how dramatic the (rare) events are, how much they are reported, how often friends and family talk about it. Almost none of the conservatives who rate terrorism as a significant personal concern have ever personally, directly experienced it, but they don’t have to experience it to be convinced it’s real. The fear is based on the narrative they hold, about who they are as a people and who their enemies are; the bad people who want to hurt them. Having been exposed to that narrative their entire lives, any act of terrorism they hear about is already primed to resonate deeply, to generate an intense emotional response.

When surveyed, a majority of black people report fear of being killed by police as higher, by a wide margin, than fear of being murdered in a violent crime.

This one statement, in light of an actual risk over 4,600 times higher, should be enough to make anyone stop relying on any self-reported assessments.  It shows conclusively how much emotion, expectation, and accepting the socially accepted narrative, influences thoughts and beliefs even to the point of overriding direct personal observation and experience. 

If you live in a high crime neighborhood, you have seen fights in the street. You probably know someone who has been robbed, or assaulted.  You’ve heard gun shots, seen bullet holes in windows, you probably know of someone who has been shot.  You may likely have been a victim yourself, or it may have been a friend or relative, a neighbor, or just someone walking down the street. You perhaps are even neighbors or acquaintances of the people who commit the crimes. 

There is relatively less chance that you personally have ever witnessed or been the victim of a completely unjustified police beating of someone non-violent and not resisting, never mind a police murder.  Even if you have, it has been a whole lot less often.  If one happened to have witnessed it, for every one time they saw that, they’ve seen a dozen assaults by civilian citizens.  For the most part police brutality is learned about from conversations with others who themselves heard about it second hand, and from TV and social media. Yet those stories take precedence over the day-to-day direct personal experience in coloring assessment of risk - in exactly the same way that news reports of bombings and child abductions overtake the reality of driving past a fatal car accident which only registers as the source of an annoying traffic jam.

That someone is more afraid of being killed by cops than from violent crime should completely invalidate that person as a source of information.  Every experience that person has with cops is going to be framed with the preexisting narrative; exactly like that woman at the playground did.

 Black people prefer to believe that cops are a bigger problem than violent crime because it makes the enemy an “other”, a “them”.  White (left and liberal) people prefer to believe the same narrative because of a fear that acknowledging the extent and significance of black crime is “racist”.  Calling out the police for being racist instead confirms that they are “one of the good ones”, an anti-racist white who will accept black claims at face value (even if they are factually incorrect, by a factor of 4600).



Using a tiny handful of dramatic examples, activists will take an instance of a white person killing a black person, and claim it is part of a trend, an epidemic even, that racists are everywhere and it isn’t safe for a black person to just be minding their own business in public.
Many of the same people who say things like that will also claim that if a white person crosses the street to avoid walking past a black man, it means they are racist.
You can’t have it both ways – holding both views is not compatible with reality.  You can’t claim that blacks fearing whites is justified, but whites fearing blacks is racism.

While the majority of murders involve both a perpetrator and victim of the same race (usually known to each other personally), of those where the race of victim and perpetrator differ, there are over twice as many black murders of white people (514 in 2018) than white murders of black people (234 in 2018).

Anyone who holds both beliefs, in the face of very easily verified data, is basing belief on political ideology, not reality.

The perception of an experience is dependent on expectations, preexisting beliefs, and social demands. If being accepted means believing that God came to earth in the form of his son with a human woman at one arbitrary point in history, performed a bunch of magic tricks, deliberation let himself be executed (despite having magic powers) in order to make a point, then came back to life and levitated into the sky, (which is why you can go to a magic fairyland when you die even though you to do bad things) - then people will believe it. It won't matter how many holes there are in the story, how many internal contradictions, how many details shown to be wrong by modern science - nor how much the story fails to fit in with directly observed day to day reality.

If fitting in means ignoring intercommunity violence, while hyping intracommunity violence, despite the physical danger of an inaccurate risk assessment, people will almost always go with the socially acceptable belief. To avoid cognitive dissonance they will latch onto the narrative so completely that it will completely overrule all personal experience - without them even being aware they are doing it.

(Part 2 will link here once it posts)

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