Conservative writer Heather MacDonald has a scathing article in City Journal arguing that the number of police killings of black men is not worth making a fuss over, and is certainly not racist. I want to focus on a particular part of her argument, which I think suffices to show that she is being massively intellectually dishonest. After a paragraph using a series of statistics about violent deaths among black people, MacDonald says the following:
There is huge unacknowledged support for the police in the inner city: “They’re due respect because they put their lives every day on the line to protect and serve. I hope they don’t back off from policing,” a woman told me on Thursday night, two nights before the assassination, on the street in Staten Island where Eric Garner was killed.
First, let’s note the fudging MacDonald does. From the woman’s quote, which simply indicates a respect for officers’ sacrifices and a fear of not having police, MacDonald concludes that there is “huge support for the police,” which she then uses to mean that there are no problems. This is concluding far too much from far too little.
But next, the sudden shift from using hard numbers in one passage to using “one woman I met in Staten Island” in the next struck me oddly. Why doesn’t she use statistics on this contention? If there is “huge” support for this, why do we not know about it? Is it simply that data has not been gathered? Has it been hidden?
The answer is that to go beyond the anecdotal, MacDonald would have to grapple with some figures that massively undermine her belief in “huge” support (see these two posts from the Pew Research Center). She would have to reckon with the fact that 70% of blacks think police do a “poor” job of treating races equally. She would have to explain how a significant plurality of blacks have “very little” confidence in police not to use excessive force.
When MacDonald speaks of “huge” support, then, she neglects to mention that confidence in police among blacks is miserably low, and black people are extremely cynical about claims that they are treated equally by the police. The experience of Aubura Taylor, who despite a college degree finds himself constantly harassed, sworn at, and threatened by police as he goes about his day, is a universal fact of black life.
For MacDonald to be correct, then, that there is no race problem in policing, she would have to allege that over 2/3 of black people are massively delusional about the way they are treated by the police. Now, perhaps this is the case. MacDonald might argue that black people have been brainwashed by liberal “victimology,” so much so that they now live in a fabricated reality of imaginary persecution. But let’s be clear what MacDonald is then saying: she is alleging that black people, by the millions, have no idea how they are actually treated by the police. She is saying that from afar, she can conclude that all of these people are in error about their own lives, that their experiences with police have in fact been much better than they themselves think.
Again, this could be so. But why hasn’t Heather MacDonald argued it? Why has she avoided a question that is crucial for whether she is right; if, as she says, the police treat people fairly based on race, why do most black people report this as being untrue?
Here is my suspicion: Heather MacDonald has made no argument on this point because she is uninterested in the truth. This is why she uses statistics when they support her point, but anecdotes where the statistics complicate it. This is why she extrapolates from “one woman” to “black people generally,” and from “I don’t want there not to be police” to “There are no problems with the way police practices occur.” These are the argumentative tactics of someone pushing an ideological position rather than examining the evidence.
It seems that Heather MacDonald engages in this kind of dishonesty a lot when she talks about race and police. In a blog post at the National Review, she says the following:
A central tenet of the current mass hysteria against policing holds that majority-white police departments are prima facie abusive in minority communities. The riots in Ferguson, Mo., were inspired, we were told, by years of mistreatment from a predominantly white police department that by definition could not police fairly in the majority-black town. Black officers, by implication, would be less prone to, if not altogether immune from, such abuses. This piece of received wisdom does not fit well with the facts. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York just announced that he was joining a lawsuit against New York City for its mistreatment of inmates at the Rikers Island jail complex… The correctional officers on Rikers are over two-thirds black; the command staff is predominantly minority as well — this in a city that is only 23 percent black… Race, it would seem, is not a surefire predictor of police behavior.
MacDonald attributes a position to the left that it does not hold. Somehow, she thinks that the idea that a white police force is more prone to abusing a minority community implies the belief that no abuses would occur if the police force were majority-black. Then she proceeds to show some abuses conducted by majority-black forces, thinking that doing so devastates the left’s argument. But it doesn’t; why would it? The argument could be that a racially representative force is necessary but not sufficient for eliminating racist practices. Or simply that these are tendencies; that a black police department abuses at a lower rate. These beliefs might be right or wrong (I am skeptical of them), but the Rikers incident would do nothing to undermine them. This is a simple point, but MacDonald pretends it doesn’t exist.
MacDonald even seems to recognize the modesty of her evidence by the end of her post. The fact that her conclusion is “Race is not a surefire predictor of police behavior” means she has only proved something against the maybe 9 people in America who have ever said “Race is a surefire predictor of police behavior.” Does she not remember the racist cop from Boyz n the Hood? Does she remember that he was black? How does this square with her belief that those who believe the police are racist cannot deal with the existence of abuses by black officers? (Hey, if she gets to call Random Staten Island Woman to testify, I get to call John Singleton.)
Heather MacDonald should not be taken seriously when she discusses race and policing, because she has shown a tendency to ignore the facts that complicate her argument. Her shady argumentative tactics reveal her to be a dishonest idealogue. This is why she will not mention that Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot his ex-girlfriend before killing the two NYPD officers, because it makes him seem more insane and less political. This is why she will argue against an imaginary left that believes black cops cannot abuse people, as if those in New Orleans who detest the NOPD have failed to realize a large number of its officers are black. This is why she will deploy the bizarre conservative cliché that black people don’t care about black on black crime, even though they protest it constantly. This is why she will sweep aside the mountain of black testimony about experiences with police, because acknowledging it would make her argument sound far slipperier and more conspiratorial. Because Heather MacDonald is uninterested in the truth; she is only interested in exonerating the police of charges of racial bias, no matter what the facts may be.