On Maintaining Ideological Purity: Thomas Sowell, Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney

SowellI used to have a lot of respect for Thomas Sowell. I didn’t agree with him but I felt he was consistent with the framework of his economic argument.

My social media feed has been directing me to articles Sowell wrote for the National Review Online that speak to the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere over the past ten months. When I carefully read those articles, I don’t see argument based on conservative economic principles. What I see is distortion and misrepresentation of the circumstances on the ground in service of a dominant ideology.

It seems that maintaining ideological purity in the face of difficult social situations requires cherry picking and reinterpreting circumstances. This saddens me for two reasons: it fails to advance needed conversations as a society and it shows what extreme partisanship does to academics.

The positions Sowell espouses are supported by some isolated statistics which gives them the air of academic strength. But they are far too careless with details, as just a little research would show.

Consider the article titled The “Disparate Impact” Racket written in March after the Department of Justice released their reports on Ferguson.  The first report showed that there was no evidence that Michael Brown had been shot in the back or had his hands raised when shot. While that report didn’t “clear” Darren Wilson, it did show that original eyewitness testimony had been wrong (and there has been interesting commentary from social psychologists why this happens in bystander testimony). If you know a little about criminal justice, this isn’t surprising.

Why, then, is it necessary to ascribe negative motives to what is essentially a cognition problem? Sowell writes:

The bottom line is that all this hard evidence, and more, shows what a complete lie was behind all the stories of Michael Brown’s being shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender. Yet that lie was repeated, and dramatized in demonstrations and riots, from coast to coast, as well as in the media and even in the halls of Congress.

Sowell’s choice of the word LIE acribes something duplicitous in those concerned with the shooting. It also detracts the reader’s attention from the tragedy of the shooting to the “hands up don’t shoot” claim. As if finding that the latter was false means that the former is as well.

The second report from the Department of Justice was about the actions of the Ferguson authorities in terms of “disparate intent” — the ways that traffic stops and minor arrests were a source of the frustrations underlying the protests in Ferguson.

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

The DOJ report focused on the ways in which Ferguson used traffic stops, warrants, and fines to operate the city budget. This relied disproportionately on those who had the most difficulty making it to court, paying fines, keeping their car up to date on license and inspections. Sowell’s use of air quotes around disparate impact serves to minimize and even ridicule the claims.

While on the road this weekend, we listened to a Ferguson town hall meeting hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin two weeks after the Brown shooting.  It was clear from the comments and questions that three issues were central to the audience: disparate impact, leaving Brown’s body on the ground for 4.5 hours, and why the mayor didn’t take responsibility for the escalation from law enforcement (which, he claimed, was not from Ferguson officers).

I don’t expect Sowell to adopt an anti-Ferguson demeanor or start attaching #blacklivesmatter to every tweet. But I think it is reasonable to expect him to deal with the substance of the issues in Ferguson and not dismiss them. You can still make your claims about cultural impact without denying structural factors.

In this post-Baltimore piece last month titled The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities Social Breakdown, Sowell begins in the same place he was two month earlier:

Among the many painful ironies in the current racial turmoil is that communities scattered across the country were disrupted by riots and looting because of the demonstrable lie that Michael Brown was shot in the back by a white policeman in Missouri — but there was not nearly as much turmoil created by the demonstrable fact that a fleeing black man was shot dead by a white policeman in South Carolina.

Again, to represent issues in Baltimore as riots and not protests (followed by vandalism) is to mis-tell the story. And it’s not clear how the Brown shooting was related or that everything was about the act of shooting. The issues remain about ongoing structural discrimination.

But Sowell recasts the concerns about ongoing structural discrimination as a “legacy of slavery”:

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

To sustain this argument, we need to ignore all of the post-Baltimore stories that focused on covenant agreements in 1910 up to subprime loans in 2005. The structural discrimination concern isn’t about feeling bad over slavery but about ongoing issues in the fabric of society itself. We need to ignore the data suggesting that blacks paid $16,000 more than whites for equivalent mortgages during the housing crisis.

We must also ignore the work of Michelle Alexander and Heather Thompson, who have been demonstrating the structural contributions to our heavily incarcerated society that limits job prospects, damages family structures, and impacts our politics. On the road trip I listened to a speech Michelle gave summarizing The New Jim Crow. I also listened to a lecture from Heather Thompson on how incarceration impacts voting practice. (Shocking finding: incarcerated inmates are counted in the census figures and impact district lines based on where they are incarcerated while they are barred from voting in the place where they actually live.)

Furthermore, to blame the welfare state as an alternative to institutional racism requires a standard slight of hand move: that racism existed in past days but the welfare state was expected to fix this.

I don’t know why this is a standard conservative pundit move. As a sociologist, I expect that the injustices within the society will get written into the bureaucratic rules of our institutional structures. Therefore, the structural inequality evidenced in housing and criminal justice will also be evident in welfare and food stamp policies. A more robust vision of the forces we’re up against is necessary if we are to make progress.

This month, in a piece titled The Steep Cost of Politicians Scapegoating the Police Sowell offers up a defense of law enforcement:

Baltimore is now paying the price for irresponsible words and actions, not only by young thugs in the streets, but also by its mayor and the state prosecutor, both of whom threw the police to the wolves, in order to curry favor with local voters.

He argues that black leaders, including the justice department, have been drumming up angst. The result, he claims, is “anti-police mob rampages from coast to coast that the media sanitize as ‘protests’.”

He goes on to argue that the Department of Justice “presume the police to be guilty…even after grand juries have gone over all the facts and acquitted the police.” First of all, he must be talking about Ferguson because there was a grand jury indictment in both Baltimore and South Carolina. Second, grand juries don’t acquit — they decide not to charge. It’s an important distinction.

This isn’t nitpicking. It’s central to the argument. An academic, even writing in partisan press, has a responsibility for nuance and care in looking at the complexities involved. Public figures should play a role in illumining the key questions before us as a society.

Unless they are being partisan figures first and foremost. I can agree with Sowell on this point, one he’d do well to revisit:

Racial demagoguery gains votes for politicians, money for race-hustling lawyers, and a combination of money, power, and notoriety for armies of professional activists, ideologues, and shakedown artists.

In light of yesterday’s events in McKinney, Texas, we simply can’t afford such one-sided refusal to deal with real issues confronting us in racially contested society. It’s possible to argue that this “wasn’t about race” but only if you can ignore the sight of the police having African-American kids sit on the grass and be treated as suspects while everyone else milled around. To focus on the alleged wrongdoing of some does not excuse the behavior that followed — which brings us back to the source of the protest and media outrage.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Sowell write anything yet about McKinney. But I’m not optimistic.

It’s not about “the lie” that someone intentionally did something.  It’s about the ways the aftermath illustrated that something is clearly wrong. Demagoguery only makes things worse.

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