We previously discussed implicit bias with regard to race in this country. Today, I read an article in the Washington Examiner titled, “Murder far worse for blacks under Obama.” Before I dissect the actual content, I’ll talk about the title. This attempts to play into the narrative that President Obama is racially divisive through his own policies and actions, and that he has somehow made things worse for the black community; that he is soft on “law and order,” unlike the Republican nominee this year. While racial division has inarguably grown more pronounced during Barack Obama’s tenure as President, this is more a factor of white anger over a black person being elected than a matter of policy. Additionally, the Republicans in congress stated explicitly that they would use their legislative function as a platform to thwart the new president, actively blocking or refusing to take action on legislation in an attempt to undermine the president’s agenda and make him appear ineffective. The title tells me that this is a continuation of that narrative, and that attempt to delegitimize the president. It also struck me as a reinforcement of the observable implicit bias to which Hillary Clinton referred. Nevertheless, the article piqued my interest. What has changed, and how does the author intend to demonstrate a causal relationship between the current state and the president?
The examiner piece opens by telling us that, despite the fact that blacks in the US might not have the perception that they are living in the dire times that Donald Trump describes, they are in fact more likely than whites to be murdered, and the amount of the gap between murder rates of whites and blacks has widened during Obama’s presidency, stating:
“With the latest figures, it is clear that the disproportionate victimization of blacks has recently become sharply worse. It stands at its highest point for at least the last 20 years, having deteriorated dramatically over the last eight years. As the graphic above this editorial shows, the gap between black and white has been getting worse and worse ever since President Obama was sworn into office in 2009.”
One graph purports to depict the change in percentage of black murder victims as a function of all murder victims from 1997 to 2015. The starting percentage is 48.5% and the ending metric is 52.5%, for a four percent increase in share of overall murder victims. The path between these two numbers is nowhere near a straight line, but there does seem to be a steady rise from 2010 to 2014, with a sharper increase from 2014 to 2015. However, this is the second of two graphs. The first graph, which is found at the beginning of the article, depicts numbers of murder victims (tracking two separate lines for blacks and whites). For both groups the first graph depicts a sharp decline from 1997 to 1999, then a rise to 2006, a steady decline to 2014, and a sharp rise from 2014 to 2015. It seems that blacks generally fared worse than whites along the entire trend, though the disparity is more distinct between 2014 and 2015. But, the total numbers, even factoring in the increase between 2014 and 2015, are lower than those depicted in 1997. The peak in 2006 was clearly not a function of President Obama’s policies, and up to 2014 there is a precipitous drop in overall murders. It occurs to me that the separation between the two graphs is deliberate, to allow the second, more misleading representation to have the more memorable impact on the reader.
Also, the choice of start year is deliberately misleading. Data from the US Department of Justice (DoJ) form 1980 to 2008 provides a more meaningful look at murder over time. When taken together with the 1997 to 2015 data provided in the article, we see that the early 1990’s was a peak time for murder in the US. The year 1997 is on the tail end of a very steep reduction in murders overall. The increase between 2014 and 2015, when viewed in a broader context, is a minor uptick and doesn’t remotely touch the early 1990’s murder rates. While the DoJ data is not parsed out in exactly the same way as the graphs in the Examiner article, they do provide data on the murder rates among ethnic demographics as numbers per 100,000 of the population. In this representation, blacks have consistently been overrepresented, while whites have been fairly steady. The number of blacks per 100,000 murdered did decline dramatically from 1980 to 2008 (from 40 to 20/100,000), but never came close to the ratio for whites (consistently less than 10/100,000).
The reasons for the disparities are complex and varied. Socio-economic factors, systemic biases impacting education and job opportunities, and inequitable policing have certainly all been factors, and perhaps the positive trends over time are a reflection of improvements in these and other areas. The Examiner made no attempt to address any of the root issues of which murder statistics might be a reflection. The author simply attempted to use misleading data to tout Trump as a “law and order” candidate that could help black folks out of the terrible situation in which they find themselves. The data simply does not paint such a picture overall (though undoubtedly some areas are worse off than others). This might be why the black community does not share Trumps perception of their situation; because he is wrong, and frankly has no idea.
And, to address the original comments about President Obama; at no point did this article actually address any executive policies or actions by this or any other president that might have had an impact on murder rates. No data points to this being the worst time ever for blacks in this country, and no data points to this president being the most racially divisive. Certainly we should be looking to improve social equity, and certainly we should look to curtail murders. We can’t accomplish this with misleading statistics and baseless attribution of blame.