In 1967 (seven months before his assassination) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech to the American Psychological Association at their annual conference. According to APA, the text of his speech was reprinted in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 24, No. 1, 1968). While the speech was in galley proofs, the shocking and numbing news of his assassination was released.

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The text of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech (see in full below) is unfortunately still all too relevant, even 50 years later. Quotes that caught my attention in particular include, “White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. … All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions-the Negro himself.”* Too much of US society continues to see the social, political and economic disadvantages of blacks as their own fault rather than the result of systematic and structural racism. Of late, ‘blaming the victim’ emerged in the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown among many others (see my previous post: RACISM AND THE POLICE: The Shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson). A piece in the BBC by Stacey Patton and David Leonard points out this errant logic when applied to historical and more recent cases of black victims of police or vigilante violence:

  • Emmett Till should not have whistled at a white woman.
  • Amadou Diallo should not have reached for his wallet.
  • Trayvon Martin should not have been wearing a hoodie.
  • Jonathan Ferrell should not have run toward the police after getting into a car accident.
  • Renisha McBride should not have been drinking or knocked on a stranger’s door for help in the middle of the night.
  • Jordan Davis should not have been playing loud rap music.
  • Michael Brown should not have stolen cigarillos or allegedly assaulted a cop.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 2.38.11 PMLater in his speech, Dr. Martin Luther King states, “Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is.’ White America has an appalling lack of knowledge concerning the reality of Negro life.” Today, are we collectively doing enough to “tell it like it is”? Are we speaking to a wide enough audience? Do our students and the public that we engage still lack knowledge of the reality of persistent racial difference? Certainly. Should any student be able to graduate from college (or high school for that matter) without a thorough education of our society’s systems of race, gender, class, and sexuality? As academics we all have our areas of specialization, my doctoral training is not in race and ethnicity, but we can certainly find ways to address race and “tell it like it is” in at least one course we teach each semester.

Dr. Kings continues… “The decade of 1955 to 1965, with its constructive elements, misled us. Everyone, activists and social scientists, underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.” Maybe not among social scientists, but the media and most politicians seemed complacent and strong in their belief that our society was “post-racial”. The protests in Ferguson and subsequently across the nation seemed to catch many off guard wondering why the black community was so angry.

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“Our most urgent task is to find the tactics that will move the government no matter how determined it is to resist.” As the #blacklivesmatter movement makes an effort to revive and strengthen the ongoing civil rights movement, creative tactics must emerge that find powerful points of leverage in social and political institutions. A Republican majority House and Senate, especially with Trump in the Whitehouse, are likely to be “determined to resist.” The NYPD has already demonstrated that it is “determined to resist.” Moving entrenched social and political institutions will involve exploring new creative tactics; tactics that avoid ‘permitted’ and ‘police approved’ demonstrations that are confined to ‘free speech zones’. There have been some truly disruptive tactics emerge so far…several instances of blocking rush hour traffic, as well as widely broadcast “I can’t breathe” t-shirts on NBA players, and the collective sourcing of teaching materials with  #fergusonsyllabus among many others.

While I end with a final quote I encourage you to take the time to read the full text below. Fifty years later and much of what Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of, much of what he called for social scientists to do, still rings true and still should serve as a call to action, a call to do more.

“There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation.” 

– Teach well, it matters.


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The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King Jr.

It is always a very rich and rewarding experience when I can take a brief break from the day-to-day demands of our struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of good will all over the nation. It is particularly a great privilege to discuss these issues with members of the academic community, who are constantly writing about and dealing with the problems that we face and who have the tremendous responsibility of molding the minds of young men and women all over the country.

The Civil Rights Movement needs the help of social scientists.

In the preface to their book, ‘Applied Sociology’ (1965), S. M. Miller and Alvin Gouldner state: ‘It is the historic mission of the social sciences to enable mankind to take possession of society.’ It follows that for Negroes who substantially are excluded from society this science is needed even more desperately than for any other group in the population.

For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction. Negroes too are eager for a rendezvous with truth and discovery. We are aware that social scientists, unlike some of their colleagues in the physical sciences, have been spared the grim feelings of guilt that attended the invention of nuclear weapons of destruction. Social scientists, in the main, are fortunate to be able to extirpate evil, not to invent it.

If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need. White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions-the Negro himself.

White America is seeking to keep the walls of segregation substantially intact while the evolution of society and the Negro’s desperation is causing them to crumble. The white majority, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change, is resisting and producing chaos while complaining that if there were no chaos orderly change would come.

Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is.’ White America has an appalling lack of knowledge concerning the reality of Negro life. One reason some advances were made in the South during the past decade was the discovery by northern whites of the brutal facts of southern segregated life. It was the Negro who educated the nation by dramatizing the evils through nonviolent protest. The social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth. The Negro action movement with raw courage did it virtually alone. When the majority of the country could not live with the extremes of brutality they witnessed, political remedies were enacted and customs were altered.

These partial advances were, however, limited principally to the South and progress did not automatically spread throughout the nation. There was also little depth to the changes. White America stopped murder, but that is not the same thing as ordaining brotherhood; nor is the ending of lynch rule the same thing as inaugurating justice.

After some years of Negro-white unity and partial success, white America shifted gears and went into reverse. Negroes, alive with hope and enthusiasm, ran into sharply stiffened white resistance at all levels and bitter tensions broke out in sporadic episodes of violence. New lines of hostility were drawn and the era of good feeling disappeared.

The decade of 1955 to 1965, with its constructive elements, misled us. Everyone, activists and social scientists, underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.

Science should have been employed more fully to warn us that the Negro, after 350 years of handicaps, mired in an intricate network of contemporary barriers, could not be ushered into equality by tentative and superficial changes.

Mass nonviolent protests, a social invention of Negroes, were effective in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma in forcing national legislation which served to change Negro life sufficiently to curb explosions. But when changes were confined to the South alone, the North, in the absence of change, began to seethe.

The freedom movement did not adapt its tactics to the different and unique northern urban conditions. It failed to see that nonviolent marches in the South were forms of rebellion. When Negroes took over the streets and shops, southern society shook to its roots. Negroes could contain their rage when they found the means to force relatively radical changes in their environment.

In the North, on the other hand, street demonstrations were not even a mild expression of militancy. The turmoil of cities absorbs demonstrations as merely transitory drama which is ordinary in city life. Without a more effective tactic for upsetting the status quo, the power structure could maintain its intransigence and hostility. Into the vacuum of inaction, violence and riots flowed and a new period opened.

Urban riots.

Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.

A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’

The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.

Vietnam War.

There is another cause of riots that is too important to mention casually-the war in Vietnam. Here again, we are dealing with a controversial issue. But I am convinced that the war in Vietnam has played havoc with our domestic destinies. The bombs that fall in Vietnam explode at home. It does not take much to see what great damage this war has done to the image of our nation. It has left our country politically and morally isolated in the world, where our only friends happen to be puppet nations like Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea. The major allies in the world that have been with us in war and peace are not with us in this war. As a result we find ourselves socially and politically isolated.

The war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has seriously impaired the United Nations. It has exacerbated the hatreds between continents, and worse still, between races. It has frustrated our development at home by telling our underprivileged citizens that we place insatiable military demands above their most critical needs. It has greatly contributed to the forces of reaction in America, and strengthened the military-industrial complex, against which even President Eisenhower solemnly warned us. It has practically destroyed Vietnam, and left thousands of American and Vietnamese youth maimed and mutilated. And it has exposed the whole world to the risk of nuclear warfare.

As I looked at what this war was doing to our nation, and to the domestic situation and to the Civil Rights movement, I found it necessary to speak vigorously out against it. My speaking out against the war has not gone without criticisms. There are those who tell me that I should stick with civil rights, and stay in my place. I can only respond that I have fought too hard and long to end segregated public accommodations to segregate my own moral concerns. It is my deep conviction that justice is indivisible, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. For those who tell me I am hurting the Civil Rights movement, and ask, ‘Don’t you think that in order to be respected, and in order to regain support, you must stop talking against the war?’ I can only say that I am not a consensus leader. I do not seek to determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallop Poll to determine majority opinion. And it is again my deep conviction that ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus, but a molder of consensus. On some positions cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?!’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience must ask the question, ‘Is it right?!’ And there comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. But one must take it because it is right. And that is where I find myself today.

Moreover, I am convinced, even if war continues, that a genuine massive act of concern will do more to quell riots than the most massive deployment of troops.


The unemployment of Negro youth ranges up to 40 percent in some slums. The riots are almost entirely youth events-the age range of participants is from 13 to 25. What hypocrisy it is to talk of saving the new generation-to make it the generation of hope-while consigning it to unemployment and provoking it to violent alternatives.

When our nation was bankrupt in the thirties we created an agency to provide jobs to all at their existing level of skill. In our overwhelming affluence today what excuse is there for not setting up a national agency for full employment immediately?

The other program which would give reality to hope and opportunity would be the demolition of the slums to be replaced by decent housing built by residents of the ghettos.

These programs are not only eminently sound and vitally needed, but they have the support of an overwhelming majority of the nation-white and Negro. The Harris Poll on August 21, 1967, disclosed that an astounding 69 percent of the country support a works program to provide employment to all and an equally astonishing 65 percent approve a program to tear down the slums.

There is a program and there is heavy majority support for it. Yet, the administration and Congress tinker with trivial proposals to limit costs in an extravagant gamble with disaster.

The President has lamented that he cannot persuade Congress. He can, if the will is there, go to the people, mobilize the people’s support and thereby substantially increase his power to persuade Congress. Our most urgent task is to find the tactics that will move the government no matter how determined it is to resist.

Civil disobedience.

I believe we will have to find the militant middle between riots on the one hand and weak and timid supplication for justice on the other hand. That middle ground, I believe, is civil disobedience. It can be aggressive but nonviolent; it can dislocate but not destroy. The specific planning will take some study and analysis to avoid mistakes of the past when it was employed on too small a scale and sustained too briefly.

Civil disobedience can restore Negro-white unity. There have been some very important sane white voices even during the most desperate moments of the riots. One reason is that the urban crisis intersects the Negro crisis in the city. Many white decision-makers may care little about saving Negroes, but they must care about saving their cities. The vast majority of production is created in cities; most white Americans live in them. The suburbs to which they flee cannot exist detached from cities. Hence powerful white elements have goals that merge with ours.

Role for the social scientist.

Now there are many roles for social scientists in meeting these problems. Kenneth Clark has said that Negroes are moved by a suicide instinct in riots and Negroes know there is a tragic truth in this observation. Social scientists should also disclose the suicide instinct that governs the administration and Congress in their total failure to respond constructively.

What other areas are there for social scientists to assist the civil rights movement? There are many, but I would like to suggest three because they have an urgent quality.

Social science may be able to search out some answers to the problem of Negro leadership. E. Franklin Frazier, in his profound work, Black Bourgeoisie, laid painfully bare the tendency of the upwardly mobile Negro to separate from his community, divorce himself from responsibility to it, while failing to gain acceptance in the white community. There has been significant improvements from the days Frazier researched, but anyone knowledgeable about Negro life knows its middle class is not yet bearing its weight. Every riot has carried strong overtone of hostility of lower class Negroes toward the affluent Negro and vice versa. No contemporary study of scientific depth has totally studied this problem. Social science should be able to suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black unity and a sense of peoplehood while the process of integration proceeds.

As one example of this gap in research, there are no studies, to my knowledge, to explain adequately the absence of Negro trade union leadership. Eight-five percent of Negroes are working people. Some two million are in trade unions but in 50 years we have produced only one national leader-A. Philip Randolph.

Discrimination explains a great deal, but not everything. The picture is so dark even a few rays of light may signal a useful direction.

Political action.

The second area for scientific examination is political action. In the past two decades, Negroes have expended more effort in quest of the franchise than they have in all other campaigns combined. Demonstrations, sit-ins and marches, though more spectacular, are dwarfed by the enormous number of man-hours expended to register millions, particularly in the South. Negro organizations from extreme militant to conservative persuasion, Negro leaders who would not even talk to each other, all have been agreed on the key importance of voting. Stokely Carmichael said black power means the vote and Roy Wilkins, while saying black power means black death, also energetically sought the power of the ballot.

A recent major work by social scientists Matthew and Prothro concludes that ‘The concrete benefits to be derived from the franchise-under conditions that prevail in the South-have often been exaggerated.,’ that voting is not the key that will unlock the door to racial equality because ‘the concrete measurable payoffs from Negro voting in the South will not be revolutionary’ (1966).

James A. Wilson supports this view, arguing, ‘Because of the structure of American politics as well as the nature of the Negro community, Negro politics will accomplish only limited objectives’ (1965).

If their conclusion can be supported, then the major effort Negroes have invested in the past 20 years has been in the wrong direction and the major pillar of their hope is a pillar of sand. My own instinct is that these views are essentially erroneous, but they must be seriously examined.

The need for a penetrating massive scientific study of this subject cannot be overstated. Lipset in 1957 asserted that a limitation in focus in political sociology has resulted in a failure of much contemporary research to consider a number of significant theoretical questions. The time is short for social science to illuminate this critically important area. If the main thrust of Negro effort has been, and remains, substantially irrelevant, we may be facing an agonizing crisis of tactical theory.

The third area for study concerns psychological and ideological changes in Negroes. It is fashionable now to be pessimistic. Undeniably, the freedom movement has encountered setbacks. Yet I still believe there are significant aspects of progress.

Negroes today are experiencing an inner transformation that is liberating them from ideological dependence on the white majority. What has penetrated substantially all strata of Negro life is the revolutionary idea that the philosophy and morals of the dominant white society are not holy or sacred but in all too many respects are degenerate and profane.

Negroes have been oppressed for centuries not merely by bonds of economic and political servitude. The worst aspect of their oppression was their inability to question and defy the fundamental precepts of the larger society. Negroes have been loath in the past to hurl any fundamental challenges because they were coerced and conditioned into thinking within the context of the dominant white ideology. This is changing and new radical trends are appearing in Negro thought. I use radical in its broad sense to refer to reaching into roots.

Ten years of struggle have sensitized and opened the Negro’s eyes to reaching. For the first time in their history, Negroes have become aware of the deeper causes for the crudity and cruelty that governed white society’s responses to their needs. They discovered that their plight was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic.

The slashing blows of backlash and frontlash have hurt the Negro, but they have also awakened him and revealed the nature of the oppressor. To lose illusions is to gain truth. Negroes have grown wiser and more mature and they are hearing more clearly those who are raising fundamental questions about our society whether the critics be Negro or white. When this process of awareness and independence crystallizes, every rebuke, every evasion, become hammer blows on the wedge that splits the Negro from the larger society.

Social science is needed to explain where this development is going to take us. Are we moving away, not from integration, but from the society which made it a problem in the first place? How deep and at what rate of speed is this process occurring? These are some vital questions to be answered if we are to have a clear sense of our direction.

We know we haven’t found the answers to all forms of social change. We know, however, that we did find some answers. We have achieved and we are confident. We also know we are confronted now with far greater complexities and we have not yet discovered all the theory we need.

And may I say together, we must solve the problems right here in America. As I have said time and time again, Negroes still have faith in America. Black people still have faith in a dream that we will all live together as brothers in this country of plenty one day.

But I was distressed when I read in the New York Times of Aug. 31, 1967; that a sociologist from Michigan State University, the outgoing president of the American Sociological Society, stated in San Francisco that Negroes should be given a chance to find an all Negro community in South America: ‘that the valleys of the Andes Mountains would be an ideal place for American Negroes to build a second Israel.’ He further declared that ‘The United States Government should negotiate for a remote but fertile land in Equador, Peru or Bolivia for this relocation.’

I feel that it is rather absurd and appalling that a leading social scientist today would suggest to black people, that after all these years of suffering an exploitation as well as investment in the American dream, that we should turn around and run at this point in history. I say that we will not run! Professor Loomis even compared the relocation task of the Negro to the relocation task of the Jews in Israel. The Jews were made exiles. They did not choose to abandon Europe, they were driven out. Furthermore, Israel has a deep tradition, and Biblical roots for Jews. The Wailing Wall is a good example of these roots. They also had significant financial aid from the United States for the relocation and rebuilding effort. What tradition does the Andes, especially the valley of the Andes Mountains, have for Negroes?

And I assert at this time that once again we must reaffirm our belief in building a democratic society, in which blacks and whites can live together as brothers, where we will all come to see that integration is not a problem, but an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

The problem is deep. It is gigantic in extent, and chaotic in detail. And I do not believe that it will be solved until there is a kind of cosmic discontent enlarging in the bosoms of people of good will all over this nation.

There are certain technical words in every academic discipline which soon become stereotypes and even clichés. Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature. You who are in the field of psychology have given us a great word. It is the word maladjusted. This word is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is a good word; certainly it is good that in dealing with what the word implies you are declaring that destructive maladjustment should be destroyed. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

In a day when Sputniks, Explorers and Geminies are dashing through outer space, when guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can finally win a war. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence, it is either nonviolence or nonexistence. As President Kennedy declared, ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.’ And so the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a suspension in the development and use of nuclear weapons, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and eventually disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation. Our earthly habitat will be transformed into an inferno that even Dante could not envision.

Creative maladjustment.

Thus, it may well be that our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women should be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’; or as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who in the midst of his vacillations finally came to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; or as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, could scratch across the pages of history, words lifted to cosmic proportions, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ And through such creative maladjustment, we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

I have not lost hope. I must confess that these have been very difficult days for me personally. And these have been difficult days for every civil rights leader, for every lover of justice and peace.

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* I stick with his direct quotes but the language becomes a bit outdated at times. “Negro” is not a socially acceptable term as much as black and/or African American. Interestingly, the US Census continues to use “Black, African Am., or Negro”.

I and several others sociologists were recently invited to write reflective pieces on the election of Trump. You can read the full text of all the pieces here in the newsletter of the American Sociological Association, Footnotes.

Below are snippets of the engaging pieces:

Climate Change and the Election by Todd Beer

“2016 will be the hottest year on record with every month thus far setting an average temperature record high. As a discipline, is the span of our engagement in the issue broad enough and deep enough considering the predicted consequences of inaction? Climate change received just six minutes of attention in all three presidential debates. As a discipline, are we giving it more than that?”

Islamophobia and the Trump Campaign by Charles Kurzman

“During the presidential campaign, one survey firm (Public Policy Polling) fielded the question, ‘Do you think the religion of Islam should be legal or illegal in the United States?’ In October 2015, 36 percent of Republican respondents said Islam should be illegal,  … If these samples are representative, then around half of Republicans — who normally support religious freedom — are unwilling to grant this freedom to Muslims.

Where did this animosity come from? …” read more to find out

How Sociology Helps to Process the 2016 Presidential Election by Lisa M. Martinez

“In response to my students and the audience members, there is a lot we can do. For starters, we can use the tools of our discipline to understand and analyze the factors that led to the deep divisions in our country. We can translate what we know into informed action whether this occurs through political strategizing or activism. We also have an obligation to our students to teach public sociology and bring social issues to light. Through our scholarship, we can counter racist and xenophobic scapegoating by providing counter-narratives around the pain marginalized communities will and are experiencing. We can also focus our energies on social movements, disruption, and resistance. But we must also engage in long-term planning by mobilizing, registering voters, and getting out the vote in 2018 and 2020. …” read more

Masculinity, Inequality, and the 2016 Presidential Election by Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

“Sociological research and theory on masculinity and gender inequality explain, in part, the success of a man who uses “locker room talk,” regularly objectifies women, calls them “nasty,” and looms over them in a way that is recognized as dangerous by survivors of violent relationships or sexual harassment. The easy answer is that men are voting for the continuation of an unequal gender system that privileges them. …” read more

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Additional resources and initial thoughts from sociologists on the 2016 election can be found on the ASA blog, Speak for Sociology.


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Click on the image below to access the full essay.


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Click on the images below of a selection of other essays to be take to the full text.


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Teach well, it matters.

Our mantra here at Sociology Toolbox, has never been more important: TEACH WELL, IT MATTERS.

One this last day of 2016, the view from the top floor of the world headquarters of Sociology Toolbox is overcast and gloomy  – both literally and figuratively: Trump is a few weeks away from being inaugurated, police in the U.S. continue to kill unarmed citizens, climate change continues without being sufficiently addressed, the consensus on what constitutes a “fact” seems to be slipping away, and a Trump presidency seems likely to lead to so many things taking several significant steps backward. On the upside, massive protests are already being planned and communities fighting to preserve and strengthen equal rights, greater income equality, environmental protection, religious freedom, richer democracy, women’s rights, access to healthcare, racial justice, and so much more have an opportunity to work together like never before.

After joining the Community Pages of The Society Pages in late January, we have had an unprecedented year of traffic on the blog with nearly 250,000 pageviews in 2016!


Thanks to all those who reTweeted, liked and shared on Facebook, and forwarded links to their friends, students, and colleagues. I’m honored that people have found these resources useful, interesting, and some have even adopted them in their classrooms!

Here’s a look back at our posts in 2016:

We started the year with a look at the 2015 data on the police use of lethal force in the US. We will update this in early January with 2016 data. Here you will also find a link to open access bar charts and tables on the data to use in your classroom, blog, or discussion. This was by far our most visited page!

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-23-36-pmThis was followed up with three related posts. The first a discussion among three scholars on the response of many people to the data showing that Blacks are disproportionally victims of police use of lethal force:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-34-22-pmA call for more interdisciplinary research on race and the police use of lethal force:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-36-44-pmAnd an assignment introducing the basics of Excel using data on race and the use of lethal force by police:


We took a sociological look at the Super Bowl – there’s so much more to it than the game:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-41-04-pmEveryone assumes that college is the ticket to greater income equality in the US. Check out this post to see how it often ends up reproducing class:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-42-30-pmIf you and or your students need a basic introduction to climate justice, here is an analogy that you may find useful:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-44-30-pmWe developed a handy list of questions to help students develop critical thinking skills and come to class prepared to be more actively engaged in discussion:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-47-04-pmWe celebrated the Cubs’ amazing season and World Series victory with a guest post from a colleague and anthropologist, Holly Swyers:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-48-02-pmDrawing from my own survey research with the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance and corresponding with the UNFCCC COP22 meeting in Morocco, we wrote about the “trust gap” among climate change civil society organizations in Africa toward high-emitting nations of the global North:

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-12-50-00-pmAnd lastly, we looked at how the US is a laggard in electing a woman to the top political office and why people were immediately protesting president-elect Trump:



Thanks again to all the readers! Be sure to follow us on Facebook to keep up with our great new posts in 2017!

Teach well, it matters!

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Protests against the outcomes of the 2016 presidential election emerged as soon as the electoral map indicated Trump’s victory. Critics have called for protestors to accept the results of our democratic elections, to quit whining, and give Trump a chance.


I certainly don’t speak for all protestors, but here is why I will be out there again this weekend with my family and some of my current and former students:


Trump’s rhetoric, both implicitly and explicitly, went far beyond political ideological differences and openly attacked our long-established and hard-fought social norms of getting a long way toward individual equality regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality. Without a doubt, there remained and still remains very consequential inequalities along these lines, and yes many of these norms of equality had been accepted in public opinion only superficially without the support of institutional change needed to generate actual equality. However, collectively, society was AT LEAST headed in the right direction, making great strides over the last four or five decades to eliminate racism, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. People who are openly racist, homophobic, sexist and bigoted are socially sanctioned, fired from their jobs, suspended from schools, forced to resign from political office, charged with hate crimes, or seen as “backward”.  It needs to stay that way. We have no assurances that it will. We will not sit back and wait and see.


Putting a person into the most powerful office in the land who:

  • was slow to reject the endorsement of the KKK and White nationalist leaders, let alone having a platform that fails to contain enough explicit policies to deter such an endorsement
  • was recorded saying that you could just grab women by the pussy and they would like it
  • talked of banning the entry of ALL Muslims from “terror prone” countries
  • threatened to make all Muslims in the US register
  • made sweeping generalizations about Mexican immigrants being primarily rapists and drug dealers
  • mocked a disabled reporter
  • referred to his opponent as a “nasty woman” and regarding women in general said you have to “treat ‘em like shit”
  • implied that his supporters at rallies were right to violently reject peaceful protesters
  • read an even more extensive list and details on the quotes here

…stands as an endorsement of those beliefs, words, and behavior.


As a couple of Tweets noted:




When confronted by the media, Trump often said he didn’t mean it, denied saying it, or claimed it was being blown out of proportion. He did this only AFTER the media called him out. There was never any self-awareness that he was breaching the deep social norms of equality and human decency.

This rhetoric has been emboldened by his election to the presidency. Both the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center ( which tracks hate groups in the US) have documented a spike in hate crimes since the campaign began and the election results were announced.



These protests will remind him and others that this behavior is not acceptable, is reprehensible, and will not be tolerated. These protests will let our kids know that we will not stand by idly and allow such rhetoric to be institutionalized.


Many analysts explained the surprise and shock that liberals/progressives felt as a lack of attention to the plight of the rural poor and underestimating their discontent. I disagree. I think we were all surprised because we thought that, despite our political differences, there was no way that the United States, in 2016, would be okay with Trump’s bigotry and sexism, no matter what his other policies were. Seven out of ten Trump supporters said they preferred the US in the 1950s. I read this as longing for a time when white men had even greater institutional and societal advantage, when Jim Crow laws entrenched racial segregation, when sexual harassment was allowed and women were confined to menial roles, if any, in the labor force.


We will not allow the rhetoric and behavior of Trump to become the new normal, whether he is the president or not.


That is why I will call him out on social media. That is why I will march proudly with my young daughter on my back. That is why I will be with my family at a protest this weekend and many more in the next four years.


Teach well, it matters.



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Related posts:




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The US failed to elect its first female head of state.

Much can be learned about one’s own society by comparing it to others.  A good part of the rest of the world has been electing women to the most powerful office in the land for decades. There are currently 17 women heads of state including Nepal, the Marshall Islands, Namibia and Poland. More than 50 other nations have chosen a female head of state prior to 2016.


1960 – more than 50 years ago, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first female prime minister of Sri Lanka.

1966 – Indira Gandhi  was elected the first female prime minister in India.

1969 – Golda Meir became Israel’s first female prime minister.

A full timeline of all elected female heads of state can be found here.


and here



Parliamentary positions of power for women also vary greatly throughout the world:

From UN WOMEN, “As of June 2016,  only 2 countries have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses: Rwanda with 63.8 per cent and Bolivia with 53.1 per cent; but a greater number of countries have reached 30 per cent or more. As of June 2016, 46 single or lower houses were composed of more than 30 per cent women, including 14 in Sub-Saharan Africa and 11 in Latin America [9]. Out of those 46 countries, 40 had applied some form of quotas – either legislative candidate quotas or reserved seats – opening space for women’s political participation [10]. Gender balance in political participation and decision-making is the internationally agreed target set in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.”


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So while the US continues to seek the milestone,  other societies have long had a woman in the most powerful political office in their nation.

Teach well, it matters.


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Also see (click on the images below to go to respective pages):


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At about 9:00 on the night of Monday, September 12, 2016, two different group texts started on my phone at almost the exact same moment, both starting with the same words: “5 more outs!” For the next twenty minutes, I found myself engaged in what seemed to be a spirited discussion of the television show Dancing with the Stars, but that was not why anyone involved was texting. We all knew we were following the Cubs game in St. Louis, where Kyle Hendricks had a no-hitter going, and we all wanted one another to know that we knew what was happening. None of us, however, wanted to jinx the game. If there were any doubt about our motives, the string of curses that came across my phone when Hendricks gave up a home run in the 9th dispelled it.

This is a manifestation of community. The people I was texting with were people I would have been sitting with in the bleachers of Wrigley Field had the Cubs been home. On a night when it looked like there would be a little Cubs history made, we reached out to each other from our living rooms to virtually recreate our center field crew. On facebook, a few minutes after the home run, dozens of other ballpark friends began posting, making visible both their previous superstitious silence and their connection to one another. Screen Shot 2016-09-15 at 3.20.10 PM

I have written elsewhere about the bleacher regulars of Wrigley Field and their strongly felt community (Swyers 2010). In 2016, as the Cubs put together a dominant season, I am not surprised that people keep asking me about how the community is reacting. I think they are disappointed when I respond, “Cautiously.”

In a town that has been making noises about the World Series since the surprising 2015 Cubs made it through two playoff rounds, it seems odd that a group of people who are highly identified with the Cubs are saying things like “anything can happen in a short series.” Rather than giddily predicting the end of a decades long World Series drought, many bleacher regulars are dancing around the question as cagily as my texting companions avoided discussing Kyle Hendricks’s no-hitter-in-progress. In the face of potential success, there appears to be a closing of ranks, mutterings against “band-wagon fans,” and a good deal less visible enthusiasm than an observer might reasonably expect. This surprising response from the regulars offers an opportunity to examine how community builds on superstition and ritual and suggests ways of teaching undergraduates new ways of engaging with difference.

Community is one of those words that students use unproblematically and seems to defy definition in formal terms. As Raymond Williams notes in Keywords, the word is both “warmly persuasive” and “seems never to be used unfavourably” (1983: 76), even though it contains within it an assumption of exclusivity.

How do we know when a group is a community, and is it a community just because it calls itself one?


Clearly the idea of a community has emotional weight, and one way to help students get toward a more analytical approach to community is to open a discussion about the things that produce emotional connection in community. The classic angle, and one I have used myself, is to turn toward Durkheim (1995) and collective effervescence. The problem with such effervescence is that while it is easy for students to identify moments when they felt swept away by a crowd, it is a leap from the excitement of a music festival or a sporting event to the idea that lasting ties are created by that energy.

I suggest an alternate route to thinking about emotional connection: that achieved by superstition.

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A classic and easily accessible text for thinking about superstition is George Gmelch’s oft-reprinted “Baseball Magic,” an adaptation of his 1992 article, “Superstition and Ritual in American Baseball.” Gmelch, a former professional baseball player turned anthropologist, gives an insider view of the rituals of baseball players, offering delightful gems like, “Infielder Julio Gotay always played with a cheese sandwich in his back pocket” (2000: 2). He ties his stories to the theories of magic and religion developed by Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s during his fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders. Malinowski, countering claims that non-Western peoples lacked “science,” pointed out that Trobrianders in the 1920s ran their lives largely by empirically tested strategies, relying on magic only to control the “domain of unaccountable and adverse influences, as well as the great unearned increment of fortunate coincidence” (1948: 12). In other words, for the Trobrianders, magic was about controlling luck, or weather, or any other part of making a livelihood was outside of their control as good gardeners, navigators, and fisherfolk.

Gmelch points out that baseball superstitions work the same way; a batter can hit a ball sharply, but will it get through the infield or turn into a double play? The ballplayer can control his own bat, but not the actions of the other men on the field. For that, he turns to magic.


Students understand this easily. Ask them about their rituals on test days, or on their own sports teams, or witness their own self-imposed seating patterns in any given classroom.

But what does this have to do with community?


To grasp this we need to look back to the bleacher regulars, their non-discussion of the no-hitter, and their ongoing caution in talking about the postseason. As fans, there is relatively little the regulars can do to control the outcome on the field, so the role of “magic” is clear. If they want the Cubs to win, they need to come up with their own rituals to try to influence what is happening on the field. The long-held superstition in baseball that mentioning a no-hitter in progress will immediately result in the opposing team getting a hit is a good example. Most bleacher regulars participate in the superstition, to the point that when someone has a no-hitter going against the Cubs, regulars will chant “no-hitter, no-hitter, no-hitter” if at the game, or, if not, they will text each other and post to facebook single-mindedly about the no-hitter until the Cubs get a hit. This is not something that is discussed or planned; it just happens. When the no-hitter is broken up, the regulars will claim, “We broke it up.”

By participating, the regulars are demonstrating that they know the never-spoken rules and understand the ritual: they are showing they belong to the community and matter to the team.

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As superstitions and rituals go, though, the way regulars behave around no-hitters is pretty transparent to baseball fans. Any semi-serious fan of any baseball team could figure out what was going on and participate if they chose. It is the smaller, highly localized rituals that separate communities from one another. I mentioned that the opening text for both my Monday night group text sessions were the same: “Five more outs.” In 2016, any time the Cubs were home and I was not at the game, my friends at the ballpark texted me every time the Cubs got the first out in the 8th inning with those exact words. The message was a reference to the 2003 playoffs, where the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series in a game against the Marlins. In what feels like hubris in hindsight, the entire ballpark – in fact, the entire neighborhood around the ballpark – was chanting the words “FIVE MORE OUTS!” That was when the infamous Bartman play happened (, and the Cubs failed to advance. That game is the closest the Cubs have come to being in a World Series since 1945, and the phrase “five more outs” has developed ritual significance for many regulars, a reminder of what happens when you count a win before the game is over. By texting “five more outs,” regulars had found a work-around to counter the superstition about not discussing the no-hitter. The very local ritual produced the excuse to start a conversation that by superstition could not have started otherwise, even if the resulting conversation had to be about anything other than the game in progress.

Once again, everyone involved understood this without anything being said about it. It is in what was not said that we see the community. The shared history, experience, and values of the centerfield regulars meant that they could share a moment that only people who were part of the community could really understand.

So it is with the 2016 Cubs season. For regulars who have invested at least a decade in following the  team, 2007 and 2008 are healthy reminders that good Cubs teams can get to the playoffs and not win a single game. For those with longer tenure in the community, 2003 still tastes bitter – it is possible to get so close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Plus, if we can get credit as fans when we win, how much blame do we harbor for that “five more outs” thing? Still older regulars can recount 1984, when everyone, including Ronald Reagan, jumped on the Cubs bandwagon, and San Diego responded by being “Cub-busters” (, rallying from 0-2 to win the five game National League Championship series. Heck, I wasn’t even born yet, but I can give you a rough summary of 1969 based exclusively on what I’ve been told between pitches at the ballpark in the past 20 years. A regular is likely to have all that in mind when someone enthuses about how amazing the 2016 Cubs are. Yes, it is a really good team, but only an outsider  would assume a World Series championship. For a regular, who should know better, to do so would invite disaster.

Here we see exactly how community, despite being “warmly persuasive,” is exclusive. The rituals and superstitions of the group help show how much shared history is unspoken, manifest in a kind of shorthand that took me a few hundred words to explain and which might sound silly to the uninitiated. However, my bet is that in any class of undergraduates, most if not all students will remember an inside joke or a shared routine that unites them with their closest friends. Ritual and superstition are among the tools that a community uses to reassure itself that we are us and not them, because they would not understand. The more adamantly someone disparages those rituals and superstitions, the more obviously they are part of “them.” Sometimes that is okay. Sports, for instance, rely on there being at least two teams, and the us-them dynamic is part of the pleasure for fans. In the bigger picture, though, us vs. them can lead to more poisonous outcomes like racial profiling, hate crimes, and war. By helping our students to see how communities use their rituals and superstitions to mark their sense of belonging, we can also help them understand why even rituals that seem absurd deserve our respect.


Durkheim, Emile. 1995. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.

Gmelch, George. 2000. Baseball Magic. 

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1948. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Swyers, Holly. 2010. Wrigley Regulars: Finding Community in the Bleachers. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Revised Edn. New York: Oxford University Press.


When Holly Swyers is not teaching anthropology courses at Lake Forest College, she can be found in the center field bleachers at Wrigley Field or spotting coyotes along the wilds of the Chicago river. She is currently working on a book about how Americans define adulthood both currently and historically.

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Teach well, it matters.

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Also see…


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Like me, I imagine many of you try to foster the development of critically thinking in your students.

As professors, we are far removed (it took me 8 years to earn my PhD!) from the early developmental stages of learning how to think critically. We may have long forgotten how we actually learned to think critically ourselves.

We want our students to develop critical thinking skills, but how do we teach the acquisition and habituation of such skills?

Here is a list of questions that can get this process started. Students should ask themselves about the assigned reading that will help them think critically and be ready to engage in more vibrant classroom discussion. It is one tool of many that can help us actually teach critical thinking and not just hope it spontaneously emerges in our students or is something that is contagious.

Not all of these questions will apply to every reading and many will need some slight adaptation, but they should get students’ brains revved up and ready to think critically and make a contribution to class discussion.

  • Why did your professor assign this reading?
    • How does it relate to other topics in the course?
      • Is it situated in a particular set of literature? Hint: this would be evident in the literature review.
    • Do the conclusions align with or contradict other readings in the class?
    • How is the argument similar or different to other things you have read?
  • What is the primary question(s) the article addresses? The author wrote this for a reason. Probably to answer a question or a puzzle. What is that question that inspired the article/chapter?
    • Why is this question important to ask?
      • …from a policy standpoint?
      • …from a theoretical standpoint?
      • …for society?
    • What is the hypothesis being tested? Hint: A hypothesis is usually an “if/then” statement proposing a relationship between variables that can be or is tested.
  • Does the article/chapter disagree with some other existing theory?
  • What evidence/data, if any, is used to make the point?
    • Is there evidence/data that you think would be more convincing?
    • Are there variables that you think should have been included that were not?
    • Is there a weakness in the methods that make you question the results?
    • Are there examples from your own life experience that contradict or reinforce the conclusions?
    • If this is an older article, has society changed in important ways that should make us reconsider the conclusions?
    • Are there examples in the headlines today that relate to the conclusions of the piece?
    • Did the author draw accurate conclusions from the data/outcomes?
  • What are some of the underlying assumptions that the author(s) make(s)?
  • Do you agree with the way the key concepts of the piece are defined?
    • Did the author exclude a category, concept, or variable that you think is essential to include?
  • How might another discipline (political science, economics, biology, psychology, etc.) examine and explain the same question or topic?
  • If we accept the author’s conclusions, what questions arise that still need explanation?
    • What additional research does this inspire?
  • How might the conclusions of the article/chapter apply to any different but related topic?
    • What else might this research explain?
  • How is this issue presented in the mass media?


Teach well, it matters.

Teaching quantitative methods and data analysis can be tedious, but I have found that using sociological and “headline-relevant” data, such as the 2016 data on police use of lethal force can increase the engagement and learning of our students. The Guardian newspaper has been keeping tracking of US citizens shot by police since the beginning of 2015. The annual data is downloadable and a great free dataset for teaching not only on the topic of race and the use of lethal force by police, but also Excel and SPSS data analysis. Here I provide a downloadable data set for 2016 (up to August 2nd) and an introductory Excel assignment (one I use on the first day of lab before moving onto SPSS).

The learning goals of the exercise include:

  • Become familiar with select elements of Microsoft Excel
  • Learn how to create sortable tables
  • Generate professional bar and pie charts using data
  • Generate averages using Excel
  • Use the “countif” command
  • Use Excel math functions to calculate percentages

Feel free to adopt or adapt the assignment to the needs of your own class. Stay tuned for an SPSS version.

Teach well, it matters.

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Casey Oberlin and the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) at Grinnell College created an instructional handout to assist students and instructors with this assignment on teaching Excel with police use of lethal force data. The handout includes screenshots and precise instructions to navigate the assignment. Download the handout here.

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Also, see relevant previous posts:

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Since 2014 there has been renewed interest, concern, and protest regarding the police use of deadly force against unarmed Blacks. Various conservative commentators and publications, as well as comments on other posts to this blog, have implied that the reason so many Blacks are killed by police is that Blacks are more likely to be involved in violent crime. For example, in an article in the National Review, David French writes, “Moreover, racial disparities in the use of force are largely explained by racial disparities in criminality. Different American demographics commit crimes at different rates, so it stands to reason that those who commit more crimes will confront the police more often.”

Below is the transcript of a conversation regarding this issue I had with three scholars, all of whom have studied the interaction of police and the African American community.

The scholars are:

RASHAWN RAY, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland.

CODY ROSS, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis

DON TOMASKOVIC-DEVEY, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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Todd: What do you think about the logic that Blacks commit more violent crimes therefore they are more likely to be killed by police?[1][2][3]

Don: If you start at the level of interaction, when a policeman shoots a citizen three things have to happen. 1.The officer and the citizen have to have contact. 2. Within that interaction there has to be something that generate the feeling of threat or aggression in the officer. 3. The officer has to actually resort to a violent response. So it does seem to me that from a social science point of view that we should be thinking about this as an interaction, not a reflection of individual traits. The ideas we hear from the Right that officers respond to dangerous people or from the BLM and the rest of society that officers behave in racially biased ways both miss this interactional complexity.

We do know that the level of violence in particular in African American communities is higher than the national average. Are police shootings tied to the actual threat to police or the level of violence in the community? In research I am doing now on police killings it looks like the general level of police-citizen killings does go up when police are assaulted more often, but not with the overall violent crime rate. Black killings, on the other hand go down with more police assaults and up with the level of violent crime. These estimates use state-level data, which is far from appropriate and should be taken as preliminary at best. But we should be pursuing these types of questions in addition to establishing the baseline racial disparity in police-citizen killings.

Back when we were working on this in the 2000s around “driving while Black” issues, we did a lot of work to try and figure out baselines about the probability of an officer encountering a Black driver. And then we also asked questions about if there were race differences in driving behavior. Now it worked a bit different for driving because typically Black drivers were driving at a rate lower than their frequency in the population, there were fewer Black drivers with driver’s licenses and they drove fewer miles per year than the average White person and they drove more carefully than White drivers. So adjusting for those things increased the potential for racial bias.

Todd: But the Black Lives Matter movement is mobilizing around instances of unarmed suspects being shot and killed and often what I see thrown out there as justification for this are the violent crime statistics. We need to distinguish different types of crimes. A lot of the police shooting victims are just being stopped for traffic violations or some other petty, non-violent, offense.


So if we are focusing in on unarmed deaths, the first question is why should ANY of them happen? Why should there be ANY unarmed deaths of African Americans, White, Hispanic…anyone? To me that points to a fundamental failure of police training and policing.

When we see the videos of these events, what I am seeing is police behaving, seemingly irrationally, … I see two kinds of behaviors, a really gigantic fear response form the police officers involved or a kind of testosterone response where they are exerting their dominance and because it is not being respected and they lash out in one way or another. In that sense, it should never happen. In other high income countries, this never happens. This is a US phenomenon. On the other hand, is that police officer having that fear response because he or she is in a high crime neighborhood or they feel that they are? Because they fear all black men?  Both are probably often the case.

I recently read a new paper in the DuBois Review by Robert Durán. It looks at how police shootings are legitimated by DAs and challenged by citizens in Denver over 30 years. The substantive focus is important in its own right, but the paper includes a useful review of the law on police use of deadly force, which under English common law has been sanctioned since before there was a U.S. Importantly, the law on justified police-citizen use of force varies across states and many U.S. states have a very low bar – fleeing, committing a crime. In many state’s shooting someone committing a felony or fleeing from police is legal. It was not until 1985 in Tennessee v. Garner that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police could not shoot a fleeing suspect unless the officer believed the suspect posed serious risk of death or injury to the community. Durán’s lit review suggests this decision may have had little effect on police behavior. All of which is to say that there probably are some police training variation in what forms of police killings are legal or even expected of officers.

Todd: Cody, your work does control for at least some of the crime rates at the county level. The assault crimes and weapons crimes by Whites and Blacks.


I looked at the ratio of Black crime to White crime, using that to predict the Black to White shooting ratio by police and there is no effect at the country level.

Now it could be that at some level below the county, like the police precinct, zip code, or something smaller, there may be significant relationships, but counties that have higher Black to White crimes rates do not have higher Black to White police shooting rates of unarmed people. So this makes me a little bit suspicious of the crime story. I think what might be being picked up on by the model (since the population size effect is pretty big and the inequality effect is pretty big) is that the black to white shooting rate ratio by police might be highest in large, highly unequal metropolitan counties which have specialized police units. Some recent work  has suggested that specialized forces, like gang units, are likely to be the most egregious in terms of shooting unarmed Black people relative to unarmed White people.

The reason this might occur is that if you have a department that is specifically targeted at individuals of a given racial or ethnic group that tend to be armed or involved in crime, then the police in that unit are going to be learning about the covariance of race/ethnicity and armed/criminal status from a very small,  very biased sample of the population. In wider community contexts, police in these units are likely to falsely impute the probability of a suspect of a given race or ethnicity being armed in a way that is very strongly biased in regards to expecting a weapon. Under this model, it is not really the true relative levels of crime or armed status that should be related to bias in the police shooting rate, but rather what police expect the rate of armed status to be based on how they have learned.

With regards to the possible effectiveness of police training in removing racial bias, I think that this is going to depend on the police department.  In many police departments, there is basically no significant evidence of any racial bias. In some departments, training may be all that is needed to attenuate unconscious implicit bias that can lead to a higher Black to White ratio of police shootings. In other departments (probably only a handful), there might just be explicitly racist officers or sociopaths that simply enjoy exerting social dominance and inflicting physical and psychological pain on other people. Most officers are not like this, of course, but some probably are, and these are the most problematic cases. We have got to ensure that there is zero tolerance for people like this on the police force. Over the last few years, there have been many examples of police being caught messaging explicitly racist things, for example in San Francisco. So I think we need to focus on trying to identify both the large scale structural issues that lead to moderate levels of racial bias across the board in police shootings, and the specific departments and officers that are the most problematic. I think it is also important not to use blanket statements about police-in-general, as this triggers a lot of reactionary in-group out-group identity conflicts that don’t really help anyone; strategically, it might as important to highlight the good work being done by some police as it is to highlight the problematic cases of some police sending racist vitriol.

Todd: We saw some of this in Ferguson as racist emails between police officers and the city court clerk, which were revealed after the shooting of Michael Brown.


The problem with this type of logic is that we assume that an entire group of people is responsible for the actions of some and that the entire group should be criminalized for it.

So in other words, because of the perception that Blacks commit more crimes this somehow justifies the fact that Black people are actually policed more. The problem is that this shouldn’t be the case. First, an overwhelming percentage of Blacks are not criminals and those that have been convicted of crimes, studies show that roughly 75% of Blacks in prison are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. The other narrative is that Black neighborhoods are ubiquitously framed as being problematic and crime prone when in fact there are a plethora of predominantly Black neighborhoods around the country, one of which I happen to live in, that has extremely low crime rates and are not part of the narrative. On the other end of the spectrum, there are predominantly White neighborhoods that have high crime rates, but for some reason we leave these two types of neighborhoods out of the narrative as it relates to crime.

So what is happening is that an entire group of people who overwhelmingly are not committing crime and are not guilty, end up being criminalized because of the logic that people have about this.

I will give a couple of quick examples here. First is the logic that if a person is stopped for a crime or suspected of committing a crime they are probably guilty. Actually this is not the case, there was a study done in New York City using Stop-and-Frisk data. This study actually resulted in Stop-and-Frisk being ruled unconstitutional by the New York Supreme Court, and what they found was that African Americans were more likely to be stopped by the police, they were also more likely to be roughed up by the police, to be frisked, physically assaulted by the police, but they were significantly less likely to have contraband on their person or actually be committing a crime at that particular time. So you had about 9 out of 10 of the Black men that were being stopped were not doing anything wrong. What is interesting to me, knowing the way that police operate personally and then also looking at the data, is that there are a lot of these points in time when the police interact with citizens that is never captured in the data.

Another point I would like to make here is that Philando Castile who was recently killed in St. Paul, Minnesota was stopped 50 times over the past fourteen years or so. The logic is that if you are stopped that much you obviously have to be committing some sort of crime. This is what is interesting about Philando Castile. He had never been convicted of violent crime, he was a legal gun owner, and according to the other employees and the children of the school where he worked he was a model employee, and he took classes learning how to deal with the police. This speaks to the fact that as much as we value politics of respectability in the Black community, they do not necessarily prevent people from being harmed by the police. So in many respects this is about Blackness being seen as guilty before due processes. The logic is that if the cops didn’t catch a Black person doing something today, they probably will one day, so who cares if this is happening today. The logic is that in being killed, if you are a Black person, is simply collateral damage. This is highly problematic.

Todd: There was an interview with Philando Castile’s mother who thought he was targeted because of the older model cars he drove that resulted in police stereotyping him as a pimp or drug dealer.

Rashawn: What is interesting about that, new, really nice luxury cars get Black men pulled over too. While I can see some sort of analysis that if someone was driving a Cutlass or something else, but in many police departments around the country they still drive older sedans as their police cars. I think that this is more about, regardless of the vehicle the person is driving, similar to the type of attire the person has on, a person’s Black skin is the schema that we use to actually evaluate whether a person should be criminalized.

Don: I think this is something we all have to agree on and that if we are at the same time trying to figure out how do we intervene we are probably not going to intervene at the level of national culture around Black skin. What I keep thinking is that we need to get closer to what police are actually doing. Rashawn is focused there on routine police harassment of African Americans and African American men in particular.

Obviously, if you increase the contact level, then you have routine policing which is aggressive at its base and then it interacts with race and neighborhood which generates a fear response in the police then it all conspires to lead to violence of one sort or another.

On top of this baseline process there are no doubt particularly racist or aggressive cops and police organization and local variation in expected and or legal use of force. Clearly the shootings and killings are the most egregious outcome of this racialized and violent policing practice. While the unarmed killings are the least defensible, my gut feelings is that they are generated by the same mechanisms producing other police-citizen violence. I suspect that most often that the causal mechanisms underneath police violence is organizationally based routine police training and deployment and the way they are treating citizens, including and especially Black citizens. So if we want to intervene we need to intervene at the organizational level to change police practices. Firing particularly racist police officers might help as well.

Todd: What is the ideal data set?

Don: I think it is too complex for an ideal data set. I had one idea today though. The Black Lives Matter movement is holding marches and vigils in many, many cities and in some of those they’re being harassed and corralled by the cops and in some they are getting some kind of cooperation. It would be totally interesting to know what is that variation across police forces in their response to the movement?

Now that is not exactly the same thing as whether the level of violence if going to go up or down and unfortunately our data are so terrible that we won’t know that for years, but my feeling is that the ideal data go to the level of the police forces, the real ideal level, because of this issue of bigoted offices, is if you could have data on officers nested in their police forces where you also know characteristics of the community. Cody’s example about the gang units is instructive. When we were doing the “Driving while Black” study in North Carolina, we had complete access to the data from the highway patrol on something like 1500 officers and we had really good control variables and we identified 12 officers who were stopping African Americans at higher rates than they should have been. We found no race bias in routine traffic stops for the other 1488 officers. On the other hand, there was a single unit that was dedicated to searches that was doing a gigantic amount of searches of African Americans, and exactly like Rashawn said and many studies have found, whenever you’ve got profiling practices, you end up finding less contraband on the profiled group and of course much more social destructive relationships with the community get generated. So I think the local context stuff is pretty important.

Rashawn: Don is bringing up great points and I will build on it a little bit with a couple things. Something that we need is the specific reason they decided to pull them over. For example, with Philando Castile, the narrative that came out was that he was suspected of a robbery. Personally, I chuckle at that sort of thing because I have been suspected of robbery, burglary, and rape and all these things and I don’t have a criminal record, so that is nothing new for Black people. What is interesting though is that if you listen to the transcripts, and this is getting to my point and part of the data we need, …especially why they pulled them over and the transcript conversation when the police officers called it in and code those…because in the Castile case the officer said he had a wide nose. He said Philando Castile had a wide nose and he fit the description of someone I am looking for. I know a lot of people with different skin tones who have “wide noses.” When I hear “wide nose” what I hear is something much deeper and sinister than that. I heard implicit bias and the social psychology of race as it relates to what people are looking for…

Don: I totally disagree with you Rashawn. What I hear there is explicit bias. He is using wide nose as a code.

Rashawn: I completely agree, but the narrative that we hear though is that he didn’t mean anything by that. Part of it is getting people to realize that, no that is not okay to say, that it is indeed racist but the narrative we have is, “That’s not a big deal. That’s not being racist.” So part of it is highlighting the ways that racism is operating in implicit and explicit ways. Part of the reason I am saying it is implicit is because of the narrative that we have about race is that it is so individualized that we assume that you have to specifically be doing something to someone in terms of treatment and calling someone a specific derogatory name to be engaging in racism. So we really have to be more nuanced and I think we are definitely agreeing on that point. I think part of what might get at differences between police departments is… so working with the Prince George’s Police Department, my colleague Dr. Kris Marsh and I have been doing implicit bias and racism training with the police department here in the county and what we noticed, sitting in meetings with them, is that the difference between going for numbers, quantity versus quality. These are two very different things. There are some police departments, say like New York City, that are all about quantity. How many stops can they get? Ferguson, MO was all about quantity as well. How many traffic citations can we send out because we are trying to fund our government? That is very different than going for quality. When you go for quality potentially you start going for other indicators besides a person’s skin tone. I think that is probably the reason why Whites, in the New York City study, were more likely to be found with something on them or committing a crime because the police officers were looking for other indicators besides their race that might actually suggest some type of criminality.

I think those are the two things… we need the transcripts, which we don’t normally get. We need to code those. And we need to know the specific polices. We need to know the approach that police precincts use to actually go out and stop people. In other words, are they posted up doing DUI stops and speed checks and if so where do they do these speed checks?

Are they more likely to do them in predominantly Black neighborhoods? So if you are doing a DUI check in predominantly Black neighborhoods, even though Blacks are less likely to use drugs than Whites, then you are going to find more Blacks with drugs and you are going to end up convicting more Blacks.

These are the types of nuanced forms of data that I think we need.

Don: I agree and one of the things that I think is particularly useful there, particularly at the police level, is the practices acts of police violence are this nested in, first the number of contacts, then there is the number of profiling bases contacts, then there is general aggression and violence on the street by police, then there are shots fired and then there are killed people. In my mind, I agree with Rashawn here that these things are all linked in not just simple demographic ways, you have to have one to have the other, but also linked in that you get negative feedback loops from relationships with the community and in police officer perceptions of the community.

That is, you are probably generating more racist cops than you hired once you create these profiling/harassment practices and then of course you generate a community that totally distrusts the police.

Tremaine McMillian was put in a choke hold on the beach in Miami with his puppy for giving the police a “dehumanizing stare.” The shootings and the killings are the rare events that confirm our worst nightmares about the police and of course make the police the most defensive of their practices.

Cody: The ideal dataset… it would be great to have geographically-resolved data on encounters between civilians and police as a function of race and other demographic characteristics; we saw a little bit of this in the Fryer study that came out recently. How we look at that data is really important though. A follow-up paper that I am working on now shows that a consistent racial bias against Black people generates all patterns that Fryer finds including the inverse relationship between encounters and being a victim of a police shooting among black people. Heterogeneity in how often police encounter people as a function of race can lead to some paradoxical outcomes in simple regression models that don’t account for the full dynamics of the system. We also need more data on individual officers. I think there are a lot of positive things to be gained from completing the US Police Shootings Database that I looked at in my PLOS article, because we can extract a lot of really decent information from news articles. This is something that anyone can take part in doing and the more people we have coding each instance, the more credible the overall dataset will be.

Don: Some of it will happen from crowd sourcing, from doing scrapping every morning of yesterday’s events and I know that is going on all over the place right now. Some of this data has already been collected by police departments and not released to the public or analyzed by the police departments. That is one of the things that came out of the “Driving While Black” politics which is that many police departments collect contact data and then it just sits there and it is not analyzed by anybody.


The last thing I would add is I would really love to find a way of measuring the frequency of truly racist attitudes, not just implicit bias.

As discussed a few moments ago, we have seen officers in the San Francisco police department or in Ferguson get caught sending racists texts and emails. How prevalent are these kinds of attitudes among police in general? Are some departments hot-spots of these attitudes?  Or are there just a handful of randomly distributed problematic officers? I like Don’s idea of looking at police responses to Black Lives Matter events in various communities. It would be interesting to see how those data relate to racial bias in shootings, because that might be an indicator of explicit bias. Would it be feasible to crowdsource data in other ways? If anyone has ideas on how to do this, I would love to hear them.

Don: I think some of this could be discoverable through the data that we might have already. You wouldn’t have the implicit or explicit measure of racism if you have data on officer violence and the race of the citizen, and race of routine contacts, you can generate an officer level distribution.  If the generative mechanisms implicit bias, a pretty weak causal mechanism, most officers would have low levels of violence that were closely ties to events. Killings and unarmed killings might happen, but it would be almost random, not correlated with other acts of police violence at the officer level. Deployment is a strong mechanism and we should see police violence concentrated in black neighborhoods. Explicit racism it is a strong mechanism and should produce a totally different distribution of the dependent variable, with some officers with extreme patterns. If a police force was particularly racist in its officers and/practices it should have more extreme distributions than other police forces. In Cody’s paper, it is Miami-Dade county that racial disparity is something like 23 times higher than the baseline probability. New Orleans and L.A. were also outliers in the distribution.

The point is that if all we have is data on the dependent variable, police violence, we still may be able to logically identify the causal mechanism from the shape or location or the race of the distribution. We wrote a theory paper on this during the Driving While Black politics that might be of some use today.[4]

Rashawn: That point Don is making is extremely important. I have a paper that will hopefully be coming out over the next several months, you know how slow peer review can be, but this paper is basically looking at the reasons why middle class Blacks are less likely to engage in physical activity in certain neighborhoods and what I find is that in predominantly white neighborhoods, Black men are less likely to engage in physical activity where in predominantly Black neighborhoods, Black women are less likely to engage in physical activity. The argument that I make in the paper is that on the one hand this has to do with criminalization in predominantly White spaces, but in predominantly Black it is a different mechanism. In Black spaces, this might become a case where it becomes more about the quantity for police officers. They know they can set up certain stops and it doesn’t necessarily matter how many people they stop, how many people they actually stop and frisk, the question is, do they eventually get someone? I think that is the key mechanism that is highly problematic. It seems that police departments are not worried about quality, they are simply worried about quantity.

The problem I have is that while we focus on police killings, and rightfully so, there are thousands of people who come into contact with police officers in a given time period and have very negative interactions with police and these sort of interactions are never recorded.

In fact, if we think about shootings, 75% of people who are shot actually survive. So there are a lot of people going around who have been shot by police officers.

Dr. Joseph Richardson who is a professor of African American Studies here at Maryland, he has a study of the Prince George’s county hospital and his study is “Who Shot Ya?” and what he is trying to do is get a question that ER staff ask of individuals when they come in. Most people know who shot them or they think they have a good idea of who shot them. What happens is that if that question is not asked initially then it gets suppressed. Police officers come in and suppress things, individuals from the neighborhood who have shot someone else comes in and tries to suppress things and so I think there are a lot of different variables that we can bring to bear and add in. Dr. Keon Gilbert and I had a paper come out earlier this year in the Journal of Urban Health called “Why Police Kill Black Males with Impunity.” I heard that word used earlier in the conversation by Cody and I think this is something that becomes extremely important as well. How quickly are people shot and killed? We also don’t have information on that. How much are things deescalated if a person is White compared to when they are Black? So these are very important variables that we need to collect. So, my point is that we just need a general database. It is not mandated at all that police departments have to even report police killings or police violent and physical encounters with citizens. Some politicians tried to push this legislation through the Senate and Congress, but it fell on deaf ears among Republicans. It is highly problematic that we can get data on how many people catch the flu each year, but we don’t have information on how often a police officer uses or thinks they need to use physical force on a citizen.

Todd: So this comes back to the idea of the body camera data, because it seems like people, whether it is the police precinct or individual officers reporting data is often in error and biased toward the police officer’s view. Body cameras and transcriptions of interactions would be data that could be analyzed independently. A lot of people bring up the expense of getting every officer in the country a body cam, but we have spent the last decade or more transferring billions of dollars worth of military equipment to local departments, surely we have funds to get body cameras. The other thing I hear coming out of this conversation is that one, there are multiple levels here. There are individual officers that may be implicitly or explicitly racially biased in favor of Whites, and we have police units within departments, Cody you mentioned these gang units, and then we have whole police departments and their policies. Don you mentioned that some today regarding the police training and Rashawn you mentioned this idea of departmental policy of getting a lot of stops in minority neighborhoods and quantity versus quality of stops.

Don: I think there are other mechanisms at play as well. This is why I think it is not about an ideal dataset but rather the triangulation of lots of data. One of the things is that standard police training for citizen control is around dominance in the interaction and standard police training around the use of violence is to protect the police officers’ life at all costs. For example, a very common thing that happens in police academies is that officers learn the 20 foot rule. If a citizen has a knife and is within 20 feet of you, they can get to you before you can get your gun out and shoot them. Now this not only generates fear in the police, but it gives them license to kill. Similarly, it appears that as long as a citizen has a gun they can be killed, even in an open-carry state with a license. At least if they’re Black. I think there is a lot to be said about that kind of routine training. My feeling is that the way this happens is that there is the racism that is in the culture, there is racism that is either in the police officer or in practices of particular police departments and all of these are racialized. Then it interacts with this training which actually gives them the license to kill.

Todd: Well and the law right? Because the law says that it will back up any police officer’s use of deadly force when the officer says they felt threatened.

Don: Exactly, but that is also an organizational product. I think it is a mistake to think of it as “the law” because it is particular District Attorneys and Police Chiefs who are backing those officers. Most of the time it doesn’t even get to the DA level because internal reviews justify, protect offending officers. But you do not need to prosecute police to address this problem. You could behave like Richmond, CA where a new police chief comes in changes the training on acceptable violence, fires the most violent officers, and police violence plummets.

Another way to think about it is that if this was private sector corporate America the kinds of behaviors that police now get away with they just couldn’t get away with.


Rashawn: Don is making great points. One of the things that Keon and I do in this “Why Police Kill Black Males with Impunity” article is we try to lay out what some steps are moving forward. Collecting and analyzing data is one of the main things. Thinking about body cams is something another one. Cody mentioned that it seems to be something about Black representation in a city and I think the way we need to think about that is governmental representation, whether that be the mayor, city council members, and even the percentage of police officers who are non-White (though Black and other minority cops can definitely embrace similar ideals about Black criminality), in addition to thinking about cities that have community review boards that are separate from what is happening at the government level. Instead, it is a community group that comes together to evaluate all violent interactions between police officers and citizens. We need to figure out if these are factors that potentially change some of the outcomes in the racial disparities that we see in police shootings.

I think that something that we really need to focus on is that the rise in the police killings over the past couple of decades… criminologists will also say that it has a lot to do with the ways that “stand your ground” laws have taken off across the US. If we think about these laws which allow citizens… if they fear someone, that was one of the first things we heard mentioned in this conversation… if fear can be used as a defense then we are definitely moving in the wrong direction. People are trying to figure out, if crime is going down, if police officers being killed is going down, then why are police killings of citizens going up? Part of this has to do with the policy changes that were enacted in the late 1990s that has led to this increase.

If an everyday citizen can take the law into their own hands when no one has done anything physically to them, imagine what we allow police officers to do.

We really have to get to a point where we change the policies, whether that be variables included in an ideal data set and looking at specific polices at the county and state level. If there are policies at the state level that are being mandated across the state, then some of these patterns Cody mentioned are making sense. We really have to look at changes in the policies over the last couple of decades that have led to the reversal of the patterns that have led to what we are seeing today. Dr. Abigail Sewell is leading a charge for the Race and Policing Project to compile the best empirical data on police interactions with citizens. It is becoming the go-to source. [Also see Dr. Sewell’s recent guest post on this blog critiquing the methods used in Ronald Fryer’s recent research and calling for more interdisciplinary research on racial bias and the use of lethal force by police.]

Todd: So, one addition to the ideal data set might be whether or not it is a “stand your ground” state?

Rashawn: Exactly.

Don: One of the things that I worry about here, and it comes from my own personal guilt, from being part of the academics that were mobilized around the “Driving While Black” politics. One of the things that happened there is that in the end we wrote some really good peer reviewed papers that came out after the politics had exhausted themselves. Police and state legislatures produced a kind of legitimacy-creating device by collecting police-citizen contact data, which then were left unanalyzed. So in some sense the social scientists left it to the police to police themselves and that was a mistake. One of the things we have discovered through the Black Lives Matter movement is the real importance of collecting data ourselves and to relying on official statistics. The FBI does not collect data on police violence. It turns out that a British newspaper, The Guardian, collected starting in 2015 the best data we have so far on police-citizen killings in the U.S. Some academics are doing this now, most note-worthy is Chris Smith at UC-Davis. We have to make sure that continues and that it is not just a short-term academic response to politics. We can’t evaluate if things are getting better or worse now. The really fundamental questions –how do you stop this violent policing? Is racial disparity getting better or worse? Even what predicts police violence or racial disparity? All require long-term data collections. I do fear that the academics who are excited about this now may lose interest when the politics wane. When that happens it will be up to the FBI and local police to police themselves and that would be really a terrible shame.




[4] Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Marcinda Mason and Matthew Zingraff, 2004. “Looking for the Driving While Black Phenomena: Conceptualizing Racial Bias Processes and their Associated Distributions.” Police Quarterly. 7:3-29.


[6] Gilbert, Keon L. and Rashawn Ray. 2016. “Why Police Kill Black Males with Impunity: Applying Public Health Critical Race Praxis (PHCRP) to Address the Determinants of Policing Behaviors and “Justifiable’’ Homicides in the USA.” Journal of Urban Health 93(1):122–40. Retrieved (


Teach well, it matters.

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Addendum from readers’ comments and recent events:

In a recent turn, the US federal government will require police departments to track and report deadly incidents involving officers. The reporting will be required quarterly.

The data collection will be done by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Prior to this, no national level data has been collected. Starting at the beginning of 2015, The Guardian newspaper started scraping daily news reports and used reader reporting to keep track of the incidents where police used lethal force on citizens. See some analysis of the 2015 data in a previous post on this blog. Also see a classroom assignment for teaching Excel basics using the 2016 data up to August. Additionally, the Washington Post also started collecting data on police shootings in 2015 and the crowd-sourced web site, Killed By Police, has been collecting data since mid-2013. Additionally, Fatal Encounters, is trying to log all encounters where police used lethal force going back to 2000. It has some interesting mapping tools and visualizations of the data as well.

Previous federally collected data from individual police departments, which are city, county or state level, was voluntarily reported, lacked consistent definitions of events, and did not contain any data on citizens killed by police.

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GUEST POST by Abigail A. Sewell

Recently, The New York Times published a write-up of a study documenting a surprising “non-finding”: racial bias in use of lethal force by police is non-existent.

For those this finding surprised, the response has been swift, vociferous, and cross-disciplinary.


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Who’s right?

My bet is on the community, given my expertise on the health effects of police surveillance published in interdisciplinary journals like Journal of Urban Health and Social Science and Medicine.  You can also look at the overwhelming research on race and policing showing stark racial differences not only in treatment and interactions, but also in police killings.

Research compiled by The Race and Policing Project indicate that such police behavior affects a host of outcomes beyond health, including attitudes minorities hold towards the criminal justice system. The invisibility of this research is why a group of scholars, coordinated by myself, have come together to make available such research to the public in ready-access format.

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Fryer’s discovery of a null relationship comes from a rather classic research design of racial bias using precedents set by economists. In fact, it is a pretty beautiful study in its meticulousness in setting the parameters for identifying racial inequality in police use of lethal force that is not due to statistical discrimination. Further, it is impressive to me because of its reliance on team science, where a researcher employs the assistance of a large group of people to enact the research design and analysis for a single research question. Lastly, it partially confirms prior findings on racial bias in police use of nonlethal force, providing the appearance that its “finding” of null relationships are in fact reliable and valid.

But that’s where my compliments end. Interpreting Fryer’s “non-finding”  (i.e., there is no racial differences in police killings) as valid is problematic because the study suffers from many flaws due to its research design – the more serious of the two being choice of denominator (which was, people killed with arrest warrants for shootings deemed justifiable by the researcher) and “over-control” (he adjusts baseline estimates for variation in over 200 social factors in his study). Economists have a notorious habit of trying to “explain away” a pattern, but statisticians know that the more controls one puts in a regression model, the less degrees of freedom one has to represent reality.

At the very least, even though baseline estimates (average group differences) may show no evidence of racial inequality, Fryer could have used propensity score matching to account for the fact that racially marginalized populations are more likely to be stopped in the first place than their white counterparts. Even thinking about moderated models may have helped the interpretation of baseline non-findings, meaning that there is heterogeneity in the nature of racial differences across subgroups of the population. More sophisticated methods would have used multilevel models to account for variation in the probability of being stopped across place and race, such as I do in my research.

Still, the real, more troubling problem with the Fryer study is that it is steeped in academic disciplinarianism. Academic disciplinarianism refers to adhering to the principles and practices of being an expert in a specific field of study. In doing so, you may adopt the data, measures, and methods of the discipline you affiliate with at the sacrifice of methodological standards that may be more effective in answering your intended research question. Moreover, you rely on the intellectual efforts of people in your discipline, who may disproportionally come from similar backgrounds and thus carry a shared understanding of how research should be conducted and, ultimately, suffer from groupthink. Last, you write in the language of your chosen discipline, assuming that people understand what you are talking about when you say words like “racial bias” and “statistical discrimination” and discarding critiques from people of other disciplines and perspectives of how to conduct research.

Mind you, interdisciplinary research is difficult for all the reasons we know –communication barriers, conflicts in methodological approach, and competing definitions, to name a few. However, research on race and policing is prone to interdisciplinary efforts and, even protected, by such an approach because academic treatments of both “race” and “policing” vary widely based on the discipline in which one is trained. That alone does not necessitate Fryer to do interdisciplinary research; however, for three reasons, it places limitations on interpreting null findings.

First, because Fryer’s study relied on methods familiar to and accepted by economists, it failed to adopt a research design best fit for small-N research – that is, QCA, or qualitative comparison analysis. QCA enhances detection of variation in instances whether standard errors are unreliable due to sample sizes. Fryer’s study of racial bias in police use of lethal force relied on some 300 cases in one city. Ideally, more cases would have been collected, and more cities would have been examined.

However, let’s assume that the data from Houston is indeed the best data available: Econometric techniques produce estimates of difference that are more unreliable in situations where sample sizes are small. There is a positive correlation between reliability and validity, such that unreliable estimates have a greater chance of being untrue in actuality. This is akin to a Type II error, where random sampling does not allow for you to find evidence of patterns in the data that actually exist in the real world. Moreover, it is interesting that he chose a single city, when studies show that racial disparities in police encounters are greatly reduced by considering variation in police encounters across place, according to Fryer’s own estimates.

Second, because Fryer relied on the intellectual efforts of other economists, he pigeon-holed himself into the pitfalls of the economics discipline. This is not an indictment of an entire discipline. Rather, this is an advocacy of interdisciplinary research teams. Now, the exact discipline of each of his research team members was not released, but I am going to guess by the near racial monotony of the research team posted on The New York Times that they’re mostly, if not all, economists. Economics as a discipline has both under-recruited and under-valued the economic thinking of black folks. Many of the top economics departments in the nation are all-white, and black economists are under-cited in academic publications. Research that documents racial bias in economic outcomes tends to be rejected by top-journals, if accepted by a journal at all. These are facts, not opinions.

Third, a conceptual focus on racial bias by economists interested in understanding the roots of racial inequality requires many judgment calls to be made by the researcher, including most importantly what types of lethal police behaviors are justifiable. There is something akin to groupthink going on among economists in their narrow focus on racial bias, rather than racial disparities. Fryer’s goal in his study of lethal use of force by police was to rule out the possibility of statistical discrimination, which requires a different view of the data than simply examining racial disparities in lethal use of force. It requires for the researcher to “rule out” competing explanations and identify reasonable conditions under which discrimination is not a reflection of bias.

As a race and racism scholar steeped in the structural tradition, I am not of the mindset that discrimination occurs without bias. The bias may be reasonable or implicit, but it still exists – and that is a problem. And, that problem is structural in nature, rooted in anti-blackness ideology that pervades the entire system of social relations in which we exist.

Moreover, I think we live in a dangerous world if we condone police violence as societally acceptable, and I think many scholars in and outside of economics would agree with this. However, when all you do is converse with other people who think just like you, then you get very good at what you do. It is particularly dangerous to assume that everyone who is stopped by the police is actually guilty of a crime, as is done in the Fryer study. For instance, Philando Castile was stopped over 50 times for suspicion of offenses and never charged for anything, indicating that he was never guilty of anything. The suspicion, however, was created because of his blackness, because of police and societal expectations of crime as “black”, because of anti-blackness ideologies rooted in policing institutions ties to slave patrols.

Simultaneously, in this case of academic disciplinarianism, one also becomes less effective at speaking to the reality of the situation: Black and Latino men face a higher exposure to police surveillance, and all of its ramifications, than do White men. We can splice the data however we want to, but just because economic methods for “discovering” and “verifying” racial bias are employed, does not mean that racial disparities are not present.

Rather than conducting research in academic disciplinary silos, we who are interested in work at the intersections of race and policing need to work across the disciplinary divides. Yes, interdisciplinary work is hard. However, technology has made it increasingly easier to work in teams with people, like I am doing with my research on race, policing, and health, which is a product of a collaborative effort between public health scholars and sociologists. In addition to using technology to bridge the challenges of communication, we should also deposit our work in interdisciplinary repository, such as SocArXiv, to increase the reach of our work across the disciplinary aisles.


Abigail A. Sewell, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Emory University

Vice Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania

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Teach well, it matters.