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Race, Police, And Innumeracy

Most wildly overestimate number of unarmed blacks shot by cops-- and do even worse guessing percentage of black cop shooting victims
A 'Stop Killing Black People' placard seen on a bike during

Here’s a question for you: How many unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019? 

  • About 10
  • About 100
  • About 1,000
  • About 10,000
  • More than 10,000

Make your choice before you read further.

What did you say? I guess “about 100.” I was wrong. The correct answer is “about 10” — the much-lauded Washington Post database said 13 unarmed black men were killed by police that year. Another database, one maintained by data scientists and activists, says 27. Still both numbers are far closer to “about 10” than to any other number.

That question was asked in a study commissioned by Skeptic magazine, the results of which were tweeted by political scientist Zach Goldberg (who is a great follow on Twitter). This is mind-blowing:


You can read the entire piece here. 

Conservatives were by far the most accurate in their estimation. Forty percent of liberals thought the answer must be between 1,000 and more than 10,000 — a number that tops fifty percent for the “very liberal.” Only about one in five liberals, and one in six “very liberals,” got the correct answer. My own guess — about 100 — was the second-highest among conservatives, and on par with what liberals (not “very liberals”) and moderates guessed as their top choice.

Another question: Of those shot and killed by police in 2019, what percentage were black?

Don’t read any further until you have guessed?

I guessed about 50 percent.

I would have been very wrong. The real answer is 26.7 percent.

But then, everybody else was wrong too:


What’s the conclusion here? Race and racially-motivated police violence is a major driver of news and political conflict in this country. But most of us — even conservatives — are badly uninformed about it, and think that it’s a much worse problem than it is.

Where would we have gotten our information? The media.

George Floyd’s lawyer, writing last year in the Washington Post, said:

This cascade of recent cases — Ahmaud Arbery, jogging while black; Breonna Taylor, sleeping while black; and most recently, George Floyd, encountering police while black — has sharpened the focus of all Americans on two inescapable realities: Our society and its institutions place a perilously low value on black lives, and it’s inherently dangerous to be black in America.


And then we hear that nagging thought that keeps coming back and demanding us to face it: How many more deaths have not been captured on video? How long has this been going on without witnesses or documentation? Is this an outlier or is this endemic? And it starts to feel like genocide.

Genocide! Genocide is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.”

There are more than 40 million black people in the United States. The killing of between 13 and 27 black people a year in police-involved shootings — not to say whether or not those particular shootings were justified — is not genocide. The idea that the Washington Post would allow a black lawyer to use that kind of incendiary language in an op-ed gives you an idea of why so many Americans think the problem is far worse than it really is.

Similarly, the Gallup poll has consistently found over the last two decades that Americans on average estimate that between one in four and one in five Americans are gay or lesbian. In fact, the number is more between four and five percent. Why the radical overestimation? Well, have you read the papers or magazines, or watched TV in the past 20 years?

UPDATE: Chris Rufo’s comment on these findings:

UPDATE.2: In December 2019, after Elizabeth Warren took up the claim by the LGBT lobby Human Rights Campaign that America was suffering an epidemic of anti-trans murders, I looked into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of all 19 trans people on the HRC’s list for that year. Here’s what I found. There is no hate crime epidemic of anti-trans murder. Most of the dead were street prostitutes — an extremely dangerous line of work. Others were victims of domestic violence, or crimes that did not seem to have anything to do with their gender identity. There were one or two that looked like possible hate crimes. If you happened to be trans, and met a violent end, HRC assumed, for propaganda purposes, that you were murdered for being trans. It’s complete bullshit. But hey, BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER! Yes, they do — but if black trans people, or any people, engage in street prostitution, they have to expect that they will interact with some of the most scummy, violent people in our society, and that this is going to make it more likely that you will meet a bad end.



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