Make them less "racist"? That's going to be a while. How about keeping them away from black people as much as possible?
"Without Passion or Prejudice" is a relatively short piece that captures what I've been trying to say to all of America -- and it includes my idea for how to turn the tide.
However impossible it may seem -- it can be done.
As Tom Hanks said in Apollo 13 about landing on the moon: "It's not a miracle, we just decided to go": https://onevoicebecametwo.life/2021/08/03/without-passion-or-prejudice/
Thanks John. An interesting study. I’m trying to imagine what a control group for this study looks like. Is it constituted of Non White cops talking to White members of the public? White people engaging with Non Whites in some other public service context?
A difficult study to design and interpret, to be sure. I like your ‘edginess’ argument, but can’t help but think that suspected White drug offenders will have an edginess of their own which might be revealed in a comparison between Cops’ interactions with members of White drug infested Neighbourhoods and their interactions with similar Black drug infested ones. Im sure there are gender effects as well……and so it goes. It seems that talk of racism is a minor distraction in the context of the waste of effort that is the War on Drugs.
Okay, so in general, I agree with your thesis, and there are definitely problems caused by the more aggressive versus more "genteel" communication patterns of different sub-cultures.
You can observe the same thing clearly as between working class whites and affluent whites. I am pretty sure it has always been the case in virtually all cultures that the more affluent one's class, the more polite, careful, and gracious one's speech tends to be (from a generous perspective), or if you want to look at it from another angle, the more fake, passive aggressive, and pretentious -- same thing, really. Affluent people have assets and professional networks and reputations to preserve, and therefore tend to be very careful about causing offense -- they are much more likely to be obsequiously polite to your face and tear you down behind your back. Lower class people don't have many assets to lose by causing offense, but have more incentive to preserve "face" and a reputation as tough and someone not to be messed with. So I think this pattern probably goes back to antiquity.
But here's what I don't get. Are black people actually afraid of the police or not? Because on the one hand, you constantly hear about how they view police as a literal threat to their life, and that they all have to give "the talk" to their sons, and fear for their lives in every police interaction. But then on the other, you see them sassing back and giving attitude to police, which doesn't line up with supposedly fearing them. So which is it? If all the mommas are giving their sons "the talk", how come the talk isn't taking?
I think most white people understand that when you're interacting with police, you IMMEDIATELY go into ultra-subservient, ultra-polite mode. You speak to them like you're addressing the emperor as a mere servant. You smile, you address them politely, you make no sudden moves, you immediately respond, etc. I have seen white people who get pulled over act so boot-lickingly obsequious that I actually feared the cop would take offense because it seemed like a parody and that he was being mocked (I was wrong -- it worked really well). And if a (most likely male, young, working class) white person does NOT follow these conventions, he can expect to have a very unpleasant interaction.
So how does this make sense? If white people aren't afraid of the cops, why are they the ones treating them so carefully and subserviently? And if black people ARE afraid of the cops, what's with giving them attitude? If you're actually afraid of bears, you don't poke them with a stick. Presumably despite any ingrained cultural patterns of speech, all people know how to modulate their tone and present as more deferential when necessary in the face of threat or authority.
As an aside, I once dated a black man who was 6'4", extremely well built, and very physically imposing. And I witnessed him get pulled over on no less than FOUR separate occasions and he got out of the ticket every single time! Which is astonishing, given that of the 20 or so times I've been in the car with a white driver being pulled over, I only ever saw ONE of them get out of the ticket. So what was his secret? He had an English accent and an extremely polite manner of speech. There was something about the juxtaposition between this enormous man who could clearly kick the ass of 99% of all people around him, with the extremely upper-class sounding, ultra polite English accent, that just caused everyone around him to fall all over themselves in deference to him. It was like nothing I've ever seen. I have literally never spent time in the company of any other human who so often had people bending over backwards to be nice and deferential. It was like a magical super power. Of course, English accents tend to strike Americans as sounding very charming, polite, and educated, whether or not they would sound that way in England.
So my advice to black people dealing with police: put on a British accent. And smile and say things like "Evening officer, I suppose I was driving a bit fast there, wasn't I?" with that devious little trick the Brits do where they turn declarative sentences into questions, that make them seem humble and polite at the same time, even when saying something wrong.
All that may be right, John, and I am all for ending our war on drugs. The data out of Portugal's experiment are very encouraging so far as I can see. But I still don't see why we can't teach cops about the "confrontational cadence" so that when black folks use it on them they don't react too fast or too negatively. Sandra Bland should never have had to go to jail for being a little disrespectful on the side of the road in Texas.
my proposal is that we folks need to join the police force. more blacks also need to join the police force, run for city council, state senate, +get involved in general. the biggest way to reform the police force is to change the applicants +that means we sign tf up. ppl w uni education in the liberal arts need to become police officers. plain +simple. we need to care that much +stop pretending to care by yipping. protesting means being uncomfortable +dancing in the streets isnt. being a cop is. do something.
this comment was part of a 2 paragraph response to a comment below; however i'm terribly commited to this position (+closing down all colleges of education [they're not] +ending education as a degree in favor of an academic degree) that i want to say it out loud again up here by itself coz it was buried in a thread.
I meant that she was driving in the left lane.
I find my fellow readers' comments more insightful than John's. I am convinced that cultural differences in communication are worthy of study, by law enforcement officers and others. Look at the Sandra Bland tragedy. The police officer who pulled her over for driving in the right lane likely did so because he was annoyed and she was black. As a Texan I can assure you that this. behavior is common and technically illegal. Bland showed "attitude" after being pulled over, refused to put out her cigarette, and was hostile from the get-go. I think that there are important lessons from both sides on the initial interaction which led to imprisonment which was a huge over-response. Her family members would not pick up the phone, a common practice among the lower SES to avoid bill collectors.
I must say that I could not disagree more that "all of us use trash talking". I work in a children's hospital where all employees of all races tend towards more gentleness and kindness in language.
To end the war on drugs to reduce interaction between blacks and police is really a very silly idea. Drugs have been highly destructive in the black community. There needs to be a change in criminal behaviors as well as a more educated response by law enforcement to the community. Right now, the George Floyd backlash has led to less visibility, less law enforcement and a dramatic increase in black-on-black violence. How would a sudden end in the criminality of selling and taking drugs enhance quality education, peace and family bonds in any community?
Thanks for all the provocation.
And Thomas Sowell was 100% correct
So rude, aggressive, insulting, "confrontational" speech is just fine? And everybody else better get used to it??? Officers are exposed to this every single day. McWhorter would better serve our country by focusing on the depressing regularity of drive-by's and "confrontational" shootings in our urban zones. 60 people were shot, 10 killed in Chicago this weekend. LEO's are keenly aware of real life.
New subscriber, first comment. My big take-away from this piece is the idea of "confrontational cadence." I've noticed it a lot recently. On TV black characters always seem to be scolding each other, using this tone. I've also known Caribbean immigrants who talk this way. This is the kind of mini-cultural disconnect that can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. To cite another example-- when sitting on a bus in South Africa I noticed the man next to me had his entire thigh flat up against mine. Turns out personal body space is very different for Africans vs. Europeans. I asked a (black) South African about it. He said: "When we try to talk to white people, they step away." I.e. they aren't comfortable with people standing so close. This of course leads to a conclusion that "White people aren't friendly, they step back."
I hate junk social-science. And we're obliged to get used to more and more of it, not less and less.
Interesting paragraphs on constrained and unconstrained views of human nature to help explain Dr. McWhorter's reasoning on antiracism. I have not run into those terms previously, and honestly, I am a little wary of dividing the world into two halves. On the other hand, I haven't read enough about this take on human nature to have an informed opinion. It is certainly food for thought. As for traffic stops and black men, I can't weigh in -- I am a middle-aged white woman and pretty much switch into very polite, ultra-cooperative mode when I am stopped for a traffic infraction. That seems the most prudent approach. I have some girlfriends who have batted their eye lashes at the police officer and escaped without a ticket. I'm not good at that, and sadly, I almost always get a ticket. I generally deserve it though.
I just subscribed to this forum, and this is my first post here.
As a long-time reader/listener of John McWhorter, and as one who admires him and his writing, and has a very extensive academic/professional background in social science statistics, I was struck by the headline of this article. I felt compelled to sign up and offer a mild rebuttal. In my view, John's conclusion is correct, but his evaluation of the article is way off the mark.
The article John cites "The Thin Blue Waveform" (hereafter referred to as TTBW21) does not *begin* to show "racism," at least in the classic sense. Do to its methodological shortcomings, it is difficult to say with precision exactly what TTBW21 does show. John's reaction to the article demonstrates the very human tendency to overgeneralize a set of very minor (possibly meaningless) results into something of genuine significance.
Let's take a close look at the methodology. In any such study, the key questions are (a) what is the population, (b) what is the sampling procedure, (c) what measures were taken, (d) what procedures were used to protect against experimenter bias, and (e) how strong were the results. I'll be selective in analyzing these.
Start with the research population. This can be crucial in a study of this type. How was the population selected, and what can we say about it?
Here we have to be doubly careful. There is a tendency to snooze a bit when reading an article's "method section," especially when the topic is one of great substantive interest. It is easy to fall into "benefit of the doubt reading," i.e., the reader assumes without evidence that the experimenter did the correct thing. Classic examples: (a) the reader assumes random sampling when it did not in fact occur, and (b) the reader assumes that the selection of experimental subjects ("participants") was done by people who were unaware of the purpose of the experiment.
Quite often, when something is not stated in a social psychology article, it is because the experimenters did *not* do the right thing, often because the right thing takes more work. True random sampling by workers who are unaware of the purpose of the experiment takes more work.
On page 3 of TTBW21, we are given virtually no information about the research population. They say they grabbed conversations "in a medium-sized U.S. city." Note, we have no idea what the racial mixture of this unnamed city is. That turns out to be important.
The authors started with a pool of conversations from "routine" traffic stops not resulting in an arrest." There were 180 White males and 433 Black males stopped. 70.6% of the stops were Black males. What do those numbers tell us? Without knowing more about the city and its population, we're completely at sea. Suppose, for example, this is a city that is 70% Black, 30% White. Then there is a kind of proportionality. On the other hand, suppose this city is 70% White and only 30% Black. Then Black drivers are heavily overrepresented. We are told the racial composition of the police officers. Less than half are White, and less than 1 in 5 is Black.
Suppose Black drivers are overrepresented. Is it because they were, on average, driving faster than White male drivers? (Some previous studies have found this.) If a White driver is doing 69 in a 55 mph zone, and the Black driver is doing 90, perhaps the greater tension in the officer's voice has nothing to do with race.
All we know is that 70% of the drivers stopped were Black. We are then told that a subset of the 180 White and 433 Black conversations were selected to be in the study. 100 Black and 100 White. WE ARE NOT TOLD HOW THEY WERE SELECTED. The temptation is to believe the sampling was random. Suppose it wasn't? Anyone with experience in the social sciences can tell you myriad ways that the person doing the selecting might have biased the study, unless certain precautions
What about the measures? There were a couple of items using a 6 point Likert scale, ranging from 1 to 6. (very cold to very warm). So a mean score of 3.5 would be right in the middle, i.e., lukewarm.
What about the results? From a practical standpoint, the results are miniscule! The average response to a Black driver is judged as lukewarm (about 3.5) and the average response to a White driver is judges slightly warmer than lukewarm (about 3.7). This is judged statistically significant. If the study had been done properly, we would still conclude that this is not microaggression, it is nanoaggression.
Unfortunately, this study eliminates all information about what took place prior to the interactions between police and drivers. What were the drivers stopped for? How did they respond when first approached? Without this information, here is what we can conclude:
A truly trivial difference in "prosody" was found in a study that did not control for severity of offense or race of officer. On average, police respond with "lukewarm" prosody to both White and Black drivers, slightly warmer toward Whites. Without the proper controls, we have no idea what this means.
Once again, an excellent piece. In my won 2016 book, "Survival: The Economic Foundations of American National Security," I touch on this question of how to reduce negative interactions between the Black community and the police. The suggestion I offered, based on research and my own experience working on similar ideas in Iraq, was to transition to a more cashless economy. The evidence is pretty strong that such a move can reduce the kind of crime that leads to these negative interactions by as much as half.
Excellent piece. I work in an organization that has both professors and serving and former military officers. These groups have very different rules of communication. As a member of both groups, I often trip on this. For example, telling a young new hire assistant professor that her lecture was the worst I ever heard did not go down well with her. Even though I deeply supported hiring her and regard her as having immense promise as a faculty member. All I had wanted to do was to convey to her how far off she was from the required teaching standard, something that had not surprised me in the least given her lack of teaching experience.
I very much appreciate John's thinking and writing. I often daydream about having a cocktail and a cigar with him and Glenn Loury and not speaking a word. I would be interested if these studies John refers to about "confrontation cadence" show a correlation, or maybe even causation, between it and the unusually high rate of black on black violence. Might we be ignoring an elephant in the room? If words are the only thing that stand between us and war, it seems painfully obvious that a "confrontational cadence" between two people who likely don't read nearly enough history might regularly escalate their words into more violent behavior. I think correlating this phenomenon mostly to the war on drugs is probably not accurate, and likely not preserving as many black lives as could otherwise be preserved???
Secondly, I agree that the war on drugs has been a magnificent disaster. I also believe that, on balance, modern medicine has also been a magnificent disaster because, it too, has killed far more people than it has saved. Having said that, both of these magnificent disasters appear to be our best choices because nobody has put forth better alternatives that can be scalable to a level that would outperform either of these two magnificent disasters.
Thank you John. You're doing our world a great service!