The Cost of False Facts: A Critical Review of Incorrect Boogey-Men from Glassner’s 1990s to Today

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.


Barry Glassner’s classic The Culture of Fear just turned 20. In the text, Glassner became perhaps the first serious social scientist to point out to an intelligent popular audience that Americans are terrified of many unlikely threats that are not actually going to kill us. His book focused on the cable news-generated fears of his own late-1990s era, demonstrating that the young child kidnappings, plane crashes, and large animal attacks which panicked an entire generation of upper-middle class Americans are in fact vanishingly rare. Today, following the rise of social media and the accompanying Occupy and Tea Party and (now) “BLM” movements, the alleged threats presented to us 24 hours a day — police brutality, inter-race crime, “systemic racism” —  are different and more tribal in nature. However, they are no less exaggerated and nonsensical. And, today as in Glassner’s era, uncritical belief in these dangers has serious social consequences which can extend up to the level of public policy.

Probably the most extensively discussed of today’s imaginary threats is epidemic police violence. One of the most prevalent narratives in the mainstream press, since at least 2014, has been the alleged epidemic of murderous violence by law enforcement officers (LEOs) targeting African American males. Almost every American consumer of news has been repeatedly inveighed to “say the names” of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and others; a Google search for “George Floyd” alone turns up 209 million results, two Wikipedia pages, and a Google Sidebar discussion of Mr. Floyd as an “American hip hop artist” with content available on Pandora for a listen or purchase. Media profiles of victims such as Floyd are frequently full of horrific-sounding statistical claims: Black Lives Matter activist Cherno Biko famously told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that an innocent black man is “murdered” by police “every 28 hours,” and prominent attorney Benjamin Crump wrote a top-selling book describing police violence and other aspects of the 2020 African American experience as a “genocide.”

Facts and data paint a different picture. While the George Floyd case was no doubt an individual tragedy, the total number of unarmed black individuals killed by police in the most recent completed year on record was 14, as per the gold-standard “Fatal Force” database from the Washington Post. That number, perhaps updated to reflect a tiny number of cases with a multi-racial victim, was listed as nine until at least June, 2020. The total number of unarmed individuals of all races killed in 2019 was well under 100 — and it is worth noting that “unarmed” does not mean “harmless”: a suspect attempting to snatch away an officer’s gun would generally be counted in this category.

All told, exactly 999 human beings, the vast majority armed with firearms or knives, were killed by police during this representative year, only 250 of whom were identified as black. While that proportion is higher than the proportion of blacks in the U.S. population (~13%), a basic adjustment for black/white differences in violent crime rate — the black rate currently stands at 2.4x the white rate as per the annual Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) crime report — “blue collar” crime rate, or police encounter rate almost entirely closes the racial gaps in police shootings that are so often and glibly attributed to racism.

While I am reluctant to speak ill of the dead or injured, any half-skillful qualitative investigation further reveals that almost none of the tiny handful of police shootings of unarmed citizens to take place in a typical year involve unarmed African Americans being murdered while walking to church or home from baseball practice. Michael Brown was shot while apparently attempting to take a gun from a uniformed police officer: his DNA was found on the slide and trigger guard of Officer Darren Wilson’s service weapon, and Wilson was cleared by both his initial grand jury and a later investigation by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department.

Jacob Blake was an alleged rapist and was non-fatally shot by Kenosha (WI) officers after police were called on him during an uninvited return to the home of his alleged victim. He physically fought the responding lawmen for two minutes and attempted to depart the scene in a vehicle that apparently was not his. Even the now near-mythical Trayvon Martin case fits this basic pattern: Martin was shot once during a violent physical fight with neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, which he apparently initiated — and it is further notable that Zimmerman was a left-wing Hispanic man rather than a white bigot.

Influential as it is, the claim of epidemic police brutality is a mere carbuncle atop a larger narrative of constant inter-racial crime and abuse of minorities within the United States. As with law enforcement violence, the past few years have seen a surfeit of major mainstream media stories about the dangers of just “living while black,” describing the heart-wrenching experiences endured by ordinary middle-class people of color attempting just to live life. Within a single 1-2 year time frame, “BBQ Becky” (Jennifer Schulte) became internationally famous for calling the police on a black family grilling in an Oakland park, “Pool Patrol Paula” (Stephanie Sebby-Strempel) drew equivalent headlines after assaulting an African-American teen at a water park, and “Coupon Carl” (actually named Carl) was fired from a salaried job as the manager of a drug-store after aggressively questioning the validity of a black shopper’s coupons. Not to be outdone, pundits on the hard right have launched professional-looking websites with names like “White Girl Bleed a Lot,” which seem to publicize virtually every beating or mugging of a white pensioner by a black guy.

Again, this narrative bears almost no connection to actual facts on the ground. First, both leftists and right wingers growing frantic about serious inter-racial crime are obsessing over a rather fringe phenomenon. Inter-racial violent crime involving blacks and whites appears to be roughly 3% of crime in a typical year. Per the previously cited Bureau of Justice Statistics crime report for 2018 — the most recent year currently on record — there were 6,385,520 violent crimes and 13,502,840 property crimes serious enough to be recorded during that year, for a total of 19,888,360 criminal offenses. Of those, only 607,726 (3.05%) were (1) violent crimes (2) involving either a black perpetrator and a white victim or a white “perp” and a black victim.

Further, the more prevalent left-leaning fear-narrative of white-on-POC inter-racial crime appears to be if anything more wrong than its obnoxious right-wing counterpart. Of those barely more than 600,000 inter-racial crimes in 2018, 547,948 (90.2%) involved a black perpetrator and a white victim — compared to the 59,778 (9.8%) which involved a white perp and a black victim. Nor is this particularly unusual: while 2018 was a somewhat exceptional year, inter-racial crime in the United States has been at least 70% black-on-white for most if not all of the past 30 years.

False and fear-generating storylines of police genocide and near-race war are part of a still larger storyline: that of “institutional” or “systemic” racism. For much of the time period under discussion, advocates of a sort of meta-narrative of American oppression have contended that virtually every gap in performance between population groups can be attributed to racism, often contemporary, however well-hidden. They use this hypothesis to explain discrepancies not only in  police shootings but also in income and wealth, unemployment rates, and even SAT and ACT scores — which the entire University of California system recently eliminated as an admissions requirement because the tests are “racially biased.” The well-known sociologist Ibram Kendi has gone so far as to claim that all performance differences between groups must be taken as evidence of racism, unless you are a genetic bigot: the only two possible explanations for them are “inferiority” or some variety of racism deep within systems.

Again, empirically speaking, such claims often border on the nonsensical. As the legendary economist Thomas Sowell and others have long pointed out, a more sophisticated explanation for group differences than either (1) “racism” or (2) genetics alone is simply that groups which differ in terms of something as notable as race (or gender) also tend to differ in terms of dozens of other cultural and situational variables. Very often, simply adjusting for 2-4 of these variables eliminates group gaps that are almost universally, and mistakenly, attributed to ghostly prejudice.

As I’ve already pointed out, adjusting for black/white differences in violent crime rate almost entirely eliminates the black/white gap in police shootings. Similarly, both the liberal government economist June O’Neil and the conservative researcher Dinesh D’Souza found back in 1995 that adjusting for a handful of factors including median age, residency in the lower-wage South (far more common for African Americans), and aptitude test scores closed B/W gaps in personal earnings from 17.1% to .9%. The same seems to hold true today, and multiple conservative pundits and scholars have argued that family collapse is now a variable more predictive of high income than race — with National Review noting in 2016 that the poverty rate is 22% for whites in single-parent homes, versus seven percent for blacks in two-parent families.

Perhaps the most extraordinary rebuttal of the systemic racism thesis is the performance of Asians, West Africans, and other immigrants of color. The highest annual SAT and ACT performances come not from “privileged” whites but from dark-skinned recent immigrants from East and South Asia. A frank 2017 report by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Education concluded that students in the combined “Asian” category easily outperformed whites on that year’s SAT, posting a median combined score of 1181 as vs. 1118 for Caucasians. Asian students did better on both primary sections of the exam, beating white kids by four points on the verbal section and by 59 points on the math portion — where they posted an average score of 612. Nigerians and other black West Africans do at least as well in the U.S. educational system, finishing in several recent years as the best educated group in the country and boasting a 61% combined graduate and undergraduate degree completion rate for adults over the age of 25, as vs. 32% of that for all Americans.

U.S. income statistics unsurprisingly reflect these high levels of minority performance. A 2014-15 data release from the Census Bureau, highlighting that no less than 18 large minority groups outperformed the national average income (then $57,355), was so pleasantly unexpected that it spawned several trending Internet memes. The list of these high-performing groups “of color” includes not only those already discussed — such as Chinese, Japanese, Nigerian, and Indian Americans — but also U.S. Taiwanese ($85,566), Lebanese Arabs ($69,514), dark-skinned Filipinos ($82,389), and individuals of both black and Indian descent from Guyana ($60,234).

Indian Americans held the top spot then and still do so today, bringing in $100,295 on average in 2014 and $123,453 in the most recent year on record (2018). In addition to, almost in passing, shattering “alt-right” theories of white genetic supremacy, these figures rather clearly demonstrate the absence of massive/effective hidden racial bias in the United States. It is absurd to think that powerful bigots who dislike people with nice, natural tans would refuse in mass to hire African Americans but jump to do so in the case of West Indians, Pakistanis , or literal black Africans. Clearly, something else is at work here.

The fact that the media-generated fake fears of today, like the less tribal but equally ‘edgy’ ones of Glassner’s day — we all recall upper-class mothers walking around with small children on leashes, so they couldn’t be stolen away — are so prevalent matters. It matters because people naturally react to things that intensely scare them with plans for action. Already, the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement on opposition to police violence and anti-POC inter-racial crime has resulted in the proposal of truly sweeping changes to American law enforcement. Perhaps the most popular of these has been the idea of “defunding the police”: cutting large sums of money from municipal law enforcement budgets and re-assigning them to other social services.

This is no longer merely theoretical. In Los Angeles (CA), the police budget was reduced by $150,000,000 following the death of George Floyd and subsequent urban unrest. New York City made an even more dramatic move, slashing $1,000,000,000 from the 2021 police budget and reining in aggressive proactive policing during 2020. The claims of many advocates of police defunding left little to the imagination, with New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying “Defund the police means defund the police,” and the New York Times running a major editorial headlined “Yes — We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” Inter-racial crime more broadly has been targeted alongside police: at least one city — San Francisco — passed a law called the CAREN Act, aimed at criminalizing “racist” calls to the 911 police emergency number.

The problem with all of this is that, because there is no race war or epidemic of police murders in the United States, these measures have very little possible upside. However, they do convey a considerable downside risk. Although this has not been widely reported outside conservative media, the law enforcement cuts made so far in LA have caused the cessation of most specialized police action against animal cruelty and eliminated the specific sexual assault unit “that investigated…Harvey Weinstein and Ron Jeremy.” The effects of de-policing combined with racial tensions in New York have been even more remarkable: an aghast ABC NYC recently noted that in-city shootings were up 166% in August 2020 versus the same month in 2019, 122% in November 2020, and 95% overall across the two years.

The same stories could be told across a suite of other cities that respond sympathetically to largely fictional claims of racial injustice — perhaps most notably Portland, which reached the remarkable milestone of 100 consecutive days of riots and violent protests during fall 2020. This pattern is unlikely to be a coincidence. The right-leaning quantitative scholar Heather Mac Donald famously coined the term “Ferguson Effect” to describe the year-by-year surge in U.S. murders, from 14,164 in 2014 to 17,294 in 2017, following the death of Michael Brown and the last round of street riots and police pull-backs.

To stop the same thing from happening again (wholly unnecessarily), and to counter the predictable effect of popular falsehoods more broadly, it is imperative that those of us aware of reality do something quite difficult, unpopular, and necessary: openly say taboo things that are true.


Image: Que viene el coco (Here Comes the Bogey-Man) by Francisco de Goya, Public Domain.

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Wilfred Reilly

Wilfred Reilly is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University. He is the author of the books "Hate Crime Hoax" and "Taboo," as well as shorter pieces for Academic Questions, Commentary, Quillette, and many other outlets. His research interests include international relations, contemporary American race relations, and the use of modern empirical methods to test "sacred cow" theories such as the existence of widespread white privilege.

2 thoughts on “The Cost of False Facts: A Critical Review of Incorrect Boogey-Men from Glassner’s 1990s to Today

  1. What I have always wanted to see is a statistically valid study on the race of those who (a) shoot police officers, (b) the race of those who kill officers via other weapons (including running them over), and (c) the race of those who seriously injure police officers.

    It’s like the New Jersey Turnpike where the NJSP were disproportionately issuing speeding tickets to Black motorists (relative to percentage of drivers) BUT then found out (via a statistically valid observation of the road) that Black motorists were disproportionately speeding on the road.

    So many more Black motorists than White motorists were speeding, particularly at egregiously fast speeds, that a statistically valid sample of speeders would have an even *higher* percentage of Black motorists than the Jersey Staties were ticketing.

    Same thing here: IF (hypothetically) a disproportionately high percentage of Black men are murdering police officers than you’re going to see the same disproportionately high percentage of Black men being shot by police officers who’d prefer not to be murdered.

    In other words, BLM presumes that persons of all race, sexes, ages, etc. are equally likely to murder a police officer. That’s asinine — the 80-year-old grandmother is far more likely to invite “the nice young man” in for a cup of tea.

    Hence the need of a statically-valid risk assessment.

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