As a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class immigrant, I’m hardly the person to speak to the politics of race in America. So I turned to an African-American friend, the economist Roland Fryer, whom I’ve known since we were colleagues at Harvard.
In 2016, he published a brilliant but controversial paper which argued that the police did not disproportionately use lethal violence against black people, though they were more likely to use non-lethal force against them. (A paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lent strong support to Fryer’s thesis.) He has a new, unpublished paper that looks at a perverse effect of investigations into police shootings. I asked Fryer to walk me through the argument.
“If you have a police shooting that goes viral online but isn’t investigated,” he explained, “then nothing changes — levels of police activity and crime are about the same. But if you have a viral shooting that is investigated, then police activity plummets, and crime goes up dramatically.” In just five cities – Baltimore; Chicago; Cincinnati; Ferguson, Missouri; and Riverside, California -- this led to excess homicides of almost 900 people in the subsequent 24 months, 80% them black, with an average age of 28. It's a dangerous Catch-22: You're damned if you don't investigate “viral” incidents, and in even worse shape if you do.
How does Fryer interpret the current protests? “People are fed up,” he told me. “They are frustrated by the disparities they see in educational outcomes. Frustrated by the disparities they see in criminal justice. Frustrated by racial disparities in life expectancy. We are all to blame — this happened on our watch.” And when you add to that the fact that Covid-19 disproportionately affected the black community: “Folks have had enough. People are very much on edge.”
Policing and the outcomes from tough to loose methods is endlessly debatable and not least because of the credit politicians claim for successes that may or may not be attributable to their policies.
That was one of the primary topics of discussion in the book Freakonomics where the coincidence of abortion legislation and the implied reduction in the number of unwanted children implied reduced crime figures twenty years later. A similar argument is made about the impact of removing lead from gasoline and how that improved mental health outcomes and, by extension, crime rates.