Solving Hard Problems is Hard

Facebook and the news are filled with angry arguments over a myriad of political topics. People are screaming and citing facts left and right to support their cause, usually without understanding how these facts are curated, how they are being used to manipulate people, and more importantly, how the misuse of facts prevents real solutions to real problems. If you dare to question, say, police violence statistics, you are instantly branded a racist. If you dare to question the border wall, you are a libtard. These are not productive discussions. Understanding how to fix problems requires understanding how to analyze problems. And that requires a mix of critical thinking, math, behavioral psychology, management science, chaos theory, time and common sense. Eventually this blog will lead to solutions… but it will need to go through some foundational work before we get there.

I will pull apart some of the many articles from various news sources, and show other ways to look at them. I will tick off people from both political spectrums in the process, because I will question dogmatic beliefs and show some of the ways curation is being used. Eventually I will get to a series of concrete suggestions for improving a subset of political hot issues from a uniting perspective.

Facebook and Twitter are too thin for a substantial conversation. They are designed to foster anger, because doing so drives more advertising revenue for Facebook. The same is true for cable news. As a result, discussions and talk shows quickly devolve into partisan monologs being shouted over partisan monologs. The core argument becomes religious in nature. If you do not accept a belief system you should be excommunicated. It is great for cable and Facebook revenue. It is not great for society or our strength as a country. It is not how we would behave at a dinner party.

We will begin with some principles.

Discrimination is bad

I am against discrimination.

Discrimination is easy to prove. I have been discriminated against, I have seen people discriminate against others. I have heard stories from people who have been discriminated against. I have seen people who have been discriminated against discriminate against others. That direct first hand experience, however, is different than saying there is systemic discrimination, and we need to have a very high standard for that.

In this blog I will show why systemic racism is a problematic concept and can lead to problematic solutions. Racism exists, I am against racism (and other forms of discrimination), and we can make marked improvements in the lives of people being discriminated against.

People have much in common

I believe that most people are inherently good and inherently similar in normative circumstances. Most people care deeply about what I call the three F’s: family, flag and faith. (Note, I am not specifying the make up of the family, the nature of the flag, or the what faith and I do not restrict to religious faiths.) This stems from organizational nature of a tribal species. These are factors we can use to unify or to divide, and the nation is healthier when we are unified around our commonality rather than divided. Lincoln stated this well: A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

Perception is often more important than reality

As we look at issues, we’ll also look at the difference between the actual issues (e.g. what % of black men are killed by police) and the perceived issue (i fear for my children). Both of these issues are important, and both sides often make the mistake of ignoring at least one of these aspects. It is easier to ignore than to discuss on Facebook and Twitter. If we want to find solutions to problems we both need to understand the problems as well as the emotional impact and perception of the problems.

You get what you pay for

In any organizational system, the results of the system are strongly correlated to the reward system put in place. This is a core aspect of business and incentive plan design. Many problems we see as racism can be recast as an organizational reward system. Doing so takes the anger out of the situation (you are racist) and instead lets us look at solutions (design a system that rewards differently and the participants will behave differently or self select out) and root causes. Often we can find that the source of the problem is different than we imagine. (But not always. There are undoubtedly deeply racist people and people who are not good team members.)

Treat the norm and the exceptions differently

When we look at events, we need to look at the difference between what happens most of the time and what happens rarely. Both are important. You want the most common experience to be good and you also want the outliers to be handled well. When you design systems, it is best to consider these separately. You want to measure them differently and control them differently. If you focus on preventing the outliers you can often ruin the common experience. If you focus only on the common, outliers cause problems. As an extreme example, dramatically reducing the risk of air terror is simple. Allow no luggage and no clothes and require MRIs before people board planes. No more underwear or shoe bombers or drug mules. And since few people would want to fly this way, fewer flights. If you want to optimize the common experience, do no security checks. That also has obvious problems. Manufacturing uses a technique called six sigma. With this technique you first look at the average experience and one standard deviation away — effectively what do 68% of people experience? Once you figure out how to control that you go to two sigmas (95% of people) and continue out. Given a system with deep troubles you start at the 68% level but you also look at the worst experiences… what are the worst 5% experiences like? As you get better you reduce… what are the worst 1% etc. like.

Chaos is a mess

Chaos ruins all plans. With 20/20 hindsight it is easier to analyze what could be done better, but in the midst of chaos things go to hell. Some situations, such as those often faced by police or the military or in many team sports, are by design chaotic. Likewise, mobs are chaotic and crowds often act in ways that individuals do not. We need to take these factors into account. People in such situations will react instinctively and often based on what they see others doing, since this is an important decision making short cut. It is why, as I will discuss later, arming teachers is often a bad solution to school gun violence.

You can only control what you measure

This is perhaps the most important principle. It ties tightly with everything else discussed here, and it is why we need to be much more critical about the news. Choosing what to measure alters dramatically what we can change. If we use weak measurements we will likely have weaker solutions. If we do a better job of analyzing issues we can do a better job of constructing solutions. This applies to many issues, including racial justice, covid, climate change, illegal immigration, education, and shifts in the nature of warfare.

Mostly peaceful protests

It doesn’t take much work to find photos or videos of violence at BLM protests. For example, here is a Twitter feed with videos from a recent protest in Portland in which a protestor was hit by Molotov cocktails thrown by other protestors:

Or we have this still:

CNN Calls Kenosha Riots "Fiery But Mostly Peaceful Protest" | News Radio  1200 WOAI | Michael Berry

(You can read more about this at

At the same time, we have a widely shared article from The Guardian stating that Trump is wrong, the protests are peaceful. You can read it here just in case you haven’t yet seen it on dozens of Facebook posts:

The headline states: Nearly all Black Lives Matter protests are peaceful despite Trump narrative, report finds

And inside we read: The vast majority of the thousands of Black Lives Matter protests this summer have been peaceful, with more than 93% involving no serious harm to people or damage to property, according to a new report tracking political violence in the United States.

This is then quoted by many to say — see, they are peaceful. Only racists say otherwise.

There are some problems with this article.

What does “serious” mean

First, what does serious harm mean? For example, if a building is set on fire (such as the one discussed in the linked article, in Seattle) but doesn’t burn down is it serious damage or not serious damage? If only one building out of all of the buildings in the city is burned down, is that serious damage or not serious damage? If a person’s car window is smashed in, and they can’t afford to repair it and lose their job, is that serious damage? (Before you attack me for hyperbole, transportation issues are a problem for many low income workers. See the excellent book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America)

Some rush to say “Businesses have insurance. It doesn’t matter.” This is of course ridiculous on many levels (is it ok to injure someone who has health insurance?), but the impact to people is tremendous. For example, consider these stories about minority business owners in Philadelphia:

Risk psychology

The next issue with the article is the way it intentionally or unintentionally measures risk. Humans are, by nature, risk adverse. We are also bad at math.

Suppose the brakes on your car fail 1/14 times, leading to serious damage to people or property. Would you let your child drive it?

How about if 93% of the time you don’t have a serious accident?

Can you think of any product you use that you would be comfortable with knowing that 1/14 times you used it there would be serious damage to a person or property?

These are the same odds. One is stated positively (93% are safe) and one is stated negatively (1/14 times there is a major problem). We react differently to the same numbers depending on how they are presented.

Because the article states that 7% of the time there is serious damage, the car accident analogy is apt, and it doesn’t make sense to use a much lighter analogy.


The next problem with the article is that of context. It states that 7% serious harm is peaceful. But against what do we compare it? The article lists a number of protests examined to lend credence to their conclusion. But, these numbers are not tied to their conclusion. They are simply stated and there is no context. (More on that later.)

What is the usual rate of violence at protests?

The Women’s March of 2017 had 3-5MM particpants. The Kerala women‘s rights protest had 5M participants. Depending upon sources, BLM protests have had up to 25M protestors. I can find no reports of violence from either of the women’s rights marches. Combined they are somewhere between the same size and 40% the size of BLM protests. Is that the benchmark we should use? If so, 7% is dramatically higher than we would expect.

The violence is not because the marches are for racial justice. Some might imply that, but it is a deeply flawed suggestion. Simply look to the March on Washington or the Million Man Marches or the Million Women March. These are smaller in scale but still gathered several million participants, and likewise I could not find reports of significant damage. (In fact, I didn’t find any reports of any damage but I didn’t search deeply.)

We could argue that covid has triggered the violence, but the March on Washington is at the same time without the same issues. I suspect that crowd makeup, organization techniques, and crowd dynamics play much more of a role. For example, the March on Washington was designed by its organizers to be peaceful and was well planned and executed, while the Portland night events are quite possibly designed to be violent.

This still leads to the question… how much violence is a normal amount of violence and how much should we accept?

I suggest the following: if the chance of your family being seriously damaged at an event is higher than you would wish on them, the rate is too high.

Is violence the norm or the outlier?

The next issue we need to look at is whether violence is the norm or the outlier. The article shares none of the statistics. But the number could be:

Out of every 100 events, 7 result in significant damage.

Out of every 50 events in the day time, 0 result in significant damage. Out of every 50 events at night, 14 result in significant damage.

Or any other combination.

Furthermore, we need to ask, how many protests result in damage, not just significant damage. When asking this question we should not look at it with the lens of how much damage do we like when we believe in the cause, but how much damage would we accept from a cause in which we don’t believe. Violence is a double-edged sword.

One narrative says that the daytime protests are much more peaceful than the nighttime protests. We know that the peaceful protests get far less air time and FB coverage than the violent ones, so there is a strong selection bias by news and FB towards the violent since it drives more views.

If this is correct, we would be better off with more data and a classification to understand whether most protests have no violence and whether local governments should do more to control the night protests.

There are frequent videos of protests during the day that would not be classified as significantly violent. For example, here is a protest in Pittsburgh during the day, which presumably is categorized as peaceful. (I picked this particular article because it is mostly pictures. Feel free to skip the text.) Some will view the terror felt by the elderly couple as highly desirable and the whole point of protests; others will think it is terrible behavior. What percentage of peaceful protest are this type of peace?

None of this is covered in the study or the article, so journalists are either doing a disservice to protestors by under reporting on truly peaceful protests and should have more coverage like shown here, or are doing a disservice to non-protestors by classifying anything that doesn’t result in severe harm as peaceful. More likely, journalists are doing a disservice to both.

The article doesn’t cover the pattern of non-significant damage. Presumably the endless boarded up shops and graffitied buildings in Seattle don’t count as significant damage, so does that level of non-significant damage occur at all events? A small fraction? This is also data that would be valuable for understanding context.

Headline Feint

Next we get to the conclusion. We have stats about how many protests were studied, but no context. We have statements that some incidents were provoked by anti-movement protestors (factual), but then a leap of faith to suggest that might be a dominant factor. (Hinted at but not stated in the underlying research, but promoted by many who quote the article. The research authors, unlike many who refer to the research, properly qualified their statement.)

There is then a second leap of faith to suggest that the police in fact were the cause of the violence. (We’ll talk about this problem later, which is typically an issue of scope of information, and lack of information during chaos by all parties involved.)

Then we get to the headline. First, we bring in brazen politicization by trying to state that Trump is the one saying these events aren’t peaceful. He might be, but many others share this view, such as alluded to in by CNN (spin provided by The Federalist). This part of the headline is just designed to get anti-Trump supporters to agree with the next step. (If I dislike Trump, I surely will disagree with what Trump says.) It is a valid technique, but readers need to understand its use.

Next, the article headlines unequivocally states nearly all the protests are peaceful, although that is a context-free conclusion quite separate from the data.

The better summary of this article is:

1/14 BLM protests result in significant property or personal damage

We at The Guardian think that is fine. (But please don’t do it to us.)

But what is the emotion?

The article is designed to make people who support the protests feel like they don’t need to worry about the violence. It is widely spread, even though as shown, the data from the article doesn’t support its conclusion.

A large number of people see images of police violence and think we need change and that we can do better as a country. For some it is intellectual (happens to people elsewhere but seems bad I’m on the good side) and for some it is more visceral (that person behaves like or looks like my family – Je Suis Sandra Bland).

Many are upset by the violence of the protests and are sickened by what it means for the people involved (lost business, lost jobs, lost life savings, grief and trauma from dealing with the damage, death and injury). As with police violence this can be intellectual (it is far away but bad) or more visceral (that is my town or my family). If you have been a victim of a crime, you a greater understanding of that feeling.

This is a mix of logic and emotion. The side who is emotional dismisses the logic of the other side and vice versa. To get to unity we need to hear and understand both.

Many feel that since they support the protests they must support the violence. (False choice.)

Many who are upset at the violence feel they need to be against the protests to be against the violence. (False choice.)

This is furthered by the Democrat mayors and politicians who do not condemn or actively enable the violence for their own political purposes. (E.g. the mayors in Seattle and Portland.) You can be for racial justice, but against violence and against Democratic mayors.

What this is really showing is tribal alignment. Once we affiliate with something (a brand, a sports team), even if the initial affiliation is very light, we psychologically reorient to become part of the tribe. If you prefer Coca Cola to Pepsi, you are part of the Coke tribe and will align with and defend other Coke tribal members. The same occurs throughout political debates, where people align with a tribe, and then happily accuse the other side of the same irrationality they exhibit. This psychology is very useful for marketers, and plays equally well when trying to foster extreme partisanship.

In reality side picking is a classic tryanny of the or. It is good for Facebook, good for cable news, good for short term political wins of uniting a fervent base, but terrible for society and long term political health.

If you are a supporter of BLM, you can say “I’m a big believer in racial justice, but I am against the violence.”

If you are against the violence you can also say “I’m against the violence. But I also am against discrimination.”

We can then argue about what that means, but from a common ground that most people are against discrimination AND against violence.

Unfortunately this means counteracting your own tribal thinking. (As an experiment, place both a Biden and Trump sign in your front yard or a Black Lives Matter and a Police Lives Matter sign. If you read the Paco Underhill book I link to earlier, you will learn more about the psychology behind this. It could be an interesting Ph.D. study for a future psychologist.)

Here is how Biden approached the issue as reported by NPR:

“Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple.”

(You can argue that it was too late, it was only after the polls flipped, or that it needs to be followed up with action, but regardless, a good start is better than no start.)

Racist appraisers or a coin flip?

Another widely circulated article comes from the New York Times, discussing racism in real estate.

The short version of the article is that people of color face discrimination in real estate and it is illustrated with an experiment conducted by a couple. They had their house appraised and it came in at 330K. The wife was a lawyer, told the bank she suspected racism, and the bank ordered a reappraisal. Prior to the appraisal she removed pictures of the black family members and books by black authors. The next appraisal came in at 465K. Clear proof of racism, right?

Reproducing the experiment

Although the article sounds horrible, it suffers from numerous problems and is an example of shoddy journalism.

Let me share a similar story from my life. I walked into a high end jewelry store in Las Vegas. No one came to help me. My wife walked in later that same day and got instant help. Sexist right? (My study is better because I’ve reproduced it many times, in many stores, in many countries. My wife is always treated better than I am, deservedly so, although this is an example of profiling not sexism.)

With both stories the sample size of the experiment is small and not controlled.

The thesis as portrayed in the article (and given that the woman is a lawyer the article implies credence) is that by removing black pictures and authors the outcome changed:

Books by Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison were taken off the shelves, and holiday photo cards sent by friends were edited so that only those showing white families were left on display

Now, I have books by both of these authors as well so I decided to repeat the experiment. I put Zami by Audre Lord and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison on my table. I flipped a quarter on the books (Washington, slave owner). It came up tails.

I then replaced those books with The Big Short by Michael Lewis and Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone. And I flipped a penny (Lincoln, abolitionist).

Washington landed heads down.

Lincoln ended face up.

Clearly something is going on here.

I better call the NYT.

You should be quick to point out that my experiment is utter nonsense. The face on the coin and the books it is flipped on have no impact on each other. And the story has people in it with much more detail about the experiment, so it is much more valid, right?


Both experiments have two evaluators (my two different coins, the two different appraisers) and both have a set of white and black authors. And both had the same number of samples, two.

In fact, my experiment is much better because the only thing that changed is the books and I could easily flip the coin many times (and in doing so would discover that half the time it ends up heads and half tails no matter which coin or which books.)

Size matters

Sample size and controls matter when conducting experiments. Lets take the experience described by the article and I will tell it several different ways.

Story 1

One day one, an appraiser who usually appraises low visited the property. He appraised it at 20% lower than most people would, but he usually appraises 20% low. On a different day an appraiser who usually appraises high visited the property. He appraised 20% high, like he always does. Now we have a 40% gap with no racism involved. Changing the books and pictures had no impact. Think 20% is too much of a gap? Here is one of many articles that suggests that is not abnormal.

If you had a history of the appraisals by the different appraisers you could see their trends. If you brought in many more appraisers you could see the pattern. But with two samples you have no way of knowing, especially since they are conducted at different times and with any number of differing factors.

Story 2

Day one is a hot overcast day. The appraiser walks into the house with slight food poisoning from a fish taco the night before. The owners have just cooked fish in the microwave. His car had a flat tire on the way over. He appraises lower than he normally does, since he is in a foul mood. On day two a different appraiser arrives. She just got a promotion that morning. The house smells like fresh baked cookies. It is a bright sunny day in the mid 70s. She appraises higher than she normally does.

The key thing here is that details that are not known by the participants or not mentioned had an outsized influence. No racism.

Story 3

Appraiser one chose comparable houses from East Bay neighborhood. Appraiser two chose from West Bay, where a house just closed the day before for a market high of 510K. These are the neighborhoods they normally use for appraisals, so they didn’t change their pattern during the process.

Again, the appraisal is based on different comparables, on a different day, with different market conditions that can be impacted by the sale of a single house, potentially an outlier.

No racism.

Story 4

The bank, after being accused of racism by the homeowner lawyer brings in an appraiser, tells them about the situation, and suggests they should address the situation. Appraiser 2 comes in high.

No racism, but the threat of public scrutiny or legal action drives the value arbitrarily high. Race is involved.

Story 5

Appraiser 1 is racist, and seeing the photos as well as books by black authors (he also happens to be versed in names of black authors), appraises low. Appraiser 2 is also racist. Seeing only white images and books by white authors (she also knows black authors and looks for them, carefully perusing the book shelf), she appraises much higher. (For some reason, the appraisers or the NYT seems to believe that people only read books by authors that share their race, but that is outside of the point.)

Racism. Not only is there racism, but both appraisers are racist and trained in trigger books. (If only one were racist you could get the same outcome, but you need a much larger spread for the math to work.)

Which Is It?

With the story given, there is no way to know. There are far too many unknowns. It could be any or all of the factors from the stories, or endless other factors. When conducting an experiment you need to take a number of samples far larger than your variables. For a real world test, such as the one described in the article, you would need a much broader set of data to draw any conclusions.

Having said that, Story 1 and Story 5 are the least likely, given that both of them work best when out of the sample of all appraisers, the two picked are either on extremes of the spectrum or are both racist. (Just to explain, since this is a case where stories confuse how we think about math. Let us suppose there are 100 appraisers in the area, and that 65% of them appraise within 10% of the average and 85% appraise within 20% of the average. Let us also assume that 10% are extreme racists. The chance of picking an appraiser that picks 20% low or high is 15%. Thus the chance of picking two of them is .15*.15 or 2.25%. The chance of picking two racists is .1*1 or 1%.)

The article thus picks a story that has an emotional edge to it and feels like it is a controlled experiment, because the homeowners have made a change and have not mentioned any number of hundreds of factors they have not thought about and are external, and the changes made are consistent with the narrative the New York Times is promoting. The NYT then uses that to further their narrative that racism is omnipresent.

Bad measures give bad outcomes

As noted previously, metrics matter. Suppose we took this article as truth, since it was published in the New York Times, a reputable paper, and we decide we must fix this situation. Given that it shows that there is not only one but likely two racists, and that the chance of getting two racists is low unless there are lots of racists, we might need to overhaul the entire system. And after that work, expense, and all of the lost jobs of the existing presumably irredeemable racists regardless of their own backgrounds, we still end up with appraisals differing because of the smell of cookies. (Which by the way, most real estate agents will tell you to bake before an open house. And they will also tell you to take down all photos of your family. Not because they want to eliminate racial prejudice, but because they want the buyers to imagine photos of their family in the house, and not pay attention to your family.)

Is there racism in housing?

Yes. Redlining existed 50 years ago. You can find also find contemporary accounts where buyers are steered to different neighborhoods based on their race, religion, etc. (I’ve experienced that directly, albeit a long time ago.) There is no doubt that it exists, and that there are long lasting effects on net worth caused by the ability to buy a house and the gain or loss in a house’s value over time. But that doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed or likely to face racism in a real estate sale today, as the article suggests.

If you look for studies on racism and real estate, you will be flooded with page after page of systemic racism articles. The better ones focus on the long term effects of historic denials to choice housing markets. The lower quality ones, like the NYT article, are designed to inflame passions. Undoubtedly there are well designed studies, and I would not be the least surprised if they find racial disparities that disadvantage people of color. The NYT article is just not one of them.

For a better study on racial effects, consider a Harvard study that looks at responses to job applications. This study reduces variables by using consistent resumes with varying names, has a larger set of data, analyzes other studies, and examines its own strengths and flaws. It convincingly concludes that names on resumes can send clues that can trigger racial disparity. In response to this, many recruiting firms anonymize resumes so that when dealing with responses to job offers those screening candidates will see a name such as P.S. instead of the candidate’s real name. There still are other issues that can cause prejudice in the process (for example men and women tend to write resumes differently, universities attended can suggest country of origin, year of graduation can suggest age, etc.) With a clear study and clear measurements, organizations made focused changes to reduce racial disparity.

Police Violence is Overstated

This will be the first of many posts on police violence as well as police discrimination. It is a complicated topic, widely distorted on social media and in the media. You will read on Facebook that the police are untrained, wildly racist, and spend most of their time shooting innocent people of color for sport. The news media fans the flames, of course, since it generates great viewership.

Reality is different.

Before we delve into data, let’s lay some ground work.

Like the rest of the population:

  • There are racist police.
  • There are incompetent police.
  • There are crooked police.

I am not going to try to prove otherwise.

Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men (or is it)

This is a widely quoted statement on social media. In fact, it is the leading line of a paper in the National Academy of Sciences.

Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.

Clearly we should abolish the police as quickly as possible if we want to save the youth of our nation, right? (In a later post I will explain why this is a terrible idea.)

The article is well written, factual, and carries a lot of statistics within. It is, however, important to look at the article with the omitted context.

Context part 1

One of the data points from the article is the following:

Police use of force is responsible for 1.6% of all deaths involving black men between the ages of 20 y and 24 y.

To understand some context, first we need to ask, is there anything special about the age range selected?

If we look at the details in the report we see the chart that follows. 1.6% is the peak. It is also a peak with a very high slope … that is, the rate drops heavily on either side of the peak. It is good that the paper includes the chart since it doesn’t write about this point.

The paper notes that the killing rate seems associated with age and gender. This is consistent with the lede line of the paper that says police killings are a leading cause of deaths of young men.

The paper does not look at what might be the driver for these death rates or whether action’s of the young men put them at higher risk.

If we turn to the FBI data on crime, we see that crime rates also peak at the age group 20-24 as you can see in the chart below. (I built the chart from the data, and matched the axes range.) You might not be surprised to note that the rate of police killings correlates nicely with the rate of crime.

Historically violent crimes are more likely to be committed by men and the amount of crime peaks during the 15-35 year age range, the same curve we see for the rate of killings by police.

Underlying causes include a mix of biology (e.g. testosterone levels and prefrontal cortex immaturity), socialization and economic opportunity. The book Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology has an excellent chapter on age rates and crime and shows data from various periods of time, various countries, and across racial lines.

Is this the leading cause of death?

The PNAS article states that police killings are a leading cause of death for young men. This is true-ish, but there is a big difference between a leading cause of death (as claimed by the article) and the leading cause of death (as assumed by many who quote the article). From the article we see, as just discussed, that at its peak, police killings represent 1.6% of deaths. What about the other 98.4%?

For this we turn to the CDCs report on causes of death, broken out by race and age. For 20-24 year old black men (see page 34 of the link), we see the top 10 causes of death:

Black Men20-24
Heart disease3.6

Note that Other is a combination of various causes and, if not treated as a catch all, would appear as the number 4 cause (pushing Police to the 11th slot).

It is easier to see this in a pie chart:

Note that the CDC puts police killings (what they call Legal intervention) at .6% and the PNAS article at 1.6%. I don’t know how PNAS derived their data. The relative sizes are clear regardless.

Police killings of black men age 20-24 is in the top 10 single cause list, coming in either between cancer and HIV or just below genetic and congenital diseases depending on whether you take the CDC number or the PNAS number, and as long as you get rid of the Other category. The article seems to use that as meaning leading.

If we use the CDC data as the source of truth, a black man aged 20-24 is 78.5x more likely (inflammatory media would say 78500%) to die from homicide and 40x more likely to die from an accident than from police violence.

If we compare to white men of similar age, we have different causes of death:

White Men20-24
Heart disease2.3
Other cancer0.3

When you look at men across all ages, the differences reduce, with old age related diseases dominating, In short, black men and white men, for the most part, die from old age, and from similar causes:

Black MenAll
Heart disease23.7
Kidney disease2.6
Blood poisoning1.7
High blood pressure1.6
White menAll
Heart disease24.7
Liver disease1.7

Homicide does not show up for white men as a top 10 cause of death and suicide does not show up for black men as a top 10 cause of death.

Police killings only show up in the top 10 list for black men for the ages 15-24, and at 0.6% for both of those age ranges. The PNAS conclusion is only valid for these two specific age ranges (15-19 and 20-24) and only based on a potentially deceptive definition of leading.

Should police stop shooting people?

Because the press focuses only on the small number of killings of unarmed men, it is easy to assume that is representative and that the majority of killings by police are unjustified. Of the .6% (or 1.6% from PNAS) of black men 20-24 killed by the police, how many were for situations in which those shot were committing violent crimes and thus put themselves at risk of being shot by police?

If we go to the Washington Post database of police shootings, we see that for 2020, there have been 55 black men, aged 18-29, who have been shot by the police. 4 of those were unarmed. (Breonna Taylor is the lone unarmed female in the data set.) Of these 4, 2 were in the process of violent crimes against women. For armed people, I didn’t look at all of linked news articles, but of the ones I sampled there was either little information or the people involved were committing violent crimes.

Using the ratio from above, we would expect roughly 95% of the police killings to be justified. Let us assume with better deescalation we could get to 75%. That would say that out of the 0.6 – 1.6% of police killings, approximately .15% – .4% of deaths of black men could be avoided if we focus on police violence.

That is miniscule compared to other causes. If we could reduce suicide by 25% we’d save 70x or more lives than reducing police shootings by 25%.

Ideally we would reduce all causes of unnatural death.

What Story Do We Tell?

Although there are many ways we can look at this data, there are two common themes I see on social media, both with problems.

Story 1

Police like to kill young men of color. It is a leading cause of death for young black men and thus we need to abolish or defund the police.

Story 2

The amount of people killed by police versus homicide is so small that we shouldn’t even talk about it. Black neighborhoods need to get control of their young men before they blame police.

Story 1 is flawed

Pushing this narrative leads to a war on police. This could be a factor in the ambush of two sheriffs in Los Angeles, followed by protesters at the hospital calling for the police to die. That is hardly a vision for America. It is based on an emotional narrative, fanned by the media, that builds on truth but excludes so much data that it is highly dangerous.

The Factual Side

The narrative builds on a number of points.

There are undeniable incidents where people are killed by the police and clearly should not be. This is not restricted to black men and white police. For example Justine Ruszczyk was shot by a black police officer after she called 911 to report a potential assault by her house. Tamir Rice was 12-year old black boy killed by a white police officer after playing with a toy gun.

Of course there are many others, and the media heavily focuses on black men killed by white police officers. (In a later post we will talk about one reason why, by looking at the nuisance arrest to jail pipeline to which black men are subjected.)

If you see people who look or act like you or your friends being killed, it is impossible not to be upset, especially when it seems like the same stories repeat themselves year after year without any improvements.

There are high profile cases of white criminals (such as Dylan Roof) who are not killed by police and high profile cases of low level black criminals who are killed by police.

There is a long history of racism in the justice system. The KKK, for example, was intertwined with the justice system in the South, as discussed in numerous articles and books, including the recent Race Against Time (a fast, approachable read) or Beneath a Ruthless Sun. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery by a former police officer further illustrates what certainly seems to be a problem of racism in the police force today.

There are also various allegations of severe impropriety within certain police groups, such as in Compton as well as the notorious torture cases in Chicago.

Police are entrusted to enact force on behalf of society, and as such, they have a high standard they need to maintain. We expect more restraint and judgment than we do from criminals.

What’s Missing

Police have incentives not to kill people. They risk their lives and careers, will be subjected to investigations and law suits, and will have enormous amounts of paper work. While there are exceptions, it seems unlikely that most police officers would ignore these barriers.

The press does not cover the good actions by police officers — the violent criminals arrested or killed before they hurt innocent civilians — or the interventions that don’t end in violence. Good news does not sell as well as bad, and as a result, we have a very slanted view of what police do.

There is very little press attention or social media amplification for the overwhelming number of black men killed in homicides or due to suicide. This in itself is a tragedy, as so many victims die without notice. As you can see from the statistics, it is a monumental problem that scarcely gets any news, and the black community suffers without broader support. I would suggest reading the excellent book An American Summer to get a sense of this tragedy.

Story 2 is flawed

Story 2 is also flawed.

Let’s look at the cause of death for black men aged 20-24 again, but this time removing the causes over which the victim has little agency.

Black Men20-24

We will do the same for white men aged 20-24:

White Men20-24

Which of these conditions would you tell a grieving parent they should ignore? A death of a child is a death of a child.

While police violence is dwarfed by the other causes of death, there is no reason to ignore it. At the same time, it should not be blown out of proportion and out of context, breeding hate, violence and misguided initiatives that will not solve real problems.

The next part to this argument is that the black community is ignoring the homicides and instead are blaming the police. We see plenty of examples of this, fanned by the media. Yet, what we don’t see in the press is discussion of the many organizations in the black community focused on reducing violence, such as Mothers Against Senseless Killings. Here is a list of many for Chicago. You will find similar organizations in every major city.

These organizations don’t get the press attention or the support they deserve. The media is distorting our view by underplaying the good done by police and the community and amplifying anti-police sentiment. As a result, the left feels like the police are a leading cause of death and the right feels like the black community isn’t trying to fix problems. Both are wrong.

And the leading killer of black men is?

Black men.. By a huge margin.

90% of homicides of black men are committed by black men.

If we leave HIV out of the list, and generously assume that 25% of the police shootings could be prevented, we get:


Roughly 52.5% of deaths of young black men are by young black men. That is 350x the roughly 0.15% avoidable police shootings. Even if the police never shoot black men, black men will die in large numbers.

Balancing the View

Imagine a world in which the media and social media focused on facts and how to use those to fix problems. For every police killing of a young black man we would have 78 stories about young black men killed by homicide, 17 by suicide, and stories about all of the lives saved by police. We’d also discuss police killed in the line of duty or by suicide. Along the way the coverage could feature one or more of the organizations working to reduce violence, reduce suicide, and improve police community relations. We could treat the victims as people, the communities as complex and hurting, and the police and citizens as people all in an interconnected web.

Or we could fan flames and sell more ads.