There was violence and unrest following the news that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Some argued that this was proof that the people involved were bad people. Jay Smooth responds with a question: “How much do you think people can take?”
Here is a partial transcript of his 5min discussion, embedded below:
Riots are things that human beings do because human beings have limits.
We don’t all have the same limits. For some of us, our human limit is when our favorite team loses a game. For some of us, it’s when our favorite team wins a game.
The people of Ferguson had a different limit than that. For the people of Ferguson, a lifetime of neglect and defacto segregation and incompetence and mistreatment by every level of government was not their limit.
When that malign neglect set the stage for one of their children to be shot down and left in the street like a piece of trash… that was not their limit.
For the people of Ferguson, spending one hundred days almost entirely peacefully protesting for some measure of justice for that child and having their desire for justice treated like a joke by every local authority… was not their limit.
And then after those 100 days, when the so-called prosecutor waited till the dead of night to twist that knife one last time. When he came out and confirmed once and for all that Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter…
Only then did the people of Ferguson reach their limit.
So when you look at what happened Monday night, the question you should be asking is how did these human beings last that long before they reached their human limit? How do black people in America retain such a deep well of humanity that they can be pushed so far again and again without reaching their human limit?
Riots? Violence? Unrest?
That is what happens when you treat human beings that way.
When Julia Pierson’s name first appeared in national headlines last year, it must have sounded like a perfect solution. President Obama appointed Pierson as the nation’s first female Director of the Secret Service following the aftermath of an embarrassing scandal in which several agents hired prostitutes on a presidential trip to Columbia. Many saw Pierson as uniquely positioned to purge the organization of its hyper-masculine culture and revive its good name.
After an intruder succeeded in running across the lawn and into the East Room of the White House, however, a firestorm of criticism prompted Pierson’s resignation. Writing in the New Republic, Bryce Covert suggests that the very gendered conditions of Pierson’s hire preconfigured her administration’s failure from the start. Such is the unfortunate case, he argues, for a large number of women in leadership roles:
As with Pierson, women are often put in these positions because rough patches make people think they need to shake things up and try something new—like putting a woman in charge. When it’s smooth sailing, on the other hand, men get to maintain control of the steering wheel. Women are also thought to have qualities associated with cleaning up messes.
You’re familiar with that unseen barrier to power called the “glass ceiling”? Covert cites research by psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam to show that female leaders often reach top jobs that come with an inordinately high risk of failure. Social scientists call this precarious position the “glass cliff”.
Covert builds his case on a wealth of research exploring the risks that await women at the top of the corporate world:
Multiple studies have found that women are most likely to be given a chance at top roles in the corporate world when things are already bad. One found that before a woman took over as CEO of a Fortune 500 company between 1996 and 2010, its previous performance was significantly negative. Another found that FTSE 100 companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have had five months of consistently bad performance compared to those who picked men. Another found that companies were most likely to choose women for their boards after a loss that signaled the company was underperforming. Even in a lab, students and business leaders are more likely to pick a woman to lead a hypothetical organization when performance is on the decline.
Matt Gunther is a new contributor to The Society Pages, where he co-edits and produces the Office Hours podcast. He’s a second year graduate student studying sociology at the University of Minnesota. His research deals mainly with cultural politics in the global food system.
Compared to other democracies, the U.S. has a strange penchant for passing laws that suppress voting instead of encourage it. We are one of the few democracies, for example, that requires people to register to vote. Most elsewhere, writes Eric Black for the Minnesota Post:
[G]overnments know the names, ages and addresses of most of its citizens and… provide the appropriate polling place with a list of those qualified to vote. The voter just has to show up.
We also hold elections on just one day instead of several and that day is an otherwise normal Tuesday instead of a weekend or a holiday.
A majority of these efforts to reduce voting are initiated by the political right, as a generic search for such stories quickly reveals. They are aimed specifically at likely democratic voters, like racial minorities and students, adding up to what political scientist David Schultz argues is the Second Great Disenfranchisement in U.S. history after Jim Crow.
Many of these measures are overtly discriminatory and even illegal, but others are more subtle. Making voting more costly in terms of time might be one subtle way of discouraging voting by some types of people. Data collected by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study in 2012 suggests that this is, indeed, part of voter suppression, by incompetence or design.
Here is some of their data, as organized by Mother Jones. Nationwide, the average wait time to vote was longer for all non-white groups, especially blacks:
Florida had the longest delays in 2012 and these delays disproportionately affected Latinos:
In South Carolina, the 10 precincts with the longest wait times were all in one disproportionately African American county:
Wait times are partly the result of the number of voting machines divided by the number of registered voters. The long wait times in South Carolina, in other words, were not random. Those 10 precincts in the highly African American county had about half as many voting machines per person as the statewide average:
They also had significantly fewer poll workers available to help out:
Voter suppression seriously harms our right to call ourselves a democracy. Notably, it’s significantly worse today. When the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that required oversight of states with a history of voting discrimination, the ability of the federal government to ensure equal voting rights was seriously damaged. Previously monitored states immediately began passing legislation designed to suppress voting. As I wrote previously:
This is bad. It will be much more difficult to undo discriminatory laws than it was to prevent them from being implemented and, even if they are challenged and overturned, they will do damage in the meantime.
In 2013, after years of trying to reform the institution from the inside, faculty and students at my college submitted two complaints to the federal government. The combined 330 pages allege sexual harassment, assault, and battery on campus and argue that the college has ignored and silenced victims, mishandled adjudication and, at times, protected men found responsible for assault. We are now under federal investigation.
Forcibly revealing Occidental College’s failings hasn’t been fun for anyone, but it has changed us. It is now easier to report assaults, we are likely more vigilant about recording those reports, and students have more knowledge about their rights. Here is what happened:
At The Occidental Weekly, Noel Hemphill writes that reports of sexual offenses have skyrocketed. They rose from 12 in 2011 to 64 in 2013. Over half of the cases reported were of incidents that occurred in previous years. That’s normal — victims often take a year or more to decide to come forward — but may also reflect a new desire by survivors to have their experience recorded in official statistics.
These numbers are disturbing, but it is unlikely that they reflect a rise in sexual offenses. Instead, they suggest that survivors of assault are feeling more empowered, have greater faith in their institution, and are pushing for recognition and change.
I don’t yet have a copy of Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Based on his Pulitzer-prize winning reporting for the New York Times, however, I’m afraid it’s unlikely to do justice to the complexity of the relationship between mobile phones and motor vehicle accidents. Worse, I fear it distracts attention from the most important cause of traffic fatalities: driving.
A bad sign
The other day Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teens than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.
In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book:
In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or someone they got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsdaynumber of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cellphone effects).
After I contacted him to complain about that 11-teens-per-day statistic, Richtel pointed out that the page I linked to is run by his publisher, not him, and that he had asked them to “deal with that stat.” I now see that the page includes a footnote that says, “Statistic taken from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Fatality Facts.” I don’t think that’s true, however, since the “Fatality Facts” page for teenagers still shows 2,228 teens (passengers and drivers) killed in 2012. Richtel added in his email to me:
As I’ve written in previous writings, the cell phone industry also takes your position that fatality rates have fallen. It’s a fair question. Many safety advocates point to air bags, anti-lock brakes and wider roads — billions spent on safety — driving down accident rates (although accidents per miles driven is more complex). These advocates say that accidents would’ve fallen far faster without mobile phones and texting. And they point out that rates have fallen far faster in other countries (deaths per 100,000 drivers) that have tougher laws. In fact, the U.S. rates, they say, have fallen less far than most other countries. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this. I think it’s a worthy issue for conversation.
I appreciate his response. Now I’ll read the book before complaining about him any more.
The shocking truth
I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.
That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on makeup; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)
Beyond the general complaint about misleading people and abusing our ignorance, however, the texting scare distracts us (I know, it’s ironic) from the giant problem staring us in the face: our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).
What does predict deaths? Driving. This isn’t a joke. Sometimes the obvious answer is obvious because it’s the answer:
If you’re interested, I also put both of these variables in a regression, along with age and sex composition of the states, and the percentage of employed people who drive to work. Only the miles and drive-to-work rates were correlated with vehicle deaths. Mobile phone subscriptions had no effect at all.
Failing to find a demographic predictor that accounts for any of the variation after that explained by miles driven, I tried one more thing. I calculated each state’s deviation from the line predicted by miles driven (for example Alaska, where they only drive 6.3 thousand miles per person, is predicted to have 4.5 deaths per 100,000 but they actually have 8.1, putting that state 3.6 points above the line). Taking those numbers and pouring them into the Google correlate tool, I asked what people in those states with higher-than-expected death rates are searching for. And the leading answer is large, American pickup trucks. Among the 100 searches most correlated with this variable, 10 were about Chevy, Dodge, or Ford pickup trucks, like “2008 chevy colorado” (r = .68), shown here:
I could think of several reasons why places where people are into pickup trucks have more than their predicted share of fatal accidents.
So, to sum up: texting while driving is dangerous and getting more common as driving is getting safer, but driving still kills thousands of Americans every year, making it the umbrella social problem under which texting may be one contributing factor.
I used this analogy before, and the parallel isn’t perfect, but the texting panic reminds me of the 1970s “Crying Indian” ad I used to see when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. The ad famously pivoted from industrial pollution to littering in the climactic final seconds:
Conclusion: Keep your eye on the ball.
Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section. So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.
These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium.
This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet, and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000. Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?
Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent. And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.
This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday). The violence resides not in the players but in the game. On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).
But let’s not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well. First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers. The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns.
Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster. For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)
The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen.
This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals. Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.
As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected. Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players – the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play. Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison. Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.
Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. That can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.
If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.
According to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute, the percent of American who say that the criminal justice system treats black people unfairly rose by 9 percentage points in just one year. In fact, every category of person polled was more likely to think so in 2014 than in 2013, including Republicans, people over 65, and whites.
The biggest jump was among young people 18-29, 63% of whom believed the criminal justice system was unfair in 2014, compared to 42% in 2016. The smallest jump was among Democrats — just 3 percentage points — but they mostly thought the system was jacked to begin with.
America has a history of making changes once police violence is caught on tape and shared widely. One of the first instances was after police attacked peaceful Civil Rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. The television had just become a ubiquitous appliance and the disturbing images of brutality were hard to ignore when they flashed across living rooms.
The death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the aftermath is the likely candidate for this change. If you do a quick Google Image search for the word “ferguson,” the dominant visual story of that conflict seems solidly on the side of the protesters, not the police.
Click to see these images larger and judge for yourself:
Ray Rice’s violent assault of Janay Palmer has placed a spotlight on the criminal records of professional football players more generally. It is tempting to presume that men who spend their lives perfecting the use of violence are more violent in their day-to-day lives, but we don’t have to speculate. We have some data.
USA Today maintains a database of charges, citations, and arrests of NFL players since 2000 (ones they found out about, in any case). According to their records, 2.53% of players are arrested in any given year. This is lower than the national average for men of the same age. And, despite the publicity, this year looks like it will be the least criminal on record.
Domestic violence is the third most common charge or cite, following closely behind another violent crime, assault and battery. But by far the most common trouble NFL players face is being charged with a DUI.
Interestingly, not all teams have similar rates of arrests, charges, or cites. These data below reflect 15 years of data, showing the wide disparity among teams. The number of run-ins with police tend to correlate well year-to-year, so this chart represents a stable trend.
Neil Irwin, writing at the New York Times, says that varying levels of criminal activity may be related to club culture (that is, some franchise’s may be better at suppressing or inciting criminal activity than others) or it may be influenced by the cities they play for (e.g., there won’t be as many DUIs in cities like New York City where there’s substantially less driving). Both are great sociological explanations for the variation between teams and consistency across seasons.