Tag Archives: crime

On the ropes (Goffman review)


First a short overview, then my comments.

Alice Goffman’s book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, is one of the major events in sociology of the last few years. How unusual is it for a book based on a sociology dissertation to get this treatment?

Cornel West endorsed it as “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neoliberal capitalist America.”  Writing in theNew York Times Book Review, Alex Kotlowitz said it was “a remarkable feat of reporting” with an “astonishing” level of detail and honesty.  The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell called it “extraordinary,” and Christopher Jencks, in the New York Review of Books, predicted that it would “become an ethnographic classic.”  Tim Newburn, a highly regarded criminologist at the London School of Economics, hailed On the Run as “gloriously readable” and “sociology at its best.”

On the other hand, the book has lots of critics — here’s James Forman in the Atlantic — who think Goffman’s research subjects aren’t representative of the poor Black communities she wants to describe. And then there’s the exploitation/privilege/outsider argument, summarized by Claude Fischer (I added the links):

A typical line of criticism charges that outsiders cannot accurately describe their subjects of study. For example, one highly circulated review of Goffman’s book, alarmed at her white privilege, describes the study as “theft,” abetting “fantasies of black pathology,” and possibly causing harm by revealing to police the tricks of hiding. “Inner city Philadelphia isn’t Alice Goffman’s home,” another reviewer writes, “and it’s not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.” A Buzzfeed writer simply tweeted, “Ban outsider ethnographies.”


On the morals and ethics, I’m not going to draw conclusions, except to say that I agree Goffman was wrong to help try to find and kill the guy who killed her friend, if what she says is true.

On the social science, I also have a limited perspective, because I don’t really read the book as social science; I think it’s much more a sociological memoir — and I don’t mean that as a criticism of ethnography, to which I would not apply that label in general.

In fact, the book is least persuasive when she tries to be most dispassionate. On the issue of representativeness, for example, Goffman clearly is wrong when she writes:

Initially I assumed that Chuck, Mike, and their friends represented an outlying group of delinquents: the bad apples of the neighborhood. After all, some of them occasionally sold marijuana and crack cocaine to local customers, and sometimes they even got into violent gun battles. I grew to understand that many young men from 6th Street were at least intermittently earning money by selling drugs, and the criminal justice entanglements of Chuck and his friends were on a par with what many other unemployed young men in the neighborhood were experiencing.

That’s a non sequitur, with the typical slippery use of “many” (which I have probably fallen into myself). The fact is her entire project was shaped by the guy she initially fell in with, and his friends, and they were by any measure an “outlying group.” If you don’t see people who have multiple running gun battles as unusual, your perspective may be a little skewed.

Patrick Sharkey’s review puts their outlier status in the context of declining violent crime — including in Philadelphia’s most violence neighborhoods:

The decision to engage in violence can be thought of as a rational response to the pressures and threats that young men perceive in this environment. But the decision to fire a gun in public space is one that is now universally rejected by every segment of American society, and it is a decision that comes with clear, long-term consequences that are understood by all of the young men in the neighborhood that Goffman studies. … As callous as it sounds given the hardships faced by this young man and the lack of choices available to him in this situation, my sense is that most residents of the block where he chose to fire his weapon would consider attempted murder to be an appropriate charge and would have been happy if he were located by the police and sentenced to prison.

In a number of passages it’s impossible to differentiate what Goffman knows versus what she was told. When the facts are wrong, that’s unfortunate. For example, she writes, “By the time Chuck entered his senior year of high school in 2002, young women outnumbered young men in his classes by more than 2:1.” Was that his perspective? People are reliably bad at estimating group sizes. The actual ratio of women to men among Black 17-year-olds living below the poverty line and enrolled in school in Philadelphia was skewed, but only 1.65-to-1.

Nevertheless, her description of the many ways the incarceration empire impinges on the daily lives of poor Black people in Philadelphia is sometimes insightful and useful. I mostly agree with Goffman’s political description and conclusions about the injustices here, and if the book does some harm it also will do some good. I would be happy to see the volume come down in this discussion and for us to treat this is a regular book — despite the inordinate attention it gets outside of academia. It’s deeply flawed but it’s worth reading. Its systematic evidence is weak but it’s thought-provoking and offers lots of food for thought in research and policy debates. It’s well-written and its topic is important. I have nothing against her and look forward to what she will do next.

That said…

My extremely shallow expertise in qualitative research is unfortunately not balanced by a vast knowledge of survey research methods. But that is my relative strength here, and on that I’d like to register an objection to Goffman’s study — both the book and her 2009 article in American Sociological Review (official link here, Google for a free copy).

There is an understandable problem with reproducibility even in the best ethnographies. As evidence for her conclusions, I simply discount her ostensibly meticulous counting of events, like this:

In that same eighteen-month period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence— or, in police language, secured a crime scene— seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.

To me this just means “a lot.” First, there is no denominator. That is, no way to gauge how prevalent these events were compared with anything else. “A lot” is a fine metric for this kind of observation, because all the insights come from the details that follow, not from the recitation of frequencies. (There also is a frustrating lack of precision in these passages. Consider: “I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times.” What exactly happened 52 times? What do “and” and “or” mean in that sentence?) However, if you think of it as sociological memoir, those numbers mean something because they tell you about her evolving perspective and experience. Wow, I think, if I witnessed 14 police beatings first-hand that would really affect me.

That part of the study is not reproducible. But if you do a survey while you’re doing an ethnography, you’re still doing a survey. The survey is not an ethnography. That means you should (my opinion, not a rule) make available your instrument, methods employed, and the data. Goffman has said she destroyed her field notes so they couldn’t be subpoenaed, but I don’t see why that should apply to her survey data, which could have been stripped of identifying information and processed like any other survey with sensitive material. Unlike the recitation of event counts, the survey is potentially reproducible. She reports (a few) percentages. Other researchers could conceivably conduct similar research in a different place or time and draw useful comparisons; someone might even attempt to reproduce her survey just to see if they get the same result.

Let me back up. I can, without violating the copyright rules regarding quotation length, reproduce everything she wrote about the survey portion of her study. (The much remarked upon 50-page “methodological note” at the end of the book never mentions the survey.) Here I will compare what she said in ASR versus the book, not as a gotcha exercise but because there is so little information in either that the variation between the two may be informative.

In ASR (passages excerpted across several pages of the article):

The five blocks known as 6th Street are 93 percent Black, according to a survey of residents that Chuck and I conducted in 2007. … Of the 217 households surveyed, roughly one fourth received housing vouchers. In all but two households, members reported receiving some type of government assistance in the past three years. … In the survey that Chuck and I conducted in 2007, of the 217 households that make up the 6th Street neighborhood, we found 308 men between the ages of 18 and 30 in residence. Of these men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or for failure to appear for a court date within the past three years. Also within the past three years, warrants had been issued to 119 men for technical violations of their probation or parole (e.g., drinking or breaking curfew).

The footnote to that last passage clarifies that “in residence” doesn’t really mean living there:

I counted men who lived in a house for three days a week or more (by their own estimates and in some cases, my knowledge) as members of the household. I included men who were absent because they were in the military, at job training programs (like JobCorp), or away in jail, prison, drug rehab centers, or halfway houses, if they expected to return to the house and had been living in the house before they went away.

From this we learn that the survey included 217 households — and also that those 217 households make up the entire 6th Street neighborhood (not its real name). That seems to imply a 100% response rate, because the 217 households surveyed corresponds to the 217 that “make up” the neighborhood. (That is an excellent response rate.) That is also important because of what comes next. If there were 217 households in the neighborhood, but she had only done interviews with, say, half of them, it would have been very surprising to find 308 men ages 18-30 living there. As it is, it’s extremely unlikely there were 308 men 18-30 living in all 217 households. The footnote says she included men who only lived there part time, or who were away for prison or other institutional spells. Frustratingly, it doesn’t say how many in the sample this applied to.

Here’s what tripped me up about that: 308 men 18-30 in 217 households is 1.4 per household — too many, I thought. So I looked at the 45 census tracts in West Philadelphia that are 75% Black or more (based on this map) in the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, and calculated the average number of men in that age range as .57 per household. (Actually I did the estimate for 18-29 because of how the data are published.) There is one tract with 1.04 men per household, but that’s an outlier. If she’s getting almost 2.5-times more than the average in her sample (1.4 versus .57), there must be a lot of missing men living in the neighborhoods not counted by the Census Bureau. Besides wondering if that’s accurate, you also ought to wonder who answered the questions about those men who weren’t actually residing in their residences.

The book’s version, unfortunately, doesn’t help clear that up:

In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood. We interviewed 308 men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or failure to appear for a court date within the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).

This says they interviewed all 308 men, which seems like just an editing mistake. But then of the 144 who “reported that they had a warrant,” was that out of 308 or out of some smaller number of men whom they actually interviewed? Did someone else answer for the men who weren’t there?

Later in the book she describes the women she interviewed in the same survey:

In our 2007 household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood, 139 of 146 women reported that in the past three years, a partner, neighbor, or close male relative was either wanted by the police, serving a probation or parole sentence, going through a trial, living in a halfway house, or on house arrest. Of the women we interviewed, 67 percent said that during that same period, the police had pressured them to provide information about that person.

If she had limited the sample of women to the same age range as the men (which there’s no indication she did) then you would expect, based on the Black West Philadelphia census tracts, about 1.2 men for every woman, or about 250 women in the sample. However, if she included women of all ages, it should have been even more. Why are there only 146 women? Without any more information — and there is no more information in the book — it’s impossible to figure this out.

The last thing you might like to know if you wanted to pursue these very interesting and potentially important results, is what the survey instrument was like, and how it was administered. This was more than 450 people, a decent size survey, with good potential to yield useful results. We know they asked race, housing and other government assistance, warrant status (including the type of warrant) for the men, and criminal justice status for the partner/neighbor/relative (asked separately?) of the women. What strikes me as challenging here is asking these very sensitive questions and getting such a high response rate. Especially given all we learn from the book, knocking on doors and asking people if they have any warrants seems like it wouldn’t always be welcome. How long were the interviews? Did they make multiple visits when people weren’t home? So knowing how they did it would be very helpful for future work.

In the end, besides what we learn from On the Run itself, I hope we learn from the debate over it how we can better balance the need for protecting research subjects — while learning a lot from them — with the imperative to conduct research that is transparent, verifiable, and (as much as possible) reproducible.

Leave a comment

Filed under Research reports

Campus sexual assault op-ed


I have an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “College Sex-Assault Trials Belong in Court, Not on Campus,” and there’s already a lively discussion in the comments. I would welcome your thoughts, on this site or that one.


Filed under Me @ work

Final proof there is no human tragedy Brad Wilcox will not exploit in order to promote marriage

I’m not going to dignify this with a thorough debunking, but here’s a quick note to highlight the evil that walks among us in academic robes.

Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote a piece for “Post Everything” at the Washington Post that was originally titled like this:


The post didn’t specifically say what’s in the headline, but in this case I have to give credit to the overreaching headline writer for accurately capturing the basic message of the piece. What Brad wants to do is make people think that without exactly saying it. Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel wrote a good alternate headline for it, too: “Violence Against Women Will End When You Sluts Get Married, Says WaPo.”

Their audience is married people who feel superior to women who aren’t married, who want to coerce women into marriage — or cast them out. The friendly side of this is paternalistic shaming, the unfriendly side is violent shaming; both are expressions of patriarchal outlook. Their conclusion:

And, most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat. So, women: if you’re the product of a good marriage, and feel safer as a consequence, lift a glass to dear old dad this Sunday.

I can’t help reading this without hearing a voice that says, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

After the interwebs’ head exploded over the headline, Brad tweeted, “Working to match title w text,” and then a new headline appeared:


The new headline is supposed to be less offensive, I suppose, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s based on the same correlations in the post. There is still nothing in the post to show that adding marriage to a random relationship would reduce the odds or level of intimate partner violence. So the implication is the same: shame on you.

On Twitter, Marina Adshade pointed out that marriage rates and violence rates have both been falling for several decades. Brad’s response was, “Fair enough. But the question is this: Would they have fallen even more if marriage was stronger?” That’s a question he should probably have asked before writing the piece.

Can you imagine what he would do if he had the opposite result to work with — an increase in violence during a period of decreasing marriage?

We don’t have to imagine, actually, because he and his marriage-promoting compatriots at the National Marriage Project were all over that in the 1990s. To choose one example I have handy, William Galston, who sits on Brad’s board of advisors at NMP, wrote in 1991 in the New Republic (12/2/91) that, “The American family has changed dramatically in the past generation, and it is children who have paid the price.” We needed, he said, to “relegitimate the discussion of the links between family structure and a range of social ills.” Indeed, “theft, violence, and the use of illicit drugs are far more prevalent among teenagers than they were thirty years ago.” Now, as “revolution in the American family” has reached unprecedented levels, crime has fallen for two decades. <Crickets>

As a spoof — but with real data — I illustrated Adshade’s point. Here is the relationship between marriage prevalence and intimate partner violence rates:


That curvilinear statistical relationship explains 84% of the variance in intimate partner violence rates. If you add the linear time trend, the variance explained jumps to 92% and the effects of marriage remain highly significant.



If I were like Brad on the other side of this debate, the news story would read like this:

“We had reason to believe marriage was harmful, on average,” said Prof. Cohen. “But I was surprised by the strength of the relationship, especially the fact that the effect seems to accelerate at higher levels of marriage, as if marriage feeds off itself in a violence loop.” Although further research will be needed to confirm the findings, he added, the statistical association is very strong. “The bottom line is that intimate partner violence is much less common in years when marriage is more rare.”

However, I am not seriously suggesting that the decline in marriage has caused the decline in violence (although reduced exposure of women to men in general may be one factor). In fact, if you add the curvilinear effect of time, the variance explained rises to 95% — and marriage effects disappear. But the fact that violence has dropped so much while marriage has plummeted means Brad has a steeper hill to climb to make his case. It’s not enough to say, maybe violence would have declined even more. This is not one of those random spurious correlations, these are two large social trends affecting whole swaths of the population, and the correlation directly contradicts his theory. When there is a plausible connection, or the trends at least affect the same people, the burden is on the one going beyond the existing evidence to reconcile the hypothesis with the available circumstantial evidence.

But none of this matters to Brad*, or, apparently, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Their conclusion is predetermined. There is nothing that would lead them to conclude that society would not be improved by more marriage. It’s just a case of picking a subject in the news, picking some facts, and repeating their conclusions. And I think it’s appalling.

* If you’re wondering why I seem to be picking on Brad individually, please rest assured it’s nothing personal. If there was any other sociologist who behaved as poorly as he consistently does I would pick on them, too. For endless details, follow the National Marriage Project tag.


Filed under Uncategorized

Getting beyond how the ‘Factual Feminist’ is wrong about the prevalence of rape


Christina Sommers

Christina Sommers, who works out of the American Enterprise Institute (along with Brad Wilcox and Charles Murray), thinks the Centers for Disease Control, President Obama, and the feminist establishment are exaggerating how much rape there is. I’m not an expert on measuring rape – and neither is she – but I’ve looked into it enough to say her debunking is basically bunk.

Then: What happens when we go beyond her argument?

Lifetime experience of rape

In a video put out for the American Enterprise Institute, under the misnom de guerre “Factual Feminist,” Sommers quotes Obama as saying, “one in five women will be a victim of rape in their lifetime.” I’m mostly going to focus on this empirical claim.

Obama gets that statistic from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the CDC (he says it like it’s a projection, but it’s just a cross-sectional lifetime prevalence estimate). Sommers complains that the NIPSVS finds a higher rate of rape than the National Crime Victimization Survey, which she asserts is the gold standard in this area. She says:

By using a non-representative sample, and vaguely-worded questions, the CDC yielded the one-in-five lifetime rate, and the 1.3 million female rape victims per year.

The NIPSVS reported that 18.3% of women had ever been the victim of rape, comprising three (non-exclusive) components: completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or completed alcohol or drug facilitated penetration. Here is their table (click to enlarge):


Sommers claims the CDC has too broad a definition of rape, including lots of namby-pamby complaints from women brainwashed by the victimhood-obsessed feminist establishment.

So the most important point in response to that is that the lifetime reported rape rate in the NIPSVS is actually pretty low. The CDC’s other major survey, the National Survey of Family Growth, in 2002 found that 22.6% of women in the ages 18-44 had ever been forced to have intercourse (the last time they asked these questions). This is surprising because the NIPSVS measure is broader: it includes attempted rape as well as oral or anal penetration, and penetration by objects other than a man’s penis, including acts performed by women. The NSFG asked only about vaginal intercourse by a man. So the NIPSVS has a broader definition and finds a lower rate of lifetime rape prevalence. Given the difficulties in defining and measuring these experiences, this seems within the realm of reasonable.

Sommers’ only specific complaint about the NIPSVS rape prevalence statistic is that they include alcohol or drug facilitated penetration. To make this point she engages in a misleading rant about sex under the influence of alcohol and drugs, not exactly misstating the NIPSVS method but carefully not describing it accurately. “What about sex while inebriated?” she asks. “Few people would say that sex while intoxicated alone constitutes rape.” Right, and neither does the NIPSVS. The survey asked, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever…” and then it lists various kinds of penetration. The key phrase there is and unable to consent. They are not saying all drunk or drugged sex is rape.

She also claims that the NIPSVS is unrepresentative because it had a low response rate of about 30%. That’s life in the big city of surveys these days, and they attempted to compensate for it by using a weighting scheme to make the data representative of the national population. It’s not ideal but it’s not terrible, and that just means it should be interpreted cautiously and corroborated – neither Sommers nor I have any reason to believe this contributes to an inflated estimate of rape prevalence (though of course that’s possible).

In summary: If you have to pick a number to put to the lifetime prevalence of rape, I don’t think “one-in-five” is an unreasonable choice.

 What is rape

The NSFG survey, which arrived at a higher lifetime rape rate, combined two sets of responses to reach 22.6% for it’s 18-44 year-old respondents. These questions were in the self-administered portion of the survey due to the sensitivity of the topic. In one part of the survey they asked, simply, “At any time in your life, have you ever been forced by a male to have vaginal intercourse against your will?” In another part they asked a two-part question. First:

Think back to the very first time you had vaginal intercourse with a male. Which would you say comes closest to describing how much you wanted that first vaginal intercourse to happen?

  • I really didn’t want it to happen at the time
  • I had mixed feelings—part of me wanted it to happen at the time and part of me didn’t
  • I really wanted it to happen at the time.

And then, this followup:

Would you say then that this first vaginal intercourse was voluntary or not voluntary, that is, did you choose to have sex of your own free will or not?

If the respondents said it was not voluntary, that counted as ever having forced sex. This is not a criminal definition of rape. Rather, it identifies people who had sex involuntarily — from their perspective. It is understandable that this measure produces higher estimates than the criminal law does.

Naming violence

I think we need a definition of rape that is not the same as the criminal law’s definition, because the law is not intended to make criminal all of the ways that people experience sexual violation or coercion. The routine coercion of sex within unequal marriages, for example, must lie outside the reach of criminal law — or the next thing you know we’d have workers claiming that their employers’ profits constitute theft. In that sense, the definition used by NSFG seems reasonable.

Extending this further, however, we might find that drawing the line between sex and violence, between sex and rape, my not just be difficult, it may the wrong question.

Look back at the NIPSVS. They include “sexual coercion” under the category of “other sexual violence” — other meaning not rising to the level of rape. (To be clear, this is not part of the rape prevalence estimates I discussed above). They offer this definition:

Sexual coercion is defined as unwanted sexual penetration that occurs after a person is pressured in a nonphysical way. In NISVS, sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral, or anal sex after being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their influence or authority.

Sommers is incensed this counts as “violence.” Her voice drips with contempt as she recites the description, at how feminism’s pretty little flowers are upset that somebody lied to them. I don’t share this contempt. But neither would I insist that these forms of coercion be counted as “violence.” Sexual coercion does not have to be defined as violence in order to be important, or bad, or an essential element of many people’s sexual experience.


You can’t handle the truth?

The feminist argument for the distinction between sex and violence is partly a defense of “normal” sexual relationships and against the accusation that it is normal sexual relationships that feminists oppose. This is exactly the tone Sommers takes: feminists treat women as passive victims who can’t handle normal relationships — you can’t even get drunk and have sex with your spouse anymore! Arguing with her over the definition of violence is a losing battle. I’ll give up “violence” if you agree that sexual coercion is systematically related to patriarchal power and gender inequality.

Here’s an excerpt from Catharine MacKinnon’s old discussion of rape versus sex (from the 1981 essay, “Sex and Violence,” published in the collection Feminism Unmodified), which influenced my attitude on this question. She said it is…

…potentially cooptive [to formulate the question as] these are issues of violence, not sex: rape is a crime of violence, not sexuality… I hear in the formulation that these issues are violence against women, not sex, that we are in the shadow of Freud, intimidated at being called repressive Victorians. We’re saying we’re oppressed and they say we’re repressed. That is, when we say we’re against rape the immediate response is, “Does that mean you’re against sex?” “Are you attempting to impose neo-Victorian prudery on sexual expression?” … To distinguish ourselves from this, and in reaction to it, we call these abuses violence.

To argue with Sommers about where to draw the line for sexual violence is to inhabit the shadow of Freud, in MacKinnon’s view. Rather than adopt that defensive posture, MacKinnon argued, feminists should own women’s fundamental, non-objective (in the sense of disinterested) position:

We have a deeper critique of what has been done to women’s sexuality and who controls access to it. What we are saying is that sexuality in exactly these normal forms often does violate us. So long as we say that those things are abuses of violence, not sex, we fail to criticize what has been made of sex, what has been done to us through sex, because we leave the line between rape and intercourse … right where it is.

In other words, if feminists argue over whether women’s perception of involuntary sex matches the legal definition, then we lose the ability to explain that unequal sex is systematic rather than deviant. It may not be that one-in-five women has experienced rape according to the definition within criminal law (though that is certainly within the realm of possible). But if that many women have had sex involuntarily, and many more have experienced sexual coercion of various kinds, isn’t that bad enough?


Filed under In the news

Baloney data detective: Wilcox school shooters edition

Another day, another Brad Wilcox really? moment.

This just in from W. Bradford Wilcox, writing in National Review Online:

Another shooting, another son of divorce. From Adam Lanza, who killed 26 children and adults a year ago at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., to Karl Pierson, who shot a teenage girl and killed himself this past Friday at Arapahoe High in Centennial, Colo., one common and largely unremarked thread tying together most of the school shooters that have struck the nation in the last year is that they came from homes marked by divorce or an absent father. From shootings at MIT (i.e., the Tsarnaev brothers) to the University of Central Florida to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s “list of U.S. school attacks” involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.

That Wikipedia “list of U.S. school attacks” includes (as of this moment) all of nine school attacks in the last year from Sandy Hook to the present. Oddly, this does include the Tsarnaev brothers, who after allegedly blowing up the Boston Marathon also allegedly shot a security officer at MIT — apparently enough to get them on the Wikipedia list of school attacks. And yes, their parents did divorce — after they were 18 years old. Also on the list, one shooting that resulted from a fight between two acquaintances (parents’ marital status unknown); and a guy with serious mental health problems whose mother, who had schizophrenia, apparently was never married to his father. And in the latest shooting, in Arapahoe, the perpetrator’s parents were divorced.

What a minute, though. I know it’s crazy to nitpick something this ridiculous, but: why “school” shooters, instead of rampage killers in general? Could it be because recent rampage killers James HolmesJared Lee Loughner, and Jiverly Wong — the three worst rampage killers in the U.S. since April 2009 — and Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, all had married parents? Maybe divorce makes people shoot up schools specifically. Interesting!

Wait another minute.

That Arapahoe guy was described as a “dedicated, bright student from a religious family that attends Bible study meetings.” The Tsarnaevs also “turned to religion with mounting fervor” before becoming school shooters. The shooter who attacked Santa Monica College earlier this year reportedly attended Sunday school as a child. Of course, Newton shooter Adam Lanza attended Catholic school at the church where the family were parishioners. Excluding one shooting in which no one was killed except the perpetrator, and the one that was really just a school fight, that’s 4 out of 7 with a religious connection. Of course, since I haven’t ruled out a religious background in the others, that puts the link somewhere between 4/7 and 7/7, or “up to 100%.”

I won’t jump to conclusions from such sketchy data — who do you think I am, Brad Wilcox? — but I think we have enough data now to at least raise the hypothesis that religion causes divorce and school shootings (but not rampage killings in general).


Filed under In the news

Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.


I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.


Filed under In the news

Who’s Afraid of Young Black Men?

Originally posted at TheAtlantic.com.

How gender did (and didn’t) affect the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial

AP Images

In conversation, I keep accidentally referring to Zimmerman’s defense lawyers as “the prosecution.” Not surprising, because the defense of George Zimmerman was only a defense in the technical sense of the law. Substantively, it was a prosecutionof Trayvon Martin. And in making the case that Martin was guilty in his own murder, Zimmerman’s lawyers had the burden of proof on their side, as the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin wasn’t a violent criminal.

This raises the question, who’s afraid of young black men? Zimmerman’s lawyers took the not-too-risky approach of assuming that white women are (the jury was six women, described by the New York Times as five white and one Latina).

“This is the person who … attacked George Zimmerman,” defense attorney MarkO’Mara said in his closing argument, holding up two pictures of Trayvon Martin, one of which showed him shirtless and looking down at the camera with a deadpan expression. He held that shirtless one up right in front of the jury for almost three minutes. “Nice kid, actually,” he said, with feigned sincerity.

Joe Burbank/AP Images

Going into the trial, according to one kind of analysis the female jurors were supposed to have more negative views about Zimmerman’s vigilante behavior, and be more sympathetic over the loss of the child Trayvon. As a former prosecutorput it:

With the jury being all women, the defense may have a difficult time having the jurors truly understand their defense, that George Zimmerman was truly in fear for his life. Women are gentler than men by nature and don’t have the instinct to confront trouble head-on.

But was the jury’s race, or their gender, the issue? O’Mara’s approach suggests he thought it was the intersection of the two: White women could be convinced that a young black man was dangerous.

Race and Gender
Racial biases are well documented. With regard to crime, for example, one recent controlled experiment using a video game simulation found that white college students were most likely to accidentally fire at an unarmed suspect who was a black male — and most likely to mistakenly hold fire against armed white females. More abstractly, people generally overestimate the risk of criminal victimization they face, but whites are more likely to do so when they live in areas with more black residents.

The difference in racial attitudes between white men and women are limited. One analysis by prominent experts in racial attitudes concluded that “gender differences in racial attitudes are small, inconsistent, and limited mostly to attitudes on racial policy.” However, some researchers have found white men more prone than women to accepting racist stereotypes about blacks, and the General Social Survey in 2002 found that white women were much more likely than men to describe their feelings toward African Americans positively. (In 2012, a minority of both white men and white women voted for Obama, although white men were more overwhelmingly in the Romney camp.)

What about juries? The evidence for racial bias over many studies is quite strong. For example, one 2012 study found that in two Florida counties having all-white jury pool – that is, the people from which the jury will be chosen – increased the chance that a black defendant would be convicted. Since the jury pool is randomly selected from eligible citizens, unaltered by lawyers’ selections or disqualifications, the study has a clean test of the race effect. But I can’t find any on the combined influence of race and gender.

The classical way of framing the question is whether white women’s group identity as whites is strong enough to overcome their gender-socialized overall “niceness” when it comes to attitudes toward minority groups. But Zimmerman’s lawyers appeared to be invoking a very specific American story: white women’s fear of black male aggression. Of course the “victim” in their story was Zimmerman, but as he lingered over the shirtless photo, O’Mara was tempting the women on the jury to put themselves in Zimmerman’s fearful shoes.

Group Threat
But do white women really feel threatened by black men? That’s an old, blood-stained debate. In the 20th century there were 455 American men (legally) executed for rape, and 89 percent of them were black–mostly accused of raping white women. That was just the legal tip of Jim Crow’s lynching iceberg, partly driven by white men asserting ownership over white women in the name of protection. But the image of course lives on.

In the specific realm of U.S. racial psychology, one of the less optimistic, but most reliable, findings is that whites who live in places with larger black populations are on average express more racism (here’s a recent confirmation). Most analysts attribute that to some sense of group threat–economic, political, or violent–experienced by the dominant majority.


Maybe white women’s greater overestimation of the black population is not an indicator of perceived threat. In the same survey white women were no more likely than white men to describe blacks as “prone to violence.” But that’s a question with an obvious right or wrong answer. Anyway, whether women feel more threatened than men do isn’t the issue, since the jury was all women. The question is whether the perceived threat was salient enough that the defense could manipulate it.

I don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of the jurors in this case, of course. Being on a jury is not like filling out a survey or playing a video game. But however much we elevate the rational elements in the system, of course emotion also plays a role. Whether they were right or not, Zimmerman’s lawyers clearly thought there was a vein of fear of black men inside the jurors’ psyches, waiting to be mined.


Filed under In the news