Monday, November 24th, 2014

Fact-checking claims about race after Ferguson shooting

Attorney General Eric Holder talking with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Mo. (AP)
Attorney General Eric Holder talking with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant in Florrissant, Mo. (AP)

The shooting of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer has led to a broader discussion of race in America. PunditFact has recently fact-checked several claims centering on race.

No. 1 cause of death for young black men

Fox pundit Juan Williams recently expounded upon a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in which he described "thuggish behavior" as creating a culture of violence in African-American communities.

"The violent behavior of young black men and the police response have become a window on racial fears," Williams wrote. On Fox News Sunday Williams said, "On the black side of this equation, I think there’s fear of intimidation, harassment being legitimized by the fact that there is a high rate of crime, especially among young black men.

"No. 1 cause of death, young black men 15 to 34 — murder," Williams said. "Who’s committing the murder? Not police. Other black men."

We decided to check Williams’ claim that the leading cause of death for African-American males 15-34 is murder.

That’s True.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide was indeed the No. 1 killer of black men between the ages of 15 and 34 in 2011, the most recent year with statistics available. Accidents were the second leading cause of death.

Compared to other ethnicities, the numbers really stand out. Forty percent of African-American males 15-34 who died were murdered, according to the CDC, compared to just 3.8 percent of white males who died. Overall, 14 percent of all men 15-34 who died in 2011 were murdered.

As the laws of aging go, younger men are less prone to fall victim to natural causes of death, so they are more likely to die of unnatural causes. And the racial disparity between those causes has partially to do with the likelihood of getting into car-related accidents, said James Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University.

"Suburban whites drive more than urban blacks, and putting in more miles on highways —  that’s important because not a lot of people are going to get killed in fender benders in neighborhood streets," Fox said. "There are relatively few auto-accidents in black urban areas."

Beyond driving habits, the criminal homicide rate among young black males is significantly higher than other groups. This, experts agreed, has to do with poverty and geography.

The difference in social structures, access to jobs, educational opportunities, and many other factors between impoverished black neighborhoods and others is often a matter of life and death, according to Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  

"The (homicide) numbers highlight the condition in minority areas, where a lot of violence occurs and the whole way of life is further intensified because police surveillance is always trying to track down people," he said. "People have heightened survival instincts, will do anything to survive, and they’ll seek retribution for anything … because  they don’t trust law enforcement."

Unarmed black killed ‘every 28 hours’

On CNN, conservative African-American radio host Larry Elder and liberal African-American professor and author Marc Lamont Hill debated the state of race relations in the country.

"How often does it happen that an unarmed black is shot by a cop?" Elder asked in the Aug. 20, 2014, interview.

"Every 28 hours," Hill said. "Every 28 hours, Larry. Larry, every 28 hours. According to the MXGM study, a black person is killed by law enforcement, vigilantes or security ..."

Elder cut in, but Hill revisited his point later in the interview, saying, "But if this study bears out, and it does, that every 28 hours an unarmed black person is killed, then that also is a problem."

Hill has his figures wrong. That claim rates False.

Hill is referencing a 2013 report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement called "Every 28 Hours," which examined killings of African-Americans in 2012 by law enforcement, security guards and "vigilantes" who claimed self-defense.

The report is not an academic, unbiased representation of these deaths. It was put together by one volunteer researcher and details 313 deaths based on news clips and police reports. It arrives at one death "every 28 hours" by dividing the number of hours in a year, 8,760, by the number of deaths, 313.

But the report doesn’t say what Hill offered on CNN, that an "unarmed black person is killed" every 28 hours.

In fact, less than half of the people who were killed were unarmed, according to MXGM. PunditFact found 136 were labeled as unarmed after reviewing the compiled profiles.

The 28-hour calculation factored in all 313 deaths, which included people who were armed, "allegedly" armed and unarmed.

Also, not all of the "unarmed" people are analogous to Brown’s case or were killed by police.

Included in the unarmed tally, for instance, is Trayvon Martin, the Miami Gardens teen who was killed by a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. In other cases, whether someone was really "unarmed" may depend on your definition. In nine cases, police said they shot at suspects because they were charging at them from behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Another case to make the list is Rudy Eugene, the Miami man who attacked a homeless man and gnawed his face before police shot him to death.

We also found several "unarmed" deaths that were due to accidents, many car crashes as officers sped to a scene. In another example, one woman was killed at her birthday party, hosted by an off-duty police officer, when she hugged the officer from behind and somehow set off his gun.

More whites are victims of police shootings

The turmoil in Ferguson has spurred many assertions that blacks are unfairly victimized by police. Conservative talk show host Michael Medved aimed to turn that argument on its head.

In a post-show summary on his website, Medved cast police as the protectors of African-Americans. Medved said that blacks are much more likely to be killed by another black person than they are by a cop.

"When it comes to keeping black youths from violent death, police aren’t the problem – in fact, they’re a crucial part of any solution," Medved said.

As for the charge that police target blacks, Medved said the opposite is true.

"More whites than blacks are victims of deadly police shootings," he said.

That’s technically correct, but only because there are many more whites in the United States than blacks. So Medved’s claim rates Half True.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps data on fatal injuries from 1999 to 2011 and one category is homicides by legal intervention. The term "legal intervention" covers any situation when a person dies at the hands of anyone authorized to use deadly force in the line of duty.

Over the span of more than a decade, 2,151 whites died by being shot by police compared to 1,130 blacks. In that respect, Medved is correct.

However, Brian Forst, a professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, said this difference is predictable.

"More whites are killed by the police than blacks primarily because whites outnumber blacks in the general population by more than five to one," Forst said. The country is about 63 percent white and 12 percent black.

Rather than comparing the raw numbers, you can look at the likelihood that a person will die due to "legal intervention" in the same way you might look at the chance a person will die in a car accident or a disease like lung cancer. When you do that, the numbers flip.

A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that the death rate due to legal intervention was more than three times higher for blacks than for whites in the period from 1988 to 1997.

Ferguson’s black unemployment rate

Fox pundit Lou Dobbs  criticized President Barack Obama for not going firsthand to Ferguson to calm tensions after the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American by a white police officer.

Obama, Dobbs claimed, bears responsibility for the economic issues that have contributed to the tensions in Ferguson. "Black unemployment is three times that of white unemployment," Dobbs said on Aug. 19’s America’s Newsroom. "The community itself has a 13 percent unemployment rate, more than double that of the national average. The household net worth in that community is $10,000, a third less than the national average."

"These are the results of policies on the part of the state government, the local community, and the president of the United States," Dobbs said, arguing that President Obama should assure residents that "there will be honest and forthright dealing" with "no ambiguity about the conclusions."

Obama needs to see, Dobbs said, "what happens when you don’t push job creation, you don’t push prosperity for all Americans."

Dobbs’ claim that Obama is behind the disparity in unemployment rates is False.

First and foremost, Dobbs’ numbers are off. The most recent and best available statistics say the black unemployment rate is 1.9 times higher than the white unemployment rate in Ferguson (16 percent to 8.5 percent).

Second, that has little to do with Obama. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping data in 1954, African-Americans have been nationwide are more likely to be unemployed than whites.

Read the full fact-checks at PunditFact.com.