This month, the author and neuroscientist Sam Harris engaged in a discussion (in podcast format) about U.S. race relations with Glenn Loury, a social scientist and economist at Brown University. In light of this year’s police shootings of black men and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this discussion was well timed indeed.
Curiously, this discussion is also, amidst the prolific quantities of political, media, and academic interjections on the matter, the only discussion that I have thus far come upon that analyzes all the relevant issues in a rational and dispassionate manner. Oh, and real statistics (those boring, snooze-inducing afterthoughts) are actually cited.
For those who are unaware, Black Lives Matter initially began in 2014 as a response to fatal police shootings of black victims who were perceived to be innocent and therefore unlawfully killed.
The conclusion drawn from these police shootings? Well, that American police departments, and by extension, America in general, is rife with racism, particularly against blacks.
The movement eventually evolved into a larger discussion about race relations in the United States. Why are blacks enduring far greater socioeconomic hardship than are other races? Why are black men disproportionately filling prisons? Why are black communities across America rife with crime?
The answer, according to Black Lives Matter, is, quite plainly: racism against blacks.
Indeed, according to the eminent author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a figurehead of the BLM movement, there is nothing more American than to keep the black man down, to suppress him, and to deny him any opportunity in the world. Oh, and to kill him at any opportunity that arises. Coates, along with BLM, would argue that this desperation within the black community is what has led to tremendous poverty, violence, and all the rest of it.
Glenn Loury, who identifies as a “right-leaning Democrat,” and Harris, who identifies as a “liberal” certainly don’t seem to agree with the premises of the Black Lives Matter movement, though.
Firstly, a look at the facts, according to Harris:
“At its peak … in a city like Los Angeles, the homicide rate for black men in their early 20s was 368 per 100,000 per year. Now that is 100x times higher than is normal in any civilized society that we would recognize. It is in fact more than that, it’s probably 200x times higher than most cities in Western Europe, and don’t even think about some places like Japan that, that’s completely off the map. And, and it’s a similar rate of death as that suffered by US soldiers deployed to Iraq at the height of the war. So you have young black men who are literally living in a warzone and they’re killing one another. And again, the crime rate has fallen since but… the proportion in the black community remains as high. In fact it might actually be a little higher… The facts on the ground at the moment as I understand them are that black men comprise 6% of the population and they’re currently 40% of those who get murdered and again they die in the vast majority of cases at the hands of other black men, who commit over 50% of the murders in the country. So you have 6% of the population committing over 50% of the murders. Most of those murders are of other black men.”
To put it quite plainly, in Loury’s own words, “much of the threat coming to black bodies and black life is coming from other black people.”
An irate Loury goes on somewhat of a tirade against the conventional wisdom on the subject:
“You’re telling me that people have to run up and down the streets firing guns out their windows killing their brethren because [they] didn’t get reparations for slavery handed over to [them] yet? Because somebody who was mayor of the city ten years ago happened to be a racist?”
“You’re telling me that that explains or somehow excuses or cancels out the moral judgement that I would otherwise bring to bear? … You’re beneath contempt to think in that way! You’re the one who has no real respect for the value of black life! You live in a bubble! Why don’t you get out of it and walk the streets of some of these places where people die?”
Now, the central point that both these individuals wish to make is that racism alone cannot account for the staggeringly high amount of crime committed by young black men today. Something else surely must be going on.
Is racism against black people still extant today? Sure. And neither Harris nor Loury would argue against that. But can racism alone be the primary reason for why so much crime plagues black communities across America today? Surely not.
As Harris rightly points out, the theory central to BLM is that, “in 2016 the ambient level of white racism is the ongoing cause of these problems, and if you could just get white people to be less racist… that would magically correct for all of the problems [Loury] just articulated.”
For in order to believe that it is racism alone that is causing the incredible amount of strife in the black community today, according to Loury, one must necessarily believe that, “blacks are merely historical chips driven by the facts of slavery and segregation, and ultimately not responsible for owning [their] children’s lives.”
This is, “nonsense that attempts to intellectualize what any honest person can see is an absolute disaster. You’re blaming white people for black people living like barbarians? You’re blaming white people for that?” asks Loury.
On the specific issue of police violence, Harris does an exceptional job of shattering the BLM (and now mainstream) narrative about the topic (emphasis my own):
“A few basic facts here… 4% of blacks who die by homicide are killed by cops. So 96% are not killed by cops. Not to mention the fact that some of those 4% are probably legitimate shootings by cops. Again, virtually all of them are killed by other black men. There’s not a lot of white men killing black men. And there’s not a lot of black men killing white men although there are more in that direction. But most violence is intra-racial and incidentally, 12% of whites and Hispanics who die by homicide are killed by cops. So… three times the rate are killed by cops in terms of those who die by another person’s hand.”
“Here are just a few more facts as I understand them. A thousand people are killed each year in the US by cops, more or less. And around 50% of these fatalities are white, and about 25% are black. Now, that’s double what you’d expect from the demographics, because as you said 12-13% of the population are black but they commit, again, 50% of all violent crime at least. In some cities it’s as much as two-thirds of all violent crime. So, my question for you and for my listeners to ponder … is what percentage of fatal encounters with cops would make sense?”
Good question, Sam!
Many other interesting points are raised, including an analysis of the Fryer study, which attempts to analyze the use of police force against individuals depending on their race.
However, we simply do not have enough data to know what is really going on regarding police shootings, according to Loury:
“We have a thousand people killed [by police officers every year] and we have a dozen [videos]. Let’s make it 50. Let’s suppose we have 50 videos. We have a thousand people killed. So what we’ve got are crumbs… We’ve got sensationalized cases. Perhaps they’re cherry picked. Perhaps they’re not representative. Perhaps the most egregious cases are the only ones that come to our attention. Should we have a national narrative leading to a movement [Black Lives matter], leading to large demonstrations in dozens of cities across the country leading in some instances to violent retaliatory actions [eg the Dallas shooting of five police officers; the Baton Rouge shooting of three police officers]… driven by anecdotes and untethered from any rigorous and systematic investigation…?”
Loury, who is fuming for large parts of the discussion, poses on theory as to why BLM has captured the imagination of large numbers of people (black and non-black) across the country:
“The body count continues to mount while [the BLM] blather titillates the cultural elites in Washington DC and New York City and gives guilty white people an excuse not to feel so guilty. While you blather on we’re actually burying the dead.”
Harris warns us that more caution must be exercised regarding the BLM narrative:
“I worry that Black Lives Matter, if it got all the attention that it wants, it could set race relations back in this country a generation.”
This, incidentally, is precisely the concern of yours truly. Here’s to hoping that reason will prevail. But as is the case whenever I urge others to exercise reason, I am, sadly, not optimistic.