Heather Mac Donald, a writer for City Journal, attacks a “study” from Stanford University according to which police officers in Oakland, California, are much more disrespectful towards black drivers than white ones.
The study was conducted in June, by a team of nine Stanford linguists, computer scientists and psychologists. They wanted to show that police officers in Oakland, California treat black people ruder than white drivers.
This research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and many media outlets rushed to publish the study. The New York Times, Science, The Washington Post and many other gave it significant meaning. “Police officers are significantly less respectful and consistently ruder toward black motorists during routine traffic stops than they are toward white drivers,” gloated the New York Times.
After reading the stories in these papers, many would think the cops were using insulting words during the communication with the black drivers. But in fact, the most disrespectful behavior presented in the study was: “Steve, can I see that driver’s license again? It, it’s showing suspended. Is that—that’s you?” Another was: “All right, my man. Do me a favor. Just keep your hands on the steering wheel real quick.”
The scientists were expecting much more shocking results, but unfortunately for them, that wasn’t the case here. So, they presented the study by using a lot of dramatic words. One founder of Black Lives Matter said the study goes beyond individual racism to highlight a “systemic set of practices that has impacts on people’s lives.”
It is sad for the left that they tried to put a negative spin on these findings.
The method they used in the study was analyzing officer body-camera footage. The officers stopped 981 cars, from which 682 black drivers and 299 white drivers in April 2014. The resulting officer-driver conversations yielded 36,738 discrete officer utterances. In the first phase of the study, college students rated 414 of those officer utterances (1.1 percent of the total) for levels of respect. The students were shown what, if anything, the driver said immediately preceding each officer statement but were not shown any more of the earlier interaction between officer and driver. They were not told the race of the driver or officer or anything else about the stop. The students rated police utterances to white drivers as somewhat more respectful than those to black drivers, though the officers were equally “formal,” as the researchers defined it, with drivers of both races.
The linguisticians, in the second stage of the research, tried to determine which features of the 414 officer utterances had generated the student ratings. They selected 22 categories of speech.
On the positive scale were, inter alia, officer apologies, the use of surnames, the use of “um” and “uh” (known in linguistics as “filled pauses”), use of the word “just,” and what is referred to as “giving agency” (saying “you can,” “you may,” or “you could”).
And on the negative scale there were 8 categories including questions, “asking for agency” (phrases such as “do me a favor,” “allow me,” “may I,” “should I”), “disfluency” (a repeated word such as “that, that”), informal titles (“bro,” “my man”), first names, and, most disrespectful, the phrase “hands on the wheel.” If some of those distinctions seem arbitrary—“could I” is disrespectful, “you could” is respectful; “um” is respectful,” a word repetition is not—they are. It is very important, they are short and inoffensive. The 22 categories got a score supposedly summing up their degree of respect or disrespect, with apologizing at the top of the respect scale and “hands on the wheel” at the bottom. There were no categories of swear words, probably because the police officers never used any.
Finally, in phase three, the researchers turned their computers loose on all 36,738 officer utterances, using the 22-category rating system. They discovered that the police officers were more polite with white drivers than the black ones, regardless whether the stop ended with the search, warning or arrest. (The sample size for white arrests and searches was quite small, however: one arrest and two searches; black drivers were 15 times more likely to be arrested than whites.)
It is interesting that the black cops scored the same as white cops on the scale of respect towards black and white drivers.White drivers were 57 percent more likely than black drivers to hear something from the top 10 percent of the respect categories, and black drivers were 61 percent more likely to hear something from the bottom 10 percent of the disrespect categories.
Mac Donald points out that if we accept that there is a moral difference between saying “can I” instead of “you can,” or saying “hands on the wheel,” this doesn’t show that racism has anything to do with it: “given crime rates in Oakland, a black driver is far more likely than a white driver to be on parole or probation, a fact that will show up when an officer runs his plates or his license” (to say nothing of the disparity in other crimes).
This is only a proof of what happens when “researchers” with political bias are given money to conduct a study, starting off with an outcome they expect, and then misinterpret the reality to present the wanted results.
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