Public Opinion, Prison, and Politics – Black Crime Matters

September 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives have finally begun to emerge from their nearly fifty-year long infatuation with draconian prison sentences as the solution to the problems of crime and, especially, drugs. It’s as though America has just discovered that that property in Glengarry Glen Ross we’ve been making huge payments on all these years is mostly an undeveloped marsh. How did this happen?  Who were those persuasive salesman, the ones who lived by the ABC slogan, “Always be convicting”? And why did we believe them?

The standard answer from the left has been: racists and racism. Starting in the 60s, politicians used “crime” as a code word for “race.” After all, you couldn’t say that you were against Black people, but you could say that you were against crime and for “law and order.” The strategy worked but not just because of American racism but because of the riots and the rise in crime in Black urban areas, then called “the ghetto,” now “the hood.”  In the leftish view, the new laws – everything from mandatory sentences for a first offense to life-sentences for a third conviction – were basically good old American White-on-Black oppression. Whites were comfortable knowing that most of the people being sentence to long terms and occasionally death would be Black. Mass incarceration, in the title of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.”

New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973, were some of the first and harshest versions of the new look in criminal justice. Many other states took inspiration, and in the 1980s the Reagan administration’s launched federal war on drugs * – all with a predictable boom in prison populations. The increase was sharper for Black males. (Data from Pew here .)

But in Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, Michael Javen Fortner challenges the idea that the drug laws, and punitive policies in general, were a White regime foisted on Blacks. Black leaders in New York City – and the Black people they led – were, Fortner argues, a major force pushing for harsher laws.

The book is political history – how laws got made forty years ago. But it’s also relevant for the debate over the very recently arrived Black Lives Matter. Conservatives, in their reaction against Black Lives matter, often like to bring up the inconvenient fact of Black-on-Black crime. Here, for example, is Sean Hannity on Fox last month:

Don't we have to address the black on black crime numbers that, it's not cops. It's not white people. There are racists, everybody knows that, but the majority of deaths of young black males are coming from other young black males.

Fortner too argues that trying to explain criminal justice policy while ignoring crime
is like explaining Advil profits without mentioning headaches. In the 1970s, the highest rates of street crime were in urban Black neighborhoods. That’s still true, though those rates have decreased considerably in the last 25years. 

In 1982, noted penologist Richard Pryor offered his observations on the proportions of Blacks in the general population and in prison. He also speculated that the disparity in these proportions was related to crime and the desire of Black people like himself to be safer. (It’s Richard Pryor. Do I really need to put a trigger warning here about language, sex, and violence?)


But are Blacks really more punitive than Whites? Fortner has a lot of anecdotal evidence – editorials in Black newspapers saying things like,“I’m in favor of burning them alive.” I haven’t read the book (the release date was only two days ago), but according to the review by Marc Parry in The Chronicle , Fortner “cites a 1973 New York Times poll that found 71 percent of blacks supported life sentences without parole for drug dealers.”  I could not find that poll, but I did find a national Gallup poll from 1973 on the same question. Whites supported the drug laws 68-28%. Black support was less strong – 58-36%.

Other surveys too have found Blacks less punitive than Whites.  They have always been less supportive of the death penalty; except for the high-crime years of roughly 1985-2000, a majority have opposed capital punishment. As for other sentences, look at the GSS item “Courts”: “In general, do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?”

Some obvious points:
  • Attitudes about punishment have softened in the last 25 years, probably because of the great decrease in crime.
  • Blacks have always been less punitive than Whites.
  • In periods of high crime, Blacks were strongly in favor of harsher punishments. Even today among Blacks, those favoring harsher punishment are in the majority.

But what about the other option on this question?

While the White-Black gap on “Not Harshly Enough” has been consistent at about ten percentage points, in recent years far more Blacks have come to see sentences as too harsh. While Whites still favor harsher courts by nearly 8-to-1, among Blacks the ratio is only 2½-to-1. 

Perhaps these general attitudes help explain the differences over Black Lives Matter. The movement arose in response to several well-publicized killings of unarmed Black men by police. But even before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and others, a significant minority of Blacks in the US had come to feel that the punitive tactics of the criminal justice system were not making them safer and needed to be reversed.

Back to the Future

September 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Opponents of government aid to the poor often argue that the poor are not really poor. The evidence they are fond of is often an inappropriate comparison, usually with people in other countries: “Thus we can say that by global standards there are no poor people in the US at all: the entire country is at least middle class or better. ” (Tim Worstall in Forbes).  Sometimes the comparison is with earlier times: “‘Poor’ Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average U.S. citizen throughout much of the 20th Century.” (Robert Rector at Heritage. The quote is from 1990, but I doubt that Heritage has changed its tune.) 

I parodied this approach in a post a few years ago (here) by using the ridiculous argument that poor people in the US are not really poor and are in fact “better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.” I mean, I thought the toilet argument was ridiculous. But sure enough, Richard Rahn of the Cato Institute used it in an article in the Washington Times, complete with a 17th century portrait of the king.

Common Folk Live Better Now than
Royalty Did in Earlier Times

Louis XIV lived in constant fear of dying from smallpox and many other diseases that are now cured quickly by antibiotics. His palace at Versailles had 700 rooms but no bathrooms. . .

Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg  has an ingenious way of showing how meaningless this line of thinking is. He compares today not with centuries past but with centuries to come. Consider our hedge-fund billionaires, with private jets whisking them to their several mansions in different states and countries. Are they well off?  Not at all.They are worse off than the poor of 2215.

Think about what the poor will enjoy a few centuries from now that even the 0.01 percent lack today. . . . “Imagine, they died of cancer and heart disease, had to birth their own babies, and even drove their own cars. How primitive can you get!”

Comparisons with times past or future tell us about progress. They can’t tell us who’s poor today. What makes people rich or poor is what they can buy compared with other people in their own society.  To extrapolate a line from Mel Brooks’s Louis XVI, “It’s good to be the king . . . even if flush toilets haven’t been invented yet.”

And you needn’t sweep your gaze to distant centuries to find inappropriate comparisons. When Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” goes from the 80s back to the 50s, he feels pretty cool, even though the only great advances he has over kids there seem to be skateboards, Stratocasters, and designer underpants. How would he have felt if in 1985 he could have looked forward thirty years to see the Internet, laptops, and smartphones?

Do people below the poverty line today feel well off  just because they have indoor plumbing or color TVs or Internet connections? Hardly. In the same way,  our 1% do not feel poor even though they lack consumer goods that people a few decades from now will take for granted. 

That Thing Thing Again

September 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing . . . [I] overhear from somewhere, ‘Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh’.” That was part of a rant posted in 2011 on YouTube by a UCLA student complaining about Asian students using their cell phones in the library when she was trying to study. The video went viral, and the PC police swarmed in with justifiable accusations of racism. She soon deleted the video.

My comment (here) was not so much about racism as about a single word –  “thing.”  Turning “the tsunami” into “the tsunami thing” says in effect, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.” Even The Language Log took note.

So I couldn’t help but notice this headline in today’s New York Times.

The story is about public relations agents whose efforts to get their clients’ events widely noticed these past two days were swamped under the flood of Pope coverage in the media.

But spare a thought for that handful of souls for whom the papal visit on Friday was less pleasure than plight. We speak of those who toil in public relations, and struggled to have their entreaties heard on this holiest of busy news days.

These are their lamentations.

Consider the 11 a.m. announcement of a new dog park in Astoria, Queens, a $1 million project sure to delight local canines and their owners, but less able to compete for headlines alongside Francis’ visit to the National September 11 Memorial, which was scheduled for roughly the same hour.

“It didn’t really cross my mind until yesterday how many reporters were going to be covering this pope thing,” said Shachar Sharon, communications director for Councilman Costa Constantinides, who hosted the event. [emphasis added]

“That kind of put a damper on things,” she added.

Adding “thing” to a noun insults those who take that thing seriously. You’d think that a public relations specialist would show some tact. But Ms. Sharon probably didn’t think that her choice of phrases would get into the newspaper. After all, she was merely talking to a reporter, not doing the PR thing.

Evidence vs. Bullshit – Mobster Edition

September 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maria Konnikova is a regular guest on Mike Pesca’s pocast “The Gist.”  Her segment is called “Is That Bullshit.” She addresses pressing topics like
  • Compression sleeves – is that bullshit?
  • Are there different kinds of female orgasm?
  • Are artificial sweeteners bad for your health?
  • Does anger management work?
We can imagine of all kinds of reasons why compression sleeves might work or why diet soda might be unhealthful, but if you want to know if it’s bullshit, you need good evidence. Which is what Konnikova researches and reports on.

Good evidence is also the gist of my class early in the semester. I ask students whether more deaths are caused each year by fires or by drownings. Then I ask them why they chose their answer. They come up with good reasons. Fires can happen anywhere – we spend most of our time in buildings, not so much on water. Fires happen all year round; drownings are mostly in the summer. A fire may kill many people, but group drownings are rare. The news reports a lot about fires, rarely about drownings. And so on.

The point is that for a good answer to the question, you need more than just persuasive reasoning. You need someone to count up the dead bodies. You need the relevant evidence.

“Why Do We Admire Mobsters?” asks Maria Konnikova recently in the New Yorker (here).  She has some answers:
  • Prohibition: “Because Prohibition was hugely unpopular, the men who stood up to it [i.e., mobsters] were heralded as heroes, not criminals.” Even after Repeal, “that initial positive image stuck.”
  • In-group/ out-group: For Americans, Italian (and Irish) mobsters are “similar enough for sympathy, yet different enough for a false sense of safety. . .  Members of the Chinese and Russian mob have been hard to romanticize.”
  • Distance: “Ultimately the mob myth depends on psychological distance. . .  As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften. . . . Psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything.”
  • Ideals: “We enjoy contemplating the general principles by which they are supposed to have lived: omertà, standing up to unfair authority, protecting your own.”
These are plausible reasons, but are they bullshit? Konnikova offers no systematic evidence for anything she says. Do we really admire mobsters? We don’t know. Besides it would be better to ask: how many of us admire them, and to what degree? Either way, I doubt that we have good survey data on approval ratings for John Gotti. All we know is that mobster movies often sell a lot of tickets. Yet the relation between our actual lives (admiration, desires, behavior) and what we like to watch on screen is fuzzy and inconsistent.

It’s fun to speculate about movies and mobsters,* but without evidence all we have is at best speculation, at worst bullshit.

In a message to me, Maria Konnikova says that there is evidence, including surveys, but that the New Yorker edited that material out of the final version of her article.

* Nine years ago, in what is still one of my favorite posts on this blog, I speculated on the appeal of mafia movies (here). I had the good sense to acknowledge that I was speculating and to point out that our preferences in fantasyland had a complicated relation to our preferences in real life.

Another Year. That Makes Nine.

September 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The anniversary for this blog comes roughly at the same time as the Jewish New Year – bit daunting, nine compared with 5776. Atonement for the blog’s shortcomings will have to wait till Yom Kippur next week.  For now, I’ll toot my own shofar for a few posts that for one reason or another I liked.
Don Draper and the Pursuit of Loneliness. The Pursuit of Loneliness (1970) by Philip Slater was one of the best books inspired by America in the 1960s. “Mad Men” was one of the best TV shows inspired by America in the 1960s.

Shootings and Elephants(The post has nothing to do with Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant.”) My point is the obvious one – if you want school shootings to be more common, make it easier for schoolkids to get guns. I posted it only because so many people seem to be ignoring the obvious.

Poverty, Perceptions, and Politics  Another seemingly obvious idea – the more socially distant people are from the poor, the less compassion they will have for the poor. Yet some people were surprised by the evidence.
Chris Christie and Subjective – Very Subjective – Social Class If Chris Christie’s perception of himself is “middle class,” perhaps sociologists need to revise the ways that they define and measure social class.
Higher Ed as Cheerios One ill-chosen picture for a college catalogue cover reveals assumptions about race and gender but also about the basic purpose of a university education. Does anyone remember those old classic Cheerios ads? Does anyone remember those old classic ideas about education?

Cartwheeling to Conclusions

September 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

This post was going to be about kids – what the heck is wrong with these kids today – their narcissism and sense of entitlement and how that’s all because their wealthy parents and schools are so overprotective and doting. giving them trophies for merely showing up and telling them they’re so great all the time.

I’m skeptical about that view – both its accuracy and its underlying values (as I said in this post about “Frances Ha”). But yesterday in Central Park there was this young dad with a $7500 camera.

I was reminded of something from a photo class I once took at Montclair. We were talking about cameras – this was decades ago, long before digital -  and the instructor Klaus Schnitzer said dismissively: “Most Hasselblads are bought by doctors who take snapshots of their kids on weekends.”

Now here was this guy with his very expensive camera taking videos of his 9-year old daughter doing cartwheels. And not just filming her. He interviewed her, for godssake - asked her a couple of questions as she was standing there (notice the mike attached to the camera) as though she were some great gymnast. This is going to be one narcissistic kid, I thought, if she wasn’t already. I imagined her parents in a few years giving her one of those $50,000 bat mitzvahs – a big stage show with her as the star. My Super Sweet Thirteen.

Maybe it was also because the dad reminded me of the Rick Moranis character in the movie “Parenthood,” the father who is over-invested in the idea of his daughter’s being brilliant. 

(The guy looked a little like Moranis. I’ve blurred his face in the photos here, but trust me on this one. My wife thought so too.)

But here’s where the story takes a sharp turn away from the millennials cliches. My wife, who had been a working photographer, went over to ask him about his camera. It turns out that he works for “20/20,” and ABC had asked him to try out this Canon C-100. It was ABC’s camera not his, and as much as he was indulging his daughter, she was indulging him – agreeing to do the cartwheels and mock interview for purposes of his work.

OK, it wasn’t exactly the second-generation kid working in her immigrant parents’ vegetable store, but it wasn’t the narcissism-generating scenario that I had imagined. 

The point is that my wife was a much better social psychologist than I was. If you want to find out what people are doing, don’t just look at them from a distance or number-crunch their responses on survey items. Talk with them.

Pigskin Preview (i.e., Football Cliches)

September 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about the University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title - “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months. 

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league. . . .

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

“We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.”