When Will It Stop? T.V. Writers and Dumb Statistics

My wife is a big fan of House, M.D., which I agree is an enjoyable program. If memory serves, our own S.T. Karnick gave it a nice review over at NRO.

I was watching this evening when the physician team was treating an African-American death row inmate played by L.L. Cool J. The docs, of course, had to talk about social justice, the death penalty, racism, etc.. Fine with me. One of the docs said he’s against it in principle, but is unbothered when the switch gets pulled. Another, a female doc, said she was against it because it is racially motivated. Her statistical claim was that black murderers are ten times more likely than white killers to get the death penalty.

This is where my eyebrows tilted up. Not quite, lassie. As I recall the cases in law school where the question of racism in death penalty sentencing was considered, the race of the killer turned out to be statistically insignificant. Guess what was signifant? The race of the victim! Killers who murder blacks are less likely to get the death penalty than killers who murder whites. Very interesting. So, if there is racism, it is in the fact that killers of African-American victims should theoretically be less deterred than killers of whites.

Television would be more interesting if writers would take the time to do a little research.

For my part, I kind of agreed with what the African-American doctor character said when confronted with the (as I just established, fallacious) racism charge in death penalty sentencing. If that’s true, “we just need to kill more white folks.” Of course, the show isn’t over and he may be dramatically converted by the end of the episode.

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38 thoughts on “When Will It Stop? T.V. Writers and Dumb Statistics

  1. well you are sort of right and sort of wrong.

    here’s the breakdown of current (2005) death row inmates by race:

    Black 41%
    Hispanic 10%
    White 45%
    Other 2%
    from here

    Meanwhile US population by race (as of 2000 census) is
    Black 12%
    Hispanic 12%
    White 69%
    Other ~5%
    see here

    Obviously the black representation on death row is massively disproportionate to the representation within the population in general. That’s a big clue that there is some institutional racism based on the defendants skin.

    But you are right when you say there is racism based on the victim’s skin. (stats from the first link above)

    Death row population, Race of victim:
    Black 14%
    Hispanic 4%
    White 80%
    Other 2%

    Here blacks are under represented and whites are overly represented.

    So now that you know the system is hideously biased in two ways do you feel any differently about letting them kill people based on those prejudices?

  2. If you’re analyzing the decision to put someone on death row, I don’t think the first comparison makes much sense. Why would we assume that murder (or crime) was evenly distributed by race?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare the racial make up of death row inmates against the total population of inmates who’ve committed murder? I have no idea what the results here are, but if you’re looking for sentencing bias I would think this statistic would be more relevant.

  3. So now that you know the system is hideously biased in two ways do you feel any differently about letting them kill people based on those prejudices?

    I agree that the second statistic shows bias, and there may be a number of reasons for that – but does it automatically follow that because leniency is showed in some cases that the whole thing should be thrown out?

    The evidence of bias is grounds for addressing the bias within the system. The case against the use of the death penalty would seem to be independent of that issue.

  4. “If you’re analyzing the decision to put someone on death row, I don’t think the first comparison makes much sense. Why would we assume that murder (or crime) was evenly distributed by race?”

    Because we are looking for overall institutional racism. Hence comparing the death row population to say the total prison population doesn’t work. It’s like me saying “the klan killed a lot of black people” and you say “yeah but they also just beat a lot of black people.” That really doesn’t make it better now does it?

    Let’s put it this way, if everything else was equal do you think any race would statistically kill more people than any other race?

    If you answered no then congratulations, you won the prize of not being a total bigot. But you also just indicated that the prison population should match the overall population and when it doesn’t the prime suspect is some form of institutional racism (which granted may occur outside the actual justice system).

    “The evidence of bias is grounds for addressing the bias within the system. The case against the use of the death penalty would seem to be independent of that issue.”

    The evidence of Bias would seem to be very good grounds for precluding the use of a punishment that is the most extreme and which cannot be undone. The death penalty might be justified in a perfect system, in anything less than that it cannot be because the harm is irreparable.

  5. Matt is right. You can’t draw any conclusions about the death penalty based on who is on death row. You would have to look at the universe of people who have committed capital crimes, been tried, and then received death or not. If within that universe you find that black members of the group get death more frequently, then you would have a racism argument.

  6. The death penalty is most often meted out when the victim is a stranger to the murderer. This would help skew the stat.

    By brute math, 69% of the strangers a Black person might meet (and kill) are white, which gets us closer to that 80%.

    Social science might find the missing 11% statistically significant. I don’t. Copkillers get the death penalty often, and perhaps the overall percentage of white officers is a bit higher. We all want more black cops, but the thought of more dead black cops to please the stats doesn’t make me any warm & fuzzier.

  7. Let’s put it this way, if everything else was equal do you think any race would statistically kill more people than any other race?

    You are asking a different question here than the one of bias among deather row inmates. Hunter followed it up for me nicely.

    But you also just indicated that the prison population should match the overall population and when it doesn’t the prime suspect is some form of institutional racism (which granted may occur outside the actual justice system).

    Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid a certain degree of institutional oppression. Does that mean we should tolerate excessive levels of this oppression – no. But here’s a newsflash, life is not fair – it never will be, it never can be. Some of us are not as smart as others, some are shorter, some have lousy parents and the list goes on. All of these injustices are grounds for understanding, sympathy and compassion – but they don’t excuse bad behavior.

    The death penalty might be justified in a perfect system, in anything less than that it cannot be because the harm is irreparable.

    If execution is a warranted* punishment for a given offense, and you have reasonable grounds for expecting that it will be enforced – then you have no right to complain when it is rightfully administered. If someone else is able to dodge the full penalty of the crime they committed, kudos to them. It has nothing to do with what your understanding of the rules are/were.

    * There may be a host of other reasons for objecting to execution.

  8. Hunter, since you’re apparently not a complete House addict you may not be applying the proper context. The deliverer of the “ten times more likely” line was Dr. Cameron, whose role in the show is to provide the over-emotional, too-empathetic, psychological basket-case foil to House’s Descartes-robot personality. It would have been interesting if Sela Ward, who plays the hospital attorney, had been in on the scene to deliver a counterposing line, but at that point the social justice angle was probably being overplayed anyway.

    I thought the entire show did a nice job of illustrating the assumptions we make about who deserves life and why. And this is not the first time this topic has been explored — in another episode House lies to the transplant committee to get a new heart for a patient who would otherwise be ineligible for the list due to psychiatric problems. I have written before that House is probably the most pro-life show on TV right now, despite the fact that the closest any of the characters comes to explicit faith is Dr. “I Hate Nuns” Chase, the failed Catholic seminarian.

  9. “Matt is right. You can’t draw any conclusions about the death penalty based on who is on death row. You would have to look at the universe of people who have committed capital crimes, been tried, and then received death or not.”

    Hunter I ask you the exact same question I put to Matt:
    if everything else was equal do you think any race would statistically kill more people than any other race?

    Answer that one question either yes or no and the conversation is done.

  10. “By brute math, 69% of the strangers a Black person might meet (and kill) are white, which gets us closer to that 80%.”

    Come on Tom, you have know that that argument is entirely ignorant of the way that races in america tend to clump into homogenous communities.

    Besides which stating the argument in such a way cannot explain the 3.5x over representation of blacks on death row.

  11. “You are asking a different question here than the one of bias among deather row inmates. Hunter followed it up for me nicely.”

    No hunter dodged it which is why I asked it to him point blank. We’ll see how he responds to it next.
    The question I asked has only one logical answer. ANd that answer leads to a further inescapable conclusion: the fact that death row does not mirror the demographic breakdown of the general population can only be attributed to racist elements within society.

    As I said not all of these elements will be within the justice system itself. But Hunter’s original point about the color of the victim’s skin being important proves that at least some of them are indeed within the courts.

    “If execution is a warranted* punishment for a given offense, and you have reasonable grounds for expecting that it will be enforced – then you have no right to complain when it is rightfully administered.”

    That has absolutely no connection to what I said. I said nothing about what you should expect. I said that since the punishment is irreparable and since the system can easily and conclusively be shown to be flawed and prejudicial it is simply unjustified to allow such a punishment to occur.

    Put it this way: you know you are kind of a clumsy plumber. You go to the store and you have the choice between a fitting that once attached can never be removed and one that is adjustable. Which do you get? Unless you are a complete idiot you go for the one you can undo if you mess it up.

  12. Besides which stating the argument in such a way cannot explain the 3.5x over representation of blacks on death row.

    Um, the number of murders committed?

    Blacks commit about half the murders in the US, which I make is about 4.2X their population representation. Sorry, these are the numbers glossed over by the anti-death penalty sites you’re culling from.

    I suppose handing out more death sentences for black-on-black murder would even things up a bit. Seems that blacks are a tad underrepresented on death row.

    As for your other objection, which has some merit but is by no means comprehensive—it certainly makes sense to go to another neighborhood to rob and murder.

    Just like Tookie Williams did, if you’ll recall.

  13. Tlaloc, you’re asking me, all things held equal, whether any particular race would commit the crime of murder more frequently than another race or all other races?

    If I understand your question correctly, I suppose you mean that if between races there were no disparities of income, education, family composition, etc., then we would not African-Americans committing a disproportional number of murders.

    Given that I believe all of those factors effect the likelihood that a person would commit a crime, then I would say that I would expect equality of education, family solidity, economic achievement, etc. would produce less difference (or even no difference) in homicide rates.

    If you would then infer racism from the fact that blacks commit more murders, I would say that is one of the possibilities. My guess is that the higher crime rates among African-Americans are more clearly pronounced after the War on Poverty than before. I suspect that AFDC and other programs freed many men (including a disproportionate amount of African-American men) from typical family obligations and led them to engage in less productive endeavors.

    I think that if we had followed the benign neglect advice of former Senator Moynihan with regard to the race problem, we would be significantly farther along. Government support of almost anything, including religion and non-parenting, usually has bad effects.

  14. “Government support of almost anything, including religion and non-parenting, usually has bad effects.”

    Bull. The medical evidence says that the republican “welfare reform” served to leave children malnourished and at greater risk of hospitalization. You can read about it
    here

  15. “Blacks commit about half the murders in the US”

    Correction:
    Blackas are ARRESTED for half the murders in the US. That’s a very different thing.

    Out of curiosity how many WR Grace employees were arrested for murder? I mean since their company deliberately hid the dangers of the asbestos they were contaminating Libby, Montana and the government later concluded there was a 40-60x rise in mortality due to the asbestos contamination… sure seems an awful lot like murder doesn’t it. I mean if I knowingly pour arsenic in your soup and then watch you eat it, I’m a murderer right?

    But strangely enough none of the WR Grace guys got arrested for murder. None of them faced death row. Almost as if the system were in some way, dare I say it, biased.

    by the way you can read all about WR grace here:
    http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/PHA/libby/lib_p1.html#sum
    http://www.asbestostoday.com/news/000328.html

    The first site has the government report on the mortality. The second gets into Grace’s part in it.

  16. T, that is not a very convincing response, especially from an anarchist. The breakdown of the black family post the war on poverty is well-documented and is now a virtual truism. If you don’t think that has an impact on crime rates, then you haven’t picked up a sociology journal in, well, forever. Doesn’t matter the color, kids from broken (or never formed) homes have a far higher chance of committing crimes. It doesn’t take a genius to know the relationship here is causal rather than mere covariation.

  17. “The breakdown of the black family post the war on poverty is well-documented and is now a virtual truism.”

    As opposed to the well established white nuclear families? Don’t be absurd. Traditional family structures of three or more generations under a single roof disintigrated across the board and it had nothing to do with “the war on poverty.” It had to do with cheaper transportation and the decline of the agrarian family life style.

    “If you don’t think that has an impact on crime rates, then you haven’t picked up a sociology journal in, well, forever. Doesn’t matter the color, kids from broken (or never formed) homes have a far higher chance of committing crimes. It doesn’t take a genius to know the relationship here is causal rather than mere covariation.”

    Again how you connect the “war on poverty” with the disintigration of traditional families escapes me.

  18. I’m making the war on poverty connection with regard to the breakup of black families and our query about the death penalty. I think it is impossible to argue (as you seem to be) that the phenomenon of the fatherless black family did not occur in direct response to the existence of AFDC, food stamps, etc.

    The fact that white families (indeed, just about all families other than Asian-American families) have eventually also fallen prey to divorce, etc., is probably attributable to the later occurrence of mass liberalization of divorce laws and changes in cultural attitudes.

    And to reiterate, we know that broken-up and/or fatherless families are susceptible to a much higher rate of social pathology.

  19. “I think it is impossible to argue (as you seem to be) that the phenomenon of the fatherless black family did not occur in direct response to the existence of AFDC, food stamps, etc.”

    Gosh, I thought it was terribly easy to argue that a program to provide food to the poor had little or nothing to do with whether a kid had two parents at home since on the surface at least the two are completely unrelated.

    But if you want to provide some research on the matter I’ll certainly look at it.

    “The fact that white families (indeed, just about all families other than Asian-American families) have eventually also fallen prey to divorce, etc., is probably attributable to the later occurrence of mass liberalization of divorce laws and changes in cultural attitudes.”

    So the rise among whites of single parent families is due to social trends but among blacks its because of welfare? Hrrrm.

    “And to reiterate, we know that broken-up and/or fatherless families are susceptible to a much higher rate of social pathology.”

    Indeed but you can easily point toward racism as a strong motivator of both. A black man growing up with severe racist impediments is both more likely to have crime be the only avenue for prosperity and to not seek a socially stable relationship.

    You what the funny thing is though? I honestly don’t think that racism is that big a deal now a days. Rather its classism. Blacks aren’t sitting on death row disproportionately because they are black but because they are poor. Racism did matter in that it set blacks up to be disproportionately poor in America compared to whites.

    Or to connect it to my earlier point: the CEO of WR Grace might very well have been black but he damn sure wasn’t poor, and that tells you why he’s not going to the chair. It tells you why OJ is out golfing while looking for “Nicole’s killer.”

  20. I agree with your points about class, but you are willfully blind about the family stuff.

    On the point about family breakdown, I argued black family breakup began in earnest with the war on poverty. It’s a fact. You can complain. You can say, show me, show me. But it’s just true. This point is so well-accepted I simply refuse to put in the time to convince you. Causation is simple. You can fail to be a father and your wife and kids won’t starve. Unsurprisingly, men, who have tended to want to abandon their families in the absence of major social pressure, started bolting again. It hit black families first, but we would observe the same tendencies in the large white welfare community, too.

    As far as saying welfare did blacks in, but social trends got the white family, I think you could be a bit more charitable to my position. I actually indicated that in both cases, large scale changes in public policy were at issue. The War on Poverty and liberalization of divorce laws.

  21. “Blacks commit about half the murders in the US”

    Correction:
    Blackas are ARRESTED for half the murders in the US. That’s a very different thing.

    Perhaps. But since the vast majority of crimes are intraracial, the truth of the first statement is proved by victimization figures, with which you are apparently unacquainted. The legal system certainly has a racist dimension, but it knows how to count dead bodies.

    I admit it takes more work to find the stats—we as a nation are skittish about the cold hard facts about the tragedy of black crime.

    But you have asserted a causality (racism) based on a very crude set of correlative statistics. The scientific-minded are well aware correlation does not equal causality.

    (I do heartily agree that corporate criminals who have caused corporeal harm either by action or inaction should be exposed to far harsher criminal penalties. It is a failing of current law that such things are relegated to civil court where the exchange of money is the only justice.)

  22. A nice summary for those unable to grasp the enervating and debilitating effects – admittedly unintended – of government social programs which ultimately turn out to be irresponsible.

  23. “On the point about family breakdown, I argued black family breakup began in earnest with the war on poverty. It’s a fact. You can complain. You can say, show me, show me. But it’s just true. This point is so well-accepted I simply refuse to put in the time to convince you.”

    Funny I looked around for a while to find research that showed this and came up with nothing. If its such an enormously well established FACT I’d think it’d be trivial for you to give me a handful of links to credible sources explaining the connection. I’m sorry Hunter but this protest of yours sounds awfully weak.

    “Causation is simple. You can fail to be a father and your wife and kids won’t starve.”

    That makes no sense Hunter. The kind of guy who is going to abandon his family isn’t going to be really worried about them starving or not. It’s illogical.

    You’ve made a contention that I find patently ridiculous and you claim is ironclad truth. I’m not going to take your word for it, you’ll have to back it up.

  24. “But since the vast majority of crimes are intraracial, the truth of the first statement is proved by victimization figures, with which you are apparently unacquainted.”

    By all means present them.

    “But you have asserted a causality (racism) based on a very crude set of correlative statistics. The scientific-minded are well aware correlation does not equal causality.”

    Absolutely. But since we have shown a correlation can you demonstrate a more fundamental cause of the racism and the injustice?

  25. “A nice summary for those unable to grasp the enervating and debilitating effects – admittedly unintended – of government social programs which ultimately turn out to be irresponsible.”

    well at least it’s something to chew on. Unfortunately it’s really not very good. Examples to follow:

    “In 1960, only 28 percent of black females ages 15 to 44 were never married and illegitimacy among blacks was 22 percent. Today, the never-married rate is 56 percent and illegitimacy stands at 70 percent. If today’s black family structure were what it was in 1960, the overall black poverty rate would be in or near single digits.”

    I’ll take the first two sentences as true for the sake of the argument. The third sentence however in no way follows from the first two. It assumes that marriage (or lack there of) is a causal effect of poverty. That’s an assertion that would have to be proven since it makes no sense on the face of it.

    “The weakening of the black family structure, and its devastating consequences, have nothing to do with the history of slavery or racial discrimination”

    Another unsupported assertion.

    “Dr. Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, argues in an article titled “Rediscovering the Underclass” in the Institute’s On the Issues series (October 2005) that self-destructive behavior has become the hallmark of the underclass. He says that unemployment in the underclass is not caused by the lack of jobs but by the inability to get up every morning and go to work.”

    The AEI is frankly a pretty bad source since they are hideously partisan in this fight, and have a history of being disasterously wrong (they are the people who brought us Chalabi, remember). But anyway lets look at what the guy says.

    “In 1954, the percentage of black males, age 20 to 24, not looking for work was nine percent. In 1999, it rose to 30 percent, and that was at a time when employers were beating the bushes for employees.”

    He provides nothing to support that employers were “beating the bushes” for black employees.

    “Murray adds that “the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive.””

    This assertion is again unsupported.

    “Since President Johnson’s War on Poverty, controlling for inflation, the nation has spent $9 trillion on about 80 anti-poverty programs. To put that figure in perspective, last year’s U.S. GDP was $11 trillion; $9 trillion exceeds the GDP of any nation except the U.S.”

    Neat, but really doesn’t address the question. $9 trillion is nothing if the programs actually help. He claims they don’t but offers nothing substantive in that regard.

    If this concept that welfare really broke up black families is ironclad there must be better evidence than a collection of totally unsupported statements.

  26. Here’s something to consider:

    “In 1999, 33 percent of the Black
    population was under age 18, compared with 24 percent of the non- Hispanic White population. For the population 65 years and over, the figures were 8 percent and 14 percent,respectively.”

    Obviously having a population shifted tword the young is going to negatively impact the overall earning capability of blacks as a whole. Younger people are generally less experienced and have less seniority in a job.

    “Families were larger among Blacks
    than non-Hispanic Whites in 1999. Among married-couple families,
    34 percent of Black families consisted of only two members, compared with 45 percent of non-
    Hispanic White families (see Figure
    3). Black married-couple families
    were more likely than their non-
    Hispanic White counterparts to have
    five or more members, 20 percent
    and 12 percent, respectively.”

    Having a higher kids/parent ratio is obviously a drag on family income. Notice that almost half of all white married couples had no kids at all. That drastically increases their earning ability.

    “The proportion of the Black population age 25 years and over with a high school diploma or more was 11 percentage points lower than
    that of comparable non-Hispanic
    Whites, 77 percent and 88 percent,
    respectively. The proportion of
    non-Hispanic Whites with at least a
    bachelor’s degree (28 percent) was
    almost twice that of Blacks (15 percent).”

    Again this has an obvious connection to the earning ability of blacks.

    These quotes come from the same 1999 census data that the AEI member above used to justify that marriage and poverty were tightly linked. You can find it here:
    http://www.census.gov/prod/2000pubs/p20-530.pdf

    The point is that he combed through this entire report, ignored at least three significant causes of financial hardship and selected the one he wanted to paint as being important.

  27. T, you’d probably have to some research more formidable than google to get the facts on this one. The basic assertion was agreed on by Clinton and Gore advisers, Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, so I don’t think I’m out on a limb.

  28. “But since the vast majority of crimes are intraracial, the truth of the first statement is proved by victimization figures, with which you are apparently unacquainted.”

    By all means present them.

    OK.

  29. Gee, Tom, it’s interesting that you had to go all the way to the highly obscure U.S. Department of Justice to find these statistics. Little wonder that someone arguing the opposite point could remain ignorant of them.

  30. This is an interesting point. I have heard that defense lawyers are sometimes surprised by the vehemence of supposedly liberal urban African-Americans in their desire for the death penalty. Tom’s figures explain why quite well.

  31. “But since the vast majority of crimes are intraracial, the truth of the first statement is proved by victimization figures, with which you are apparently unacquainted.”

    Interesting, I thought you were saying most crimes were INTER-racial. The stats you provide of course say the opposite but looking back I see you correctly said they were INTRA-racial. However I’m not sure how that then relates to the overall issue at hand.

  32. “Gee, Tom, it’s interesting that you had to go all the way to the highly obscure U.S. Department of Justice to find these statistics. Little wonder that someone arguing the opposite point could remain ignorant of them.”

    As I said I thought he was making the opposite point from what he was actually trying to say, which was my fault. He did say it correctly but I would think you could see how “intra” and “inter” might be easily mistaken when reading quickly.

  33. The DOJ figures contradict far more than your misreading of “intraracial.”

    Our gentle readers will have observed that Blacks unfortunately do commit (over) half the murders in the US, and at 41%, are actually underrepresnted on death row.

    Charges of racism are supported only by a sophistic jiggling of the figures.

  34. “Our gentle readers will have observed that Blacks unfortunately do commit (over) half the murders in the US, and at 41%, are actually underrepresnted on death row.”

    Once again I point out that you confuse “commit” with “are arrested for.”

  35. As Bernard Goldberg wrote in another context, Mr. Huisman, it’s like arguing with a taco.

    Your counterarguments, no matter how authoritative (see above), will be ignored and the same mistatements of fact will be restated. I do hope that folks around here stop giving him the time of day. He has squandered it.

  36. “Here’s an ‘arrested for’ data source – still 50%.”

    You are missing the point Matt. You stat is the same as Tom’s. Both say Blacks are arrested for half the murders. Tom takes that to mean they are COMMITTING half the murders. The example I gave earlier was that they get charged with murder when people like the good fellas at WR Grace don’t.

    That’s part of what I’m trying to emphasize about the prejudicial nature of the system. If Donald Trump threw a guy out the window of his High rise office do you honestly think he’d be charged with much less convicted of murder? Of course not. The cops would be lucky to get a negligent homicide charge to stick. It has nothing to do with whether you commit the crimes, it has to do with whether the system will punish you for them. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that when the cops need a scapegoat they pick up someon who is poor, a stranger to town, and usually a minority.

    Does that make it clearer?

  37. You are missing the point Matt.

    OK. So then you’ll concede that the death penalty is not prejudicially administered to convicted murderers (as many liberals claim).

    It has nothing to do with whether you commit the crimes, it has to do with whether the system will punish you for them.

    So here you have two arguments:
    1) Blacks don’t get adequate legal representation.
    2) Certain crimes (WR Grace-like offenses) carry different penalties based on prejudices.

    In the first scenario, what does the system owe its members? The system owes them the opportunity to be innocent until proven guilty. In other words, it should be extremely likely that innocent men go free. However, this does not mean that we owe everyone the same opportunity to ‘beat’ the system. That territory belongs to the rich and/or the smart.

    The second argument you made has received some sympathy around here (primarily in the form of toughening up existing weaker penalties). Your argument is that the system ‘picks’ on one type of criminal over another, and that fairness demands that we treat offenders equally. I’m all for fairness (within reason), but why does it necessarily mean that the sentence should be reduced? Why shouldn’t we just escalate the penalty on the other offense?

    The reality for offenders is that there’s no merit in crying over the penalty if it is relatively proportional to the offense and is reasonably understood to be enforced. Fairness applies to the victims just as much as it does to the offenders.

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