What to do when they’re wrong
Here are three true statements, as best I can determine. First, Americans of all backgrounds have experienced gigantic declines in poverty over the past two generations. Second, most diversity training is worse than a waste of time. Third, police officers are no more likely to kill minorities than they are to kill whites during traffic stops or arrests.
Surprised? I don’t blame you. These statements are difficult to square with establishment opinion. That doesn’t make my statements false, however. It simply makes them inconvenient.
I’ll back up each statement in a moment. But to cut to the chase: What should you do when you’re convinced your political opponents are wrong? In my opinion, that is the key question we face in our present moment, not how best to address issues of mobility, equality, and justice.
Let’s begin with poverty. The standard measures are way out-of-kilter with reality. They exclude much of what lower-income households actually receive to live on, such as refundable tax credits, nutrition assistance, housing, and Medicaid. They also fail to account properly for inflation.
When correctly measured, poverty has fallen dramatically — from 30% of Americans in 1960 to 13% in 1980, 6% in 2000, and less than 3% today, according to a long-running calculation by the University of Chicago’s Bruce Mayer and Notre Dame’s James Sullivan. Average poverty rates are down among all age and demographic groups. And even if you think Mayer and Sullivan’s poverty threshold is set too low, that doesn’t change the trend line. Poverty has plummeted.
Now let’s look at diversity training. It’s been around in more-or-less its current form since the 1980s. Hundreds of studies later, it’s safe to say that most diversity training either produces no long-term benefits for the companies, universities, or other institutions employing it or actively damages relationships among participating coworkers.
Alas, it isn’t even in the case that the quality of the training has gotten better with time. Much of today’s training is based on the use of implicit bias tests, which are at best crude measures of not-well-defined phenomena. “Training to combat implicit bias has no demonstrable benefit,” observes Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi, “and may be even be counterproductive with respect to changing behaviors.”
Finally, I’ll explain my point about fatal shootings by police officers. On average, about a thousand American die every year at the hands of law enforcement. The vast majority are armed and dangerous, of course, although we know from recent tragedies that some are neither. Among those whose race or ethnicity is known, 51% of those killed by police since 2015 were white, while 27% were black and 19% Hispanic.
Because blacks and Hispanics make up smaller shares of the population, they are disproportionately more likely to die in this way. But that’s not the same as saying police officers are more likely to shoot them than they are whites in similar circumstances. Blacks and Hispanics are also more likely to be stopped, questioned, or arrested. When Harvard economist Roland Fryer ran the numbers on fatal incidents, he found “no racial diﬀerences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.”
Knowing what I think I know about poverty, diversity training, and police shootings, then, should I feel empowered to taunt, ridicule, or savage those with contrary views? No. For one thing, these statements are factual but don’t tell the whole story. Why are blacks and Hispanics stopped more often by police, for example? Both differences in crime rates and unjust racial profiling are likely at play. Through informed debate, we can all grope to more empirically supportable — and probably more complex — explanations than the conventional wisdom offers.
More importantly, these statements are true as best I can determine. If I ever hope to persuade others I’m right, I must accept the possibility that someone will persuade me I’m wrong. It’s a two-way street. And the only one worth traveling in a free, open, and civil society.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.