The time is now 12:06 a.m. I usually go to bed around this time, but amid the pandemic, my sleep patterns have shifted. I’m having a hard time sleeping at night these days. I don’t watch any TV shows and rarely watch movies, so I spend most of my nights reading and writing about things that interest me. I often budget most of my time extending my learning on the business of sport and tourism, which will be the focus of my PhD dissertation. But I also make sure to keep up to date with world events and news. I’ve loved politics for some time and it continues unabated. I’ve read as many books and literature about politics as I have compared to sport and tourism, yet I still feel hesitant to write about a subject matter outside of my academic training.
For future posts, I plan to stick to my field of study except for this rare occurrence because no matter the distractions, I could never suppress my thoughts and feelings on the lynching of George Floyd. A few months away from today, I’d happily be proven wrong if George Floyd just becomes another statistic in the same vein as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and the list goes on. I know the chances of that happening are smaller than the size of a bird’s nest because police brutality against the black community seems to fall on deaf ears for some despite the racial injustices reaching its apex. This is not a matter of opinion so much as a factual point of how the black community is disproportionately at greater odds of being targeted and killed by the police compared to white men.
Based on a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, the study found that the black community faced the highest risk of being killed by the police, at a rate of 96 out of 100,000 deaths. Conversely, white men and boys faced a lower rate of 39 per 100,000 deaths, although they comprised a bigger portion of the US population. Indeed, this is just one study and in the past I’ve criticized some journalists for not using a meta-analysis to underpin their reporting, and as such, I’ll be mindful of the bias and statistical errors that could be present in this study. But other recent scholarly studies show similar findings, which suggests statistical reliability.
It occurs to me that despite the overwhelming evidence, we still can’t objectively agree on the plight of our black brothers and sisters. It’s perhaps a consequence of confirmation bias, the proclivity for people to believe in information that supports their world view and reject information that runs contrary to it. This phenomenon was well documented in a seminal study at Stanford University which had two groups of students who held opposing views on capital punishment: the first group were in favour of it and believed it deterred crime, and the second group were opposed to it and believed it didn’t impact crime.
Both groups were then presented with two data-sets to support both views. The results showed that the first group who supported capital punishment were convinced of the data that supported their position, and deemed the other data unconvincing, and the students who were opposed to capital punishment did the opposite. There have been countless experiments to illustrate this phenomenon.
Keeping this in mind, no matter how many scientific studies that show police brutality on blacks, there will be a subset of the population that remain skeptical. When these very people employ decision making as voters, police officers, policy-makers, and so on – it makes it harder, not easier, to build recreational centres to hold mentorship programs for youth gangs, or hire more black police officers and include blacks in grand juries, or promote rallies and demonstrations to show support for the injustice.
However, that’s not to say dissent and a diversity of perspectives is not important. It forms the brand of democracy that has given rise to the enlightenment and human progress. If decision-makers want to use reason and logic to question the hiring of more black officers purporting that competence eclipses quotas, that’s warranted. That can be debated and eventually find plausible solutions. But what we’re seeing has less to do with using reason to arrive at decisions and more to do with using emotion laced with biases and heuristics.
If that seems like excessive hyperbole, consider the killing of Mr. Arbery. Did the two white men use reason and logic to get into a pickup truck and chase him, or was that based on emotion? Consider the white woman who called the police on a black man bird-watching in Central Park. Was that based on reason and logic or emotion? Consider the killing of George Floyd. Was that based on reason and logic or emotion? The list goes on.
Now I understand some think we live in a post-truth era. As Dr. Steven Pinker says, consider the statement “We are living in a post-truth era.” Is it true? If so, it cannot be true. To claim that humans are irrational insinuates there is someone/something against which humans don’t measure up. So if it is true that we are rational, why do we act in irrational ways?
While irrationality is evident with police brutality, it certainly was not the case under Obama’s presidency. Obama repeatedly remarked that he is an evidenced-based thinker, using facts and reason to guide his decision making. In Michelle Alexander’s book on the problem of mass black incarceration, she explains that the Obama administration had a special opportunity to end the system of mass incarceration in America. Given that he is African American and had campaigned on criminal justice reform and was opposed to the war on drugs, there was more hope than hype, and I can vividly remember seeing the African American community in awe.
But Michelle reports in her book that he fell short of using his power to deliver on his promises. First, he hired a vice-president who was one of the major leaders in the war on drugs during the 1980’s and 90’s. Second, President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was a critical player in the slashing of welfare rolls during President Clinton’s administration. And third, he hired a man to lead the US Department of Justice who fought to impose punitive mandatory minimums for marijuana possession. Most shockingly, his budget for law enforcement was worse than the Bush administration in terms of funding for drug prevention and drug treatment even though the data suggested that there was a dire need for assistance, according to “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a flagrant assault on President Obama’s administration. I adore his character and some aspects of his presidency. I even have a poster of him in my basement work station. But it’s hard not to think, if not for Obama, then who?
Even when intelligent, anti-racist people use rationality to make decisions in the political arena, there is still no shortage of innocent black men and women wrongfully convicted and killed. It hurts my head and boils my blood every time. Moving forward, I hope to live in dialogue rather than a monologue with the black community to learn more about the injustices and their lived experiences.
I’ve been writing late into the night. It’s time to go to bed. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow to hear another episode of “I can’t breathe”. Rest in peace, George Floyd.
By Vinu Selvaratnam
The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent any institution.