David Simon has Nothing to Say, and he is Saying it, and it’s Not Poetry

It seems like I get a lot of requests to read articles on David Simon’s blog recently.

I find his blog strangely appealing in a hypnotic sort of way. Simon is one of those rare people that makes me want to read him even as I disagree with most of what I’m reading. He’s a talented writer, and he cops a straightforward, no compromise attitude that somehow doesn’t alienate.

But it really is just a hypnotic appeal. There’s a cadence to the prose, the words are well-chosen, the appearance of moral clarity is refreshing. The substance, by contrast, is degenerate.

Take this one – entitled simply Trayvon. It is a content-free expression of anger and nothing more. To be sure, people are allowed to vent. But only then when they have something to vent about.

You can stand your ground if you’re white, and you can use a gun to do it. But if you stand your ground with your fists and you’re black, you’re dead.

It’s the first sentence of the article, and he’s already wilfully ignorant. And yes, I mean what I say. The relevant law is available online, and Simon is a (former) reporter. If a trained reporter can’t be bothered to do even 5min. of Google due diligence, he’s choosing not to know.

If he had read the law, he would know that it doesn’t cover situations where you are the attacker, nor where you’re merely being followed. Stand Your Ground does not allow you to pick a fight with someone just because he’s skeeving you out. Nor does it allow you to use deadly force out of convenience. You may only use deadly force (a) in self-defence, (b) after you have been attacked and (c) only then when you reasonably believe you are in danger of grave bodily injury or death. Martin didn’t have a Stand Your Ground right to use his fists just for being followed in Florida, and that’s not because he was black, but because that’s how the law is written.

In the state of Florida, the season on African-Americans now runs year round. Come one, come all.

What season on African-Americans? Has there been a spate of killings of black people in Florida in response to this verdict? Is there even a minor, statistically insignificant uptick in white-on-black violence there? Has Simon checked? It’s people like this that I’m talking about in the last entry who need to hear that in fact 93% of all black homicide victims are victims of black perpetrators. The same report shows white-on-black homicides accounting for maybe 5% of all homicides, but has black-on-white clocking in near 20%. Keep your eye on the baseline of blacks as only 13% of the population, and I’m sorry, but that’s quite a significant gap. There is actually some evidence that whites have more to fear from blacks than from other whites. There is no such evidence the other way around. So I ask again, what “season on African-Americans?” Unless Florida is a massive outlier – which there is no reason to believe, and for which Simon has pointedly provided no evidence – then this is just a rank lie.

If I were a person of color in Florida, I would pick up a brick and start walking toward that courthouse in Sanford. Those that do not, those that hold the pain and betrayal inside and somehow manage to resist violence — these citizens are testament to a stoic tolerance that is more than the rest of us deserve. I confess, their patience and patriotism is well beyond my own.

And yet, nothing is stopping Simon from marching toward that courthouse in Sanford with a brick, despite his lack of patience and patriotism. Except maybe his whiteness? In fact, that’s what he’s pretty clearly saying, isn’t it? He just can’t get that worked up about this because, hey, black victim, and he’s a white guy. Only “person[s] of color” are expected to feel enough outrage to pick up a brick and go to the courthouse, and only “person[s] of color” have to exercise any self-control not to do that. And David Simon, who deeply understands their inner feelings despite, you know, not sharing them because Jewish White Guy, knows how patient and patriotic they are. The theory that maybe they’re not that worked up because there’s nothing to be worked up about is too subtle or something.

Behold, the lewd, pornographic embrace of two great American pathologies: Race and guns, both of which have conspired not only to take the life of a teenager, but to make that killing entirely permissible.

I wonder if Simon knows what “lewd” and “pornographic” mean. If there’s anything remotely “pornographic” going on here it’s the insistence, despite even a shred of evidence to suggest it, that there’s a racial angle to the Zimmerman case. Simon’s like one of those meatheads who forces himself on a girl because he “just knows” that she’s “that kind of girl,” and “just knows” that she wants him because she gave him one glance across a crowded room, and if she says no she’s a tease. Nothing other than Simon’s assumptions and imagination made this about guns and race, and yet the onus is on “America” to answer for its “pathologies.” What an asshole.

In Simon’s world, does it ever happen that a white man kills a black man for plain old-fashioned criminal reasons? Does it ever happen because of a misunderstanding? An accident? Does it ever happen in self-defense? Or does it only ever happen because of racism? And if, as would seem rational, Simon agrees that not all white-on-black killings are racially motivated, then how does he know that this one was? And if, as would seem rational, Simon agrees that not every time that the courts find someone not guilty on grounds of justifiable homicide it’s because the victim was black, what is it about this case that makes him so certain that’s what happened?

Going into detail about that would be informative. That would be commentary. This post is not commentary. Commentary requires engagement with the facts. It requires shedding light on aspects of a situation that are obscure. This, by contrast, is nothing but the pathetic chest-pumping of someone who has never once examined, much less questioned, his assumptions.

(See here for the title reference.)

2 thoughts on “David Simon has Nothing to Say, and he is Saying it, and it’s Not Poetry

  1. The same report shows white-on-black homicides accounting for maybe 5% of all homicides, but has black-on-white clocking in near 20%. Keep your eye on the baseline of blacks as only 13% of the population, and I’m sorry, but that’s quite a significant gap. There is actually some evidence that whites have more to fear from blacks than from other whites.

    First, I assume you’re getting the 20% and 5% figures from Fig. 20a, but note that, for this figure (along with 20b) “[p]ercentages are based on the 63.1% of homicides for which the victim/off ender relationships were known.” In Fig. 19, which is not restricted to this 63.1% of the data, both numbers are lower; the spreadsheet from the DJS site with the actual numbers says that the overall percentage of murders that have white victims and black offenders is around 7, while the overall percentage with black victims and white offenders is around 3.

    Second, while there are substantial differences in the probability of being a murderer between whites and blacks, your statement that whites have more to fear from blacks than from other whites is wrong, I think.

    Let P(WO|WV) be the probability of an offender (murderer) being white (WO) given that a murder victim is white (WV), and let P(BO|WV), P(WO|BV), and P(BO|BV) be defined similarly. Using Bayes’ rule, we get:

    P(WO|WV) = P(WV|WO) * P(WO) / P(WV)

    Similarly for the P(BO|WV), P(WO|BV), and P(BO|BV). We can factor P(WO), the probability of being a white offender, as P(O|W) * P(W), the probability of being an offender given that you’re white times the probability of being white, and similarly with B subbed in for W to get an estimate of P(BO), the probability of being a black offender. Then note that the denominator (when taking only whites and blacks into account, which is okay since the numbers don’t change much if we take the FBI’s ‘other’ and ‘unknown’ categories into account) is:

    P(WV) = P(WV|WO) * P(O|W) * P(W) + P(WV|BO) * P(O|B) * P(B)

    And similarly for P(BV), which we need for P(WO|BV) and P(BO|BV).

    We can use some numbers from the report you linked to, as well as the wikipedia racial demographics stats, and (because they’re easier to use to get the relevant numbers than are the numbers in the DJS tables) murder rates by race of victim and offender from the FBI.

    Okay, so from wikipedia, we know that P(W) = 0.724 and P(B) = 0.126. From the DJS report Table 1, we can estimate P(O|W) as 4.5/100,000 = 0.000045 and P(O|B) as 34.4/100,000 = 0.000344. Finally, using the FBI numbers, we can estimate P(WV|WO) = 0.91, P(BV|WO) = 0.07, P(WV|BO) = 0.15, and P(BV|BV) = 0.83.

    Plugging these numbers into the Bayes’ rule formula, we get

    P(WO|WV) = 0.82
    P(BO|WV) = 0.18
    P(WO|BV) = 0.06
    P(BO|BV) = 0.94

    Okay, so to address your statement: given a white victim, it’s about 4.5 times more likely that the offender was white than black (0.82/0.18). The baserate cuts both ways, here – the probability of being a murderer given that you’re black is about 7.5 times higher than the probability of being a murderer given that you’re white, but, at the same time, there are about 1/6 as many blacks as there are whites in the first place.

    I’ll end by noting that the two posterior probabilities P(WO|BV) and P(BO|BV) are directly relevant to your question “what season on African-Americans?” and some of the points made in your post about the gawker piece yesterday.

  2. The statement is that whites have more to fear from blacks than from other whites, and it’s not a firm commitment, just a claim that there is “some evidence.” Again, the point is not to claim that whites should be afraid of blacks, but just to counter the idea that blacks are somehow in grave danger of being murdered by whites with impunity. That is the claim being advanced by Simon and Sharpton et al, and it is demonstrably false.

    The idea is not to become a victim in the first place, not to determine, given that I’m a victim, what the chances are that I was murdered by someone of my own race. If I adopt a strategy of avoiding black people, will it lower my chances of being murdered; and if black people adopt a policy of avoiding white people, will it lower their chances of being murdered? Those are the relevant questions. To operationalize it would be to say something like for each given black person I encounter, how likely is he to be an interracial murderer, and for each given white person I encounter, how likely is he to be an intraracial murderer, and then weight that by the number I do encounter. It doesn’t mean much to say that if I’m murdered, it’s 4.5 times more likely to have been by a white person unless we know how many white people I typically encounter, etc. Of course, P(O|W) * P(W) is meant to account for that, but again, the output your quoting assumes I’m a victim. There are, after all, more than 4.5 times as many whites as blacks.

    Now it might well cut the other way. Supposing I choose to only associate with black people, but somehow manage to retain my white status. It might mean that I associate with more murderers in general, but proportionally fewer who kill outside their race.

    But we know from the numbers provided that that’s not the case. Glossing over the reality of multiple homicides and assuming one-perp-one-vic, the numbers on the FBI page suggest that 17% of black murderers kill outside of their race where somewhat less than 10% of white murderers do. That suggests that my chances are actually slightly higher of being killed if I hang out with only black people. If 34.4 out of every 100k people I encounter are murderers, but only 17% of those would ever consider killing me, then that’s 5.8-ish. If 4.5 of every 100k I encounter are murderers and fully 90% of those count me as a potential victim, then I’m still encountering almost 2 fewer murderers per 100k people I meet. Of course, it’s a laughably small difference, but to the point at hand, it’s worth noting that it’s much more dramatic the other way ’round. A hypothetical black person who only ever encountered white people would meet 4.5 murderers per 100k people, less than 1 of whom would ever consider killing him. That’s in contrast to the nearly 30 he would encounter applying the “only hang out with blacks” strategy.

    I’m cheating a little bit by lumping all “alien” races in one pile. If you throw out the pacific islanders and inuits and such, it brings 5.8 a little closer to 4.5 – but not all the way there – and certainly not all the way down to the 4 that it really is if I only ever meet whites.

    Of course, 30 in 100k is still vanishingly small, which is the real point. Your chances of being murdered are practically nonexistent no matter what race you are and what race your counterparty. So, I fully agree with Gawker that we can cut the crap about an “epidemic” of black violence. The rates are higher to be sure, but it makes no difference in reality, certainly not enough of a difference to use it as a basis for a racist association policy. It might be interesting as an academic exercise to graph the mix of races against the chance of encountering a murderer for whom I’m an appropriate victim, but it will just underline the point that I’m in basically no danger of being murdered in the first place.

    The point remains what it has always been: there is simply no way to torture the numbers that gives me the situation where black people have more to fear from white people than they have from other blacks. David Simon is talking right out of his ass, and I suspect he knows it.

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