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Survivor bias and the 92% of Southern Black men who support spanking

In today’s New York Times both Michael Eric Dyson and Charles Blow write about spanking. Blow doesn’t mention race and the South, but that’s in the background when we writes:

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

Dyson goes further, and ties the practice back to slave plantations:

Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

Here are a couple of logical points, and then some data.

First, please note that the rationale some Black parents use doesn’t need to explain all of the practice of beating children, just the difference between Blacks and Whites. Blacks are more likely to support spanking than Whites, but a strong majority of both groups in this country agree spanking is “sometimes necessary.” So not every case of Black parents beating their children is attributable to slavery and racism. Some may be, and the rationale no doubt is in many cases, but that’s not the whole story.

Second, it’s common for people who suffer some disadvantage and survive to attribute their survival to the hardship they suffered. NFL player Adrian Peterson, who beat his 4-year-old son with a stick, said, “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”

If there were 15 boys on a lifeboat, and one survived, he would probably say, “I have always believed that my lifeboat experience has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.” If he were successful in his post-lifeboat life, people might agree with his explanation. In fact, statistics might even show that lifeboat survivors are more successful. Statistically, that’s a survivor bias – the people who should be dragging down the average aren’t alive to weigh in.

A more subtle effect is not just statistical bias but real survival selection — the one lifeboat guy who lives was probably the strongest. So his story seems credible, even though lifeboat populations have very high mortality. In fact, the “Black-White mortality crossover” is a classic puzzle upon which many demographers (including me, though I sadly didn’t get it published) have cut their teeth: At old ages, Blacks have lower mortality rates than Whites (here’s a recent update). That’s partly because to live to old age in Black America you have to be tough (and partly because some old Blacks exaggerate their age, intentionally or unintentionally, which is a cultural expression of the same thing).

Data

Anyway, kudos Harry Enten at 538 for turning to the General Social Survey to show trends in spanking attitudes. He shows that born-again Christians, Blacks, Southerners, and Republicans are all more likely to support spanking. And he did a regression showing those variables all predict spanking agreement when entered together. However, what he doesn’t show is the the interaction most important for today’s news: The support for spanking among Black men raised in the South. (Enten uses the GSS code for where people currently live, when for a question like this I think it’s more appropriate to use the code for where people lived when they were age 16.)

To get a decent sample size (this is down to 211 Southern Black men), I pooled three administrations of the GSS (2008, 2010, 2012), to get this:

spanking race and region.xlsx

Notice the huge gender gaps, which Enten for some reason didn’t consider.  And see that the Southern-at-age-16 people have higher rates of supporting spanking than the currently-Southern. If spanking were a reasonable adaptation to hardship, necessary for children to toughen up and learn to follow orders so they don’t get killed by Whites, why would Black men support it more than Black women?

So 92% of Southern Black men support a “good, hard spanking,” and Charles Barkley was probably right, empirically, when he said spanking was ubiquitous in the South in his childhood. But 75% of non-Southern White men support it, too. So it’s variations on a nearly-universal theme.

And the people who think it helps children because it helped them are not alone among the survivors of difficult childhoods. But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Clarification: Don’t take the term “survivor” too literally. The lifeboat analogy is just an extreme version of, “15 people experienced harsh beating as a child, and one ended up a successful football player.” People who suffer and succeed often incorrectly attribute their success to their suffering.

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