Mike Kueber's Blog

March 7, 2015

Critical thinking – racial discrimination in San Antonio and Ferguson

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice,Media — Mike Kueber @ 2:04 pm
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Following up on my recent post about logic and critical thinking, this week’s media reporting included two glaring examples of failing to use the aforementioned abilities.  The first, an article in the San Antonio Express-News, suggested that racial bias was behind the fact that a disproportionate percentage of blacks and Latinos were suspended from school in San Antonio and Bexar County.

  • “Among racial groups, in the 19 school districts that are all or partly in Bexar County, black students are far fewer in numbers, but about 15 percent of them were suspended out of school in the 2011-12 school year, compared to 10 percent of all Latino students and 5 percent of white students.”
  • “The findings ‘bring up civil rights issues,’ said Daniel J. Losen, the center’s director and the report’s principal author. ‘We know from studying the data that suspensions are strong indicators of lower academic achievement and higher numbers of dropouts. It doesn’t help anyone much, from what we can tell.’”

I comment as follows to the author of the article:

  • Francisco, your article seems to suggest that the disproportionate suspensions of blacks and Latinos raise civil-rights issues. If that is your point, I think you (or your cited experts) should explain why this is causation, not mere correlation. Further, I don’t understand why the reported numbers don’t include Asian students. If suspensions are the converse of academic achievement, you would expect Asian students to be subjected to fewer suspensions.”

In addition to the causation-correlation delusion described in The Halo Effect, the article is also guilty of the delusion of single explanations. There is no attempt to consider other possible causes of the connection between racial status and school suspensions, such as academic achievement. The lazy writer simply makes an incendiary, politically-correct assertion.

The New York Times took a similar path in reporting on the Justice Departments findings about Ferguson policing.  In an article titled, “Racially Discriminatory Policing Was the Norm,” the Times dutifully reported the Justice Department findings:

  • Black people are two-thirds of Ferguson’s population, but from 2012 to 2014, they accounted for 85 percent of police traffic stops, 90 percent of citations issued, and 93 percent of arrests. The Municipal Court also treats blacks more harshly, according to the Justice Department’s findings. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race…. Our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans. We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Notice the skillful use, twice, of the qualifier, “at least in part.” Technically, this relieves the Times from the obligation to report on other, possibly more significant causes, outside of racism, for blacks to be involved with the Ferguson PD.   The actual Justice Department report, not the Times article, seems to consider and reject this possibility:

  • City officials have frequently asserted that the harsh and disparate results of Ferguson’s law enforcement system do not indicate problems with police or court practices, but instead reflect a pervasive lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among ‘certain segments’ of the community. Our investigation has found that the practices about which area residents have complained are in fact unconstitutional and unduly harsh. But the City’s personal-responsibility refrain is telling: it reflects many of the same racial stereotypes found in the emails between police and court supervisors. This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Talk about conclusory, unsubstantiated allegations! And the ubiquitous, “at least in part.”

Of course, even if we can’t expect the media to report on complex issues of causation, we might hope that it discusses solutions. And the only obvious solution is that the system must be jury-rigged so that 13% of all school suspensions, nationwide, go to blacks, 17% go to Hispanics, and the remaining 70% go to others.  But I’m not sure that is the color-blind society that MLK dreamed of.

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