Conjuring Disrespect. A much-touted study of Oakland police shows researchers’ determination to find racism, not cops’ bias. By Heather Mac Donald
The attempt to find systemic police bias has come to this: the difference between an officer saying “uh” and saying “that, that’s.” According to Stanford University researchers, police officers in Oakland, California, use one of those verbal tics more often with white drivers and the other more often with black drivers. If you can guess which tic conveys “respect” and which “disrespect,” you may have a career ahead of you in the exploding field of bias psychology.
In June, a team of nine Stanford psychologists, linguists, and computer scientists released a paper purporting to show that Oakland police treat black drivers less respectfully than white ones. The study, published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, elicited a huzzah from the press. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Science, among many other outlets, gave it prominent play. “Police officers are significantly less respectful and consistently ruder toward black motorists during routine traffic stops than they are toward white drivers,” gloated the New York Times.
Reading the coverage, one expected reports of cops cursing at black drivers, say, or peremptorily ordering them around, or using the N-word. Instead, the most “disrespectful” officer utterance that the researchers presented was: “Steve, can I see that driver’s license again? It, it’s showing suspended. Is that—that’s you?” The second most “disrespectful” was: “All right, my man. Do me a favor. Just keep your hands on the steering wheel real quick.”
The researchers themselves undoubtedly expected more dramatic results. Undaunted by the lackluster findings, they packaged them in the conventional bias narrative anyway, opening their study by invoking the “onslaught of incidents” involving officers’ use of force with black suspects that have “rocked” the nation. A cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement helpfully commented in the San Francisco Chronicle that the study goes beyond individual racism to highlight a “systemic set of practices that has impacts on people’s lives.”
The study is worth examining in some detail as an example of the enormous scientific machinery being brought to bear on a problem of ever-diminishing scope, whether in police departments or in American society generally. The most cutting-edge research designs, computer algorithms, and statistical tools, such as Fisher’s exact tests, Cronbach’s alpha, and Kernel density estimates, are now deployed in the increasingly desperate hunt for crippling white racism, while a more pressing problem—inner-city dysfunction—gets minimal academic attention.