Tag Archives: death

Who Would You Shoot?

In 2002, a study by Joshua Correll and colleagues, called The Police Officer’s Dilemma, was published. In the study, researchers reported that they presented photos of black and white men holding either a gun or a non-threatening object (like a wallet) in a video game style setting.  Participants were asked to make a rapid decision to “shoot” or “don’t shoot” each of the men based on whether the target was armed.

They found that people hesitated longer to shoot an armed white target (and they were more likely to accidentally not shoot). Participants were quicker and more accurate with black armed targets but there were more “false alarms” (shooting them when they were unarmed). These effects were present even though participants did not hold any explicit discriminatory views and wanted to treat all targets fairly.

The effect we see here is a subconscious but measurable preference to give white men the benefit of the doubt in these ambiguous situations. Decision times can vary by a fraction of a second, but that fraction can mean life or death for the person on the other end of the gun.

A terrible reminder of this bias was brought back into the headlines on March 2nd when a black student in Gainesville Florida was shot in the face with a rifle by a police officer. The conditions surrounding the shooting are murky, as the police are extremely hesitant to release details.

It appears that Kofi Adu-Brempong, an international graduate student and teacher’s assistant, was in a stress-induced panic and was worried about his student visa. On the day of the incident, his neighbors heard yelling in his apartment and called the police. It has been suggested that he may have suffered from some mental health problems that related to his panics (although this is not known for sure) and that he had resisted police in the past.

Even so, when the police arrived they broke down his door, citing that they did not know if there was someone else in danger inside the apartment. Adu refused to cooperate and the situation escalated to the point where police tried to subdue him with a tazer and a bean-bag gun. Then a policeman shot him. Adu is now in the hospital in critical condition and has sustained serious damages to his tongue and lower jaw. The police claimed that Adu was wielding a lead pipe and a knife and started violently threatening them with the weapons.

In fact, there was no lead pipe and there was no knife in his hand. When the police approached Adu after he had been shot, the pipe showed itself to be a cane- a cane that Adu constantly used due to a case of childhood polio. And the knife they saw in his hand was actually sitting on the kitchen counter.

Instances like these are tragic reminders of the mistakes that can be made in split second decisions and how race can play into those decisions.

This post originally appeared in 2010. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.

Lauren McGuire is an assistant to a disability activist.  She’s just launched her own blog, The Fatal Foxtrot, that is focused on the awkward passage into adulthood.  

Race and the Life Expectancy of People with Down Syndrome

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Most of us familiar with Down‘s Syndrome know that it brings characteristic facial features and delayed or impaired cognitive development. People with Down, however, are also more vulnerable than the general population to diabetes, leukemia, and infectious and autoimmune disease, and about 40% are born with heart defects.

For most of history, then, the life expectancy of people with Down was very low.  But, with advances in knowledge and access to health care, life expectancy has risen dramatically… especially for white people:

The Centers for Disease Control explain that severity of Down does not vary by race, so most likely the cause of the gap in life expectancy is differences in the quantity and quality of health care.

Possibilities include differences in factors that may be associated with improved health in the general population such as socioeconomic status, education, community support, medical or surgical treatment of serious complications, or access to, use of, or quality of preventative health care.

This is just one striking example of the wide racial gap in health outcomes and access to care.  We see data with similar patterns most everywhere we look.  As examples, pre-term birthscancer diagnosis and treatment, and likelihood of living near a toxic release facility.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, via Family Inequality.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Does Abortion Cause Infanticide?

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Does “the abortion culture” cause infanticide?  That is, does legalizing the aborting of a fetus in the womb create a cultural, moral climate where people feel free to kill newborn babies?

It’s not a new argument.  I recall a 1998 Peggy Noonan op-ed in the Times, “Abortion’s Children,” arguing that kids who grew up in the abortion culture are “confused and morally dulled.”*  Earlier this week, USA Today ran an op-ed by Mark Rienzi repeating this argument in connection with the Gosnell murder conviction.

Rienzi argues that the problem is not one depraved doctor.  As the subhead says:

The killers are not who you think. They’re moms.

Worse, he warns, infanticide has skyrocketed.

While murder rates for almost every group in society have plummeted in recent decades, there’s one group where murder rates have doubled, according to CDC and National Center for Health Statistics data — babies less than a year old.

Really? The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports has a different picture.

1

Many of these victims were not newborns, and Rienzi is talking about day-of-birth homicides — the type killing Dr. Gosnell was convicted of, a substitute for abortion.  Most of these, as Rienzi says are committed not by doctors but by mothers.  I make the assumption that the method in most of these cases is smothering.  These deaths show an even steeper decline since 1998.

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Where did Rienzi get his data that rates had doubled?  By going back to 1950.

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The data on infanticide fit with his idea that legalizing abortion increased rates of infanticide.  The rate rises after Roe v. Wade (1973) and continues upward till 2000.

But that hardly settles the issue. Yes, as Rienzi says, “The law can be a potent moral teacher.”  But many other factors could have been affecting the increase in infanticide, factors much closer to actual event — the mother’s age, education, economic and family circumstances, blood lead levels, etc.

If Roe changed the culture, then that change should be reflected not just in the very small number of infanticides but in attitudes in the general population.  Unfortunately, the GSS did not ask about abortion till 1977, but since that year, attitudes on abortion have changed very little.   Nor does this measure of “abortion culture” have any relation to rates of infanticide.

4

Moreover, if there is a relation between infanticide and general attitudes about abortion, then we would expect to see higher rates of infanticide in areas where attitudes on abortion are more tolerant.

5

The South and Midwest are most strongly anti-abortion, the West Coast and Northeast the most liberal.  So, do these cultural difference affect rates of infanticide?

1

Well, yes, but it turns out the actual rates of infanticide are precisely the opposite of what the cultural explanation would predict.  The data instead support a different explanation of infanticide: Some state laws make it harder for a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  Under those conditions, more women will resort to infanticide.  By contrast, where abortion is safe, legal, and available, women will terminate unwanted pregnancies well before parturition.

The absolutist pro-lifers will dismiss the data by insisting that there is really no difference between abortion and infanticide and that infanticide is just a very late-term abortion. As Rienzi puts it:

As a society, we could agree that there really is little difference between killing a being inside and outside the womb.

In fact, very few Americans agree with this proposition. Instead, they do distinguish between a cluster of a few fertilized cells and a newborn baby. I know of no polls that ask about infanticide, but I would guess that a large majority would say that it is wrong under all circumstances.  But only perhaps 20% of the population thinks that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

Whether the acceptance of abortion in a society makes people “confused and morally dulled” depends on how you define and measure those concepts.  But the data do strongly suggest that whatever “the abortion culture” might be, it lowers the rate of infanticide rather than increasing it.

* I had trouble finding Noonan’s op-ed at the Times Website.  Fortunately, then-Rep. Talent (R-MO) entered it into the Congressional Record.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The U.S. #1 in Early Deaths

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released some damaging numbers this month: Americans ranks startlingly low in life expectancy, compared to 16 other similarly developed countries.  This is especially true for younger Americans. Indeed, among people 55 and under, we rank dead last.  Among those 50-80 years old, our life expectancy is 3rd or 2nd to last.

Sabrina Tavernise at the New York Times reports that the “major contributors” to low life expectancy among younger Americans are high rates of death from guns, car accidents, and drug overdoses.  We also have the highest rate of diabetes and the second-highest death rate from lung and heart disease.

Americans had “the lowest probability over all of surviving to the age of 50.”  The numbers for American men were slightly worse than those for women. Overall, life expectancy for men was 17 out of 17; women came in 16th.  Education and poverty made a difference too, as did the more generous social services provided by the other countries in the study.

What isn’t making a difference?  Apparently our incredible rate of health care spending.

Via Citings and Sightings.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Assault Deaths Within the United States

Cross-posted at Kieran Healy’s blog.

The chart in “America is a Violent Country” has been getting a lot of circulation. Time to follow up with some more data. As several commentators at CT noted, the death rate from assault in the U.S. is not uniform within the country. Unfortunately, state-level and county-level mortality data are not easily available for the time period covered by the previous post — though they do exist, going back to the 1940s. What I have to hand is a decade’s worth of US mortality data courtesy of CDC WONDERcovering 1999 to 2009. I extracted the assault deaths according to the same criteria the OECD uses (for the time period in question, ICD-10 codes X85-Y09 and Y87.1). The estimates are adjusted to the 2000 U.S. population, which isn’t identical to the standard OECD adjustment. But the basic comparability should be OK, for our purposes.

First, it’s well-known that there are strong regional differences in the assault death rate in the U.S. by state and region. Here’s what the patterns look like by state from 1999 to 2009 (click for a larger PNG or PDF):

This figure excludes the District of Columbia, which has a much higher death rate but is also a city. Also missing are a few states with small populations and low absolute numbers of assault deaths — Wyoming, North Dakota, Vermont — such that the CDC can’t generate reliable age-adjusted estimates for them. If you want a “small-multiple” view with each state shown separately from high to low, here you go.

The legend for the figure above arranges the states from high to low, reading top to bottom and left to right. Although it’s clear that geographical region isn’t everything, those tendencies are immediately apparent. Let’s look at them using the official census regions (click for a larger PNG or PDF):

As is well known, the South is more violent than the rest of the country, by some distance. Given the earlier post, the natural thing to do is to put these regional trends into the cross-national comparison and see — for the decade we have, anyway — how these large U.S. regions would fare if they were OECD countries. Again, bear in mind that the age-adjustment is not quite comparable (click for a larger PNG or PDF):

Despite their large differences, all of the U.S. regions have higher average rates of death from assault than any of the 24 OECD countries we looked at previously. The placid Northeast comes relatively close to the upper end of the most violent countries in our OECD group.

Finally, there’s the question of racial and ethic incidence of these deaths within the United States. Here are the decade’s trends broken out by the race of the victim, rather than by state or region (click for a larger PNG or PDF):

The story here is depressing. Blacks die from assault at more than three times the U.S. average, and between ten and twenty times OECD rates. In the 2000s the average rate of death from assault in the U.S. was about 5.7 per 100,000 but for whites it was 3.6 and for blacks it was over 20. Even 3.6 per 100,000 is still well above the OECD-24 average, which – if we exclude the U.S. – was about 1.1 deaths per 100,000 during the 2000s, with a maximum value of 2.9. An average value of 20 is just astronomical. And this is after a long period of decline in the death rate from assault.

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Kieran Healy is a professor of sociology in the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.  His research is primary concerned with the moral order of a market society. You can follow him on twitter and at his blog.

Public Opinion on Gun Control

Ezra Klein at Wonkblog has put together an impressive collection of statistics on guns and mass shootings, including this data on public opinion on gun control.

To begin, people seem generally less interested in owning guns.  The percent of households with guns has been steadily decreasing for decades:

But, perhaps counter-intuitively, support for gun control has waned:

We might expect a tragedy like this week’s shooting to raise the overall level of support for gun control, but it probably won’t.  Previous shootings have not had much of an impact on opinion:

Still, there is more support for some forms of gun control than others:

For what it’s worth, gun-related deaths are lower in states with stronger gun control.  Economist Richard Florida found “substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48)”:

It’s hard to know, however, whether this is correlation or causation.  Florida did not find correlations between gun deaths and other factors that we might expect to be correlated, including dense populations, high rates of stress, high numbers of immigrants, and mental illness.

Klein thinks that now is the time to talk about the role of gun control in preventing tragedies like the one in Newtown.  He suggests we go ahead and politicize the shooting, since silencing a discussion is just another form of politicization. He writes:

If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. “Too soon,” howl supporters of loose gun laws. But as others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.

I agree that now is a good time to talk about gun control. And, we should do it with as many facts as possible, no matter where they lead us.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Human Zoos at the Turn of the 20th Century

***TRIGGER WARNING for racism and enslavement***

During a dark period of world history, intellectuals pondered where to draw the line between human and animal.  They arrayed humans hierarchically, from the lightest to the darkest skin.  Believing that Africans were ape-like, they weren’t sure whether to include apes as human, or Africans as apes.

One artifact of this thinking was the “human zoo.”  Kidnapped from their homes at the end of the 19th century and into the next, hundreds of indigenous people were put on display for white Westerners to view.  “Often they were displayed in villages built in zoos specifically for the show,” according to a Spiegel Online sent in by Katrin, “but they were also made to perform on stage for the amusement of a paying public.”  Many died quickly, being exposed to diseases foreign to them.

This group of captives is from Sri Lanka (called  Ceylon at the time):

This photograph commemorates a show called “Les Indes,” featuring captives from India:

These captives are from Oromo in Ethiopia:

A German named Carl Hagenbeck was among the more famous men involved in human zoos.  He would go on expeditions in foreign countries and bring back both animals and people for European collections.  In his memoirs, he spoke of his involvement with pride, writing: “it was my privilege to be the first in the civilized world to present these shows of different races.”

The zoo in Hamburg still bears his name.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Assisted-Living Prison Cells? On Aging Prisoners

“Today,” Mother Jones‘s James Ridgeway reports, “roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prison inmates is 55 or older.”  Prisoners sentenced to life without parole will die in prison, so that means they’ll convalesce there too.  In other words, prisons are part nursing home.

Photographer Tim Gruber captured these images of “the golden years” in the Kentucky State Reformatory:

According to a report from the ACLU, the number of elderly prisoners is expected to skyrocket:


Imprisonment is already expensive, but aging patients cost twice what a younger prisoner costs.  Today, we spent $16 billion a year to house elderly prisoners,  Soon we’ll have to start renovating our prisons.

Unless states start releasing them, [former warden Bob] Hood says, we will need to “retrofit every prison in America to put assisted living-units in it, wheelchair accessibility, handicapped toilets, grab bars — the whole nine yards.”

Prisons increasingly feature assisted-living cells and hospice units.

Some argue for “compassionate release.”  After all, elderly prisoners have a very low recidivism rate.  But the ACLU cautions us to remember that release shouldn’t mean abdicating responsibility.  “For many elderly prisoners,” the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project explains, “particularly those with serious medical needs, simply pushing them out the prison door will be tantamount to a death sentence.”

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.