The Perils of Cherry-Picked Statistics

By Jacob Tonglet

There have been a lot of videos and comments on social media lately offering varying opinions on subjects like racism, police brutality, and white privilege. It’s a shame that it takes the tragedy of death for these subjects to become a part of mainstream public debate, but there is solace in that we get to discuss them now. A problem I have noticed arising in these discussions, though, has been the manipulation of numbers to fit political and personal agendas. Statistics are a great resource to use to back up claims, but what use are numbers without context? Let’s look at a few of them.


Recently I saw one of my Facebook friends share an article about “black on black crime”; it seemed to be a way of saying “the police don’t kill black people, other black people do.” This friend cited that 90% of black people killed are killed by other black people. This statistic looks daunting until you consider its context. Because of the socioeconomic history of our country, we tend to see neighborhoods still segregated by race to this day. Additionally, according to Pew, individuals tend to have more friends among their own race group than they do among races different from their own. Murders tend to happen amongst people that are either close relationally or close in proximity to the murderer, so it only makes sense that 90% of the murders of black people are perpetrated by other black people. What is missed by people who post this individualized statistic is that this is true amongst all racesin the majority of violent victimizations, white victims’ offenders tend to be white and black victims’ offenders tend to be black. This “black on black crime” statistic is often used with the sole purpose of drawing attention away from the issue of police brutality, which is why many have called the weaponization of this statistic racist.


Another statistic often weaponized is the disproportionate percentage of black people charged with crimes, which gets used to justify racial profiling. In a recent video that has sparked much discussion among pro-lifers, Abby Johnson quoted this stat when talking about how she is okay with the police profiling her adopted biracial son. She said that it is only natural for the police to be more alert around her biracial son than her white children because black people statistically commit more crimes. This is not exactly true. Black people are incarcerated at much higher rates than white people, yes — but we cannot take this statistic at face value. It is important to analyze why the numbers look the way they do. Due to centuries of racist policies designed to oppress non-white Americans, the black community tends to experience poverty at higher rates than the white community. This generational lack of wealth ultimately leads to longer prison sentences for black Americans when compared to white perpetrators, even for the same crimes — but how? There are two major ways in which our justice system criminalizes poverty. The first is through the bail system, which by design helps wealthy individuals get out of jail. If you don’t have the money to pay, you sit in jail, even if you are innocent. Often this means waiting a long time because the justice system moves slowly. Many poor people will take plea deals, even if they are innocent, just to get out faster than the court system could provide. In fact, most criminal cases end in plea deals, not trials. The second way poverty is criminalized is in the court system itself. If you can afford a good lawyer, you get one — but if you are poor, you get a court-appointed lawyer, which often leads to uneven and unpredictable quality of representation. This disproportionate defense leads to a disproportionate outcome. Poorer people tend to be found guilty more often and are given harsher sentences over wealthier offenders. The outcomes of the justice system too often have more to do with how much money you have than the severity of the crime.


Later in her video, Johnson goes on to claim that fatherhood is being lost amongst the black community — citing the myth that 70% of black fathers leave their families. She suggests that because they leave their families, it is karma-like punishment that they end up in jail eventually. She seems to be confusing causation and correlation. It’s not that black men end up in jail after leaving their families — it’s that many black men are forced to leave their families because they are incarcerated. As I mentioned previously, the justice system disproportionally gives black men longer jail sentences, which keeps them away from their families. Additionally, Johnson fails to address other factors that affect the involvement of black fathers, such as the need to work longer hours in order to pay the bills. These factors that stem from racism and generational poverty can’t be ignored when talking about fatherhood in black families.


While I can appreciate the discussion Abby Johnson has sparked about racial bias in policing, she seems to be too busy trying to justify her own political and personal bias to see the big picture. She and many others are trying to manipulate statistics — but the historical context of those numbers can’t lie.


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