Racism, Damn Racism, and Statistics: Using a Truth to Tell a Lie

Statistics don't tell the whole story. Be wary of anyone who claims that they do.

During the first World War, a prominent British politician campaigned against the issuance of helmets. He cited the statistic that head wounds had increased twelve times over since the government had started issuing steel helmets to all soldiers in 1916.

Can you guess why he was wrong?

(Hint: someone shot in the head without a helmet dies, while someone shot in the head with a helmet …receives a head wound.)

Richard Cohen is now famous for reporting in his Washington Post editorial that, “[i]n New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects – almost all of them young men.” A couple weeks previous, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office released a set of statistics to corroborate his claim that the NYPD should stop-and-frisk fewer white people and more black people. They reported that 90% of those identified as murder suspects were blacks or Latino, and only 7% were white.

In response to the above claims, Ed Brayton of freethoughtblogs.com reported the following:

A study of stops by the New Jersey State Police on the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, found that 15% of the drivers on the turnpike were minorities, but blacks were 42% of those stopped for a traffic violation and 72% of those subsequently arrested — despite the fact that blacks and whites were equally as likely to be violating traffic laws at the time. 77% of all searches were of minorities. A similar study in Maryland found that 17% of drivers on a major highway were black, but 70% of those stopped and searched were black. For minorities on the whole, they constituted 21% of all drivers but 80% of those who were stopped and searched.

But here’s the even more important finding. In both of those studies, whites who were pulled over and searched were actually more likely to have illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In New Jersey, whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband than blacks and five times more likely than Latinos. The same thing held true in Maryland.

In June of 2012, the New York Times reported that over half of all black people in New York City of working age did not have a job in 2012. The average search time for a black New Yorker was a full year, considerably longer than the average search duration for whites. The number of discouraged black workers was 40,000, compared to 22,000 discouraged white workers. Again, black people make up only about a quarter of the population of New York.

None of these numbers tells the whole story, nor do they paint a complete picture altogether. Be wary of anyone who claims that they do.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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