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Ferguson to Madison: Covering the Tragic Killing of Tony Robinson

March 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Experiencing discrimination literally hurts your heart.

Important new research from my friend and former colleague from my University of Nebraska-Lincoln days Bridget Goosby shows that people who report being discriminated against have higher levels of systolic and diastolic blood pressure — that is, being discriminated against is associated with inflammation and other cardiovascular problems that are less likely to occur for those who do not report experiences of facing discrimination.

In my own city of Madison, citizens, public officials, and the media that cover them are experiencing one result of a decades-long problem with racial and economic inequality in a city famous for its liberalism. On Friday night, an unarmed 19-year-old black man named Tony Robinson was killed by a white police officer named Matt Kenny of the Madison Police Department.

Madison is grieving.

Madison is angry.

Madison is engaged.

How the city and its news media deal with the grief, the anger and the engagement could have important consequences for the future of the city I love. To that end, I want to offer some suggestions to the local and national news media covering the tragic shooting of Tony Robinson.

Madison is blessed with a very strong local news media – with multiple newspapers, news-oriented websites and several television and radio stations that rigorously cover politics, communities and civic life. This morning, Madison led off national newscasts and local newscasts alike. The world is watching.

Journalists have unique access to cover aspects of a situation that others cannot. They can release police tapes of the events leading up to the shooting, talk with the police chief, and rely upon the years spent cultivating local sources to provide a variety of angles to what is happening now.

Journalists also have special access to experts studying the myriad issues at play in the death of Tony Robinson – from racial discrimination to economic inequality, from mass incarceration to higher education inequality, and from community policing to crisis management. Highlighting the voices of the community and of people who study the issues at play are things the news media should do – and keep doing.

I work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the finest institutions of higher learning and study in the world. Scholars here are experts on these issues. Most of them want to help.

It is vitally important for journalists to use their skills to get the facts exactly right about what happened Friday night and what happens to the family and friends of Tony Robinson, Officer Kenny, the Madison Police Department, and important civic activist groups like Young, Gifted, and Black.

It is just as important for them to use their skills to tell the broader story of the shooting and what the people of Madison, the civic activists and elected officials, and the public servants assigned to protect and serve Madison can do to not only prevent a tragedy like this from happening again, but to move the city closer to the kind of place it purports to be.

If I were on the assignment desk at a local or national news outlet, I’d be pushing for stories about:

  • How communities can productively talk about race? UW-experts like Kathy Cramer, Shawnika Hull, Hemant Shah, Linn Posey-Maddox, Sue Robinson and others would be valuable resources.
  • Madison’s incarceration rate and how it differs by important factors like race. UW-experts like Pam Oliver, Karma Chavez, and David Schultz would be good sources.
  • How does access to education and inequality in education affect community life? UW-experts like Sara Goldrick-Rab, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner (disclosure: we’re married), Nick Hillman, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Madeline Hafner would be great people with whom to start.
  • How can cities productively respond to crisis-moments? Donald Moynihan and Jack Mitchell could provide perspectives from the public management and public media fronts, respectively.
  • How can the media comprehensively and ethically cover major stories that help paint a comprehensive picture of the events leading up to and spilling out of last weekend’s tragic events? Folks in my own department and related fields of inquiry and teaching would be great resources.
  • How does economic inequality manifest itself in cities like ours? Folks like Christine Schwartz, John Ahlquist, and Eric Grodsky are good places to start.

It has been a terrible few days in Madison, but what led to Friday’s tragic event did not come out of nowhere. I have been generally impressed with the level of response from Madison’s community, its news media, and its police department in the wake of Friday night, but it is too easy and too common to let moments like this pass without pushing for meaningful change. A sustained media effort to ask critical questions and pose a variety of options that sit before us is vital if this time is to be any different.

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A Response to “Your Genes Influence Your Political Views. So What?”

November 13, 2013 Leave a comment

No political science research program has grown faster, across more disciplines, and received more popular attention in the past decade than the biopolitics literature.  Research examining genetic links to political ideology, one’s partisan strength, and one’s likelihood of participating politically (but see here for a critique and here for a slight amendment) is standing alongside other work examining physiological correlates to political ideologythreat perception, and participation,  permeating political science and “hard science” academic journals.

Yesterday, Larry Bartels, an excellent scholar posting on the fantastic blog The Monkey Cage, asked what has become an increasingly pointed question to the biopolitics literature (he focuses only on genopolitics, but I suspect/assume he would stipulate that his argument applies to physiology and politics research as well):

So what?

Who cares if you have a genetic predisposition to be a liberal or if your heightened sensitivity to threat makes you more likely to support strong punishment for lawbreakers? Who cares if liberals tend to look at pleasant things and conservatives tend to look at scary things?

In my view, Bartels’ questions suffer from two major limitations that should give us pause before we dismiss biopolitics research as an accurate, but ultimately meaningless, parlor trick. The first limitation is that there are lots of reasons we might care about whether there are deeply-held individual differences, or perhaps an underlying construct(s), that systematically affect how we approach, encounter, and behave in the political world. The second limitation is that Bartels’ critiques about “genopolitics” could be leveled at most all other areas of research in the social sciences; that is, his complaints are not unique to biopolitics even though he only makes them about biopolitics.

I should note that I am a biased source. I spent five years on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have two papers under review that rely on the biopolitics perspective (one of which is co-authored with biopolitics pioneers John Hibbing and Kevin Smith and their students), and taught a biopolitics undergraduate research course. I’m biased in favor of considering the possibility that this work might be useful. So keep that in mind as you read.

First, Bartels asks,

If we could identify the genetic factors that make some people more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty, we could indeed “explain” why some people are more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty. But would doing so help us understand why that particular combination of views is more prevalent now than it was a generation ago? Or why support for the death penalty has declined substantially over the past 20 years? Or why abortion has been a more salient partisan issue in recent political campaigns? I don’t see how.

One piece of an answer to Bartels questions might be found in research examining assortative mating over time; that might produce more of these kinds of predisposed combinations of people.  I would suspect that this would be a smaller piece of the puzzle than explanations focusing on familial socialization, changing social mores, media coverage, and so forth, but that’s just one possibility. Perhaps combinations of threat sensitivity and disgust sensitivity (measured physiologically) across individuals would explain it as well.  If there are more people today who have a combination of high threat sensitivity (more likely to support the death penalty) but low disgust sensitivity (more likely to support gay rights), combinations like the ones Bartels asks about might be partially explained. More likely, one or more of these explanations interact with environmental factors like familial socialization, the formation of party coalitions, economic growth, or the widening of access to the political world to women and non-whites.

Bartels also notes that,

Pinning down the genetic bases of allegiance to a political ideology as it is defined at any given moment would leave the key creative role of what Hans Noel calls “the coalition merchants” still very much in the dark.

I think it is worthwhile to take this question seriously, especially as a big fan of Hans’ research.  Biological and physiological predispositions might help us understand why some coalitions are durable and others are not. Are coalitions that formed for short-term political expediency reasons not as likely to last when they have to bump up against people’s predispositions over and over again? What is the likelihood of a coalition surviving after one election when a particularly salient issue brought together what should be, biologically and physiologically speaking, an unlikely coalition (if indeed we can figure out what a biologically likely coalition would be)?  Genes play a role in shaping party strength, but not party ID, after all. Are coalitions that link together particular personality traits, physiological traits, or genetic characteristics more likely to last than others? Maybe so, maybe not, but that’s an empirical question I would love to see tackled in the coming years.

Note, this is NOT claiming that there is a liberal gene, a conservative gene, or that humans evolved to become polarized. It is to say that it is possible that different combinations of bedrock predispositions like threat perception, wariness of outsiders, and the like may combine in individuals in a variety of ways that might make some coalitions more likely to be durable than others.  Surely, there are lots of ways to be polarized and some fit people’s responses to threat, for instance, and some don’t. To me, it is worth it to figure out which is which. As Hans Noel points out this morning, we can’t know the genetic makeup of the man who delivered the “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, nor can we learn the biological predispositions of his supporters and opponents, but we might be able to conceive of experiments where we take biological information we learn about people and see whether particular traits, constructs, etc. make cooperation more likely, association with out-groups more likely and so forth, especially under environmental manipulations like dealing with a highly salient issue, a large institutional impediment, and so forth.

Second, it seems as though Bartels is holding biopoltiics research to a higher standard than all other kinds of social science research. Bartels finds Fowler and Dawes’ defense of this kind of research “remarkably uninspiring” with respect to the authors’ suggestions about ways it can contribute to traditional political science.

One such suggestion is using genetic control variables in non-genetic research.  I can’t imagine Bartels being uninspired to include education, ideology, or partisanship as control variables in research. If a variable has a theoretical reason to be in a model and there are previous empirical demonstrations that the variable is (minimally) statistically significant and (even better) substantively significant, I have a hard time imagining the justification to keep that variable out of the model lest all of our other estimates be greatly biased and, plainly, have our model be wrong. Indeed, if a non-biological variable was discovered to explain the amount of variance some biological variables have been shown to explain in some circumstances, it would be very surprising indeed to see a blog post asking “so what?”

Bartels further asks, “But even if genopolitics allowed us to diagnose liberalism more quickly and reliably than an opinion survey, how would we “treat” it? This is not a standard we apply to the lion’s share of survey research. One can imagine non-survey researchers pouring cold water on the idea of creating the American National Election Study (ANES) by claiming that even if partisanship is shown to affect voting behavior, how could we treat partisanship or change it? Going further, we can’t change one’s age, race, or gender, so if those factors affect vote choice, civic engagement, or political knowledge, should we conclude that there’s nothing we can do about it and thus not study it?

Starting a national face-to-face cross-sectional survey (and regular panel studies) of 1,200-2,400 Americans from scratch is a lot of effort, but I wouldn’t argue (and I certainly don’t think Bartels would either) that the ANES “does not look worth the effort.” Most political scientists know little about biology, physiology, and even psychology – but most political scientists knew nothing of survey research in 1948. Now, one of the papers of mine I referenced above states, “Our results do not call into question the validity or future utility of traditional survey techniques but they do indicate that, by routinely excluding physiological information, knowledge of the public’s full response to various stimuli of interest is incomplete.”  In other words, I’m not forecasting that biopolitics research is likely to become as ubiquitous and far-reaching as survey research, but I am arguing that it is far more consequential than Bartels suggests.

Most importantly, it is quite likely that the biggest effects of biopolitics will be uncovered when they are interacted with tried and true variables that are measured in more traditional ways. Biological-environmental interactions have the potential to show us a great deal and I fear that a quick dismissal of biopolitics research because it isn’t immediately obvious how findings in the biopolitics literature might “matter” could prevent us from knowing things we want to know like:

  • Why do some people behave against their “biological type?”
  • What helps those who see the world in deep-seated, fundamentally different ways get along?
  • How can the stress of politics be reduced so that the anxious or ambivalent are more likely to choose to participate?

Though Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes’ seminal research demonstrating the power and durability of partisanship in the classic book The American Voter was similarly dismissed by critics noting that the research was conducted during an abnormal period of partisan stability, I think Bartels is on much firmer ground in his skepticism that the current political alignment in the United States just so happens to match many of the conclusions the early returns on biopolitics research provide. He writes:

But wouldn’t it be a very convenient coincidence if politics and biology just happened to align at exactly the moment when political scientists became interested in genetic explanations? And what of nineteenth-century American politics, which was at least as intense and “polarized” as our own, but organized around quite different “bedrock divisions”?

To me, that is a very astute empirical question well worth the effort to explore.

Not News, Not Journalism, Not Anything of Value

October 3, 2012 1 comment

There are lots of things to say about The Daily Caller’s release and reporting and Hannity’s televised reveal of the (not-at-all) SHOCKING video of not-yet-President Obama giving a speech to a predominantly black audience in 2007 at Hampton University. After reading Carlson’s Daily Caller article in which he claims that Obama uses an “accent he almost never adopts in public” (except here and, according to Rush Limbaugh, here and here) and Hannity’s yelling at Juan Williams over Hannity’s apoplexy that Obama’s voice sounds different than usual in the video, one could introduce Carlson and Hannity to the concept of code-switching among many, many, other things.

While there are other important issues that this whole deal raises in terms of race in America and white privilege, for instance, I am not an expert in those areas; I want to stick to areas that I know well when posting in this space. I want to call attention how The Daily Caller’s decision to “release” the video, their reporting about the video, and Hannity’s show covering the release of the video are an affront to journalism.

Hannity and Carlson both read Obama’s mind to then directly contradict what Barack Obama said in his speech with what they asserted were “facts” about his “real” intent.  Hannity and Carlson used evidence not related to their argument to “prove” their argument.

Reporting the Olds and not the News

Most of this video has been online for years; a transcript of the prepared remarks was also available, though Obama deviated from the script. Carlson argued that the deviations were important, telling, and disgusting.  Of course, Tucker Carlson himself covered the speech (well, he reported on it; he was not there covering it) back in 2007. The “shout out” to Jeremiah Wright was named one of Obama’s top gaffes of the 2008 election by Politico.  What is new?  Only the items below; claims that were ignited by Carlson, stoked by Drudge, and fanned by Hannity.

Mind Reading and the Telling of Direct Lies

Carlson claims that the real reason Obama is giving the speech is to tell the audience, “They don’t like you because they are black. That is the theme of the speech from front to back, from beginning to end.”  It is really impressive of Carlson to read Barack Obama’s mind.  This is especially impressive because Carlson is able to read Obama’s mind despite what Obama actually said in the speech!

As ABC’s Jake Tapper reported (I noticed that NBC’s Today did so too this morning), Obama explicitly says to the same crowd in the same speech that race is not a factor in his anger at the government over the response to Hurricane Katrina.  Obama said that he thought the Bush administration’s “incompetence” was “colorblind” and was not about race.  That is an explicit rejection of the entire thesis of Carlson and Hannity’s absurd exercise – even though Carlson views Obama’s comments about New Orleans (including the direct claims that the government’s failures are not racially motivated) as “remarkable moment, and not just for its resemblance to Kanye West’s famous claim that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Umm, no. If it is remarkable, it is because it makes no such claim at all. In fact, it directly rejects such claims (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fascinating essay ).

Leaving aside the wisdom of Carlson’s use of the word “whipping” when describing his view that then-Candidate Obama was trying to build “race hatred and fear,” in his speech – where is the fear? Obama does not tell the audience to fear the government, to fear whites, or to fear anything (except, perhaps – if you really want to stretch – complacency).  Carlson seems to want to argue that Obama is race-baiting and trying to make people afraid without evidence that he is doing so and despite actual words from the actual speech that explicitly state he is not doing so.

Obfuscation and Totally Unfair Comparisons

Journalism is about reporting the verifiable truth, not providing falsely equivalent facts for readers, viewers, and listeners to sift through.  Yet, Carlson’s reporting on the Hampton University speech is SHOCKING (sorry) with respect to how facts are used.  Candidate Obama complained that the Stafford Act provision requiring a 10 percent local match of federal dollars to rebuild, in this case, New Orleans, had not been waived even though it was waved after 9/11 and Hurricane Andrew.  That was a reasonable question to ask.

Carlson calls it “basic dishonesty” because the “federal government had sent at least $110 billion” to help with Katrina.  Carlson’s fact is true, but it has nothing at all to do with the fact about the Stafford Act that Obama presented to his audience.  Obama asked about the basic fairness of waiving the Stafford Act requirement for one hurricane (and 9/11) and not waving it for another.  That is unrelated to whether the federal government gave money to help with rebuilding efforts.

What is worse, Carlson goes on to say that a little while after Obama’s speech, (after Obama’s speech), the Bush administration sent another nearly $7 billion to locales affected by Katrina with “no strings attached.” Stafford waivers did come later as well, which Carlson noted in a lazy way, claiming that the waivers came at (here at the actual) times.

Is Carlson angry at Obama for not appreciating something that had not happened yet?  I think he is and I think that that is actual “basic dishonesty.”

Another unfair comparison is Carlson’s use of government aid in response to 9/11.  “Compare this,” Carlson writes (referring to the $110 billion in aid given to Katrina-affected areas) “to the mere $20 billion that the Bush administration pledged to New York after Sept. 11.”  First, this leaves aside other money pledged to the victims of 9/11 and their families, but more importantly, it implies that the cleanup and rebuilding of the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers is directly comparable to the cleanup and rebuilding costs for an entire city; indeed, an entire gulf region, after a devastating hurricane.  This is a ridiculous claim and a wholly unfair comparison.

Why is it Terrible to Remember History?

Carlson closes his Daily Caller post noting Obama’s veering off-script to conclude his speech by saying that “we won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, or 15 years ago, or 300 years ago.” Carlson writes, “Three hundred years ago. It’s a reference the audience understood.”

What is Carlson implying here?  That the audience understands Katrina happened 19 months from the time of the speech, the L.A. riots 15 years prior, and slavery 300 years before?  If so, that’s great, he is praising the audience for understanding history.  Of course, I suspect (but can’t know for sure) that Carlson is not implying this.  Carlson’s interview on Hannity suggests that Carlson rejects Obama’s references to race (though again, Obama did not make them in the way Carlson claimed) as destructive, mean-spirited, manipulative, and divisive.  I’m not so sure it is a bad idea to recall the effects of a devastating storm, riot, or national scar.  What is there to fear from recalling history and then engaging in a debate about what historical events are analogous to today, affect what is happening today, and might help us understand what to do tomorrow?  We certainly don’t have to agree about what role racism and slavery played in these and other matters to have productive conversations about them.

He Has Seen the Media and it isn’t Him

At one point last night, Sean Hannity said that he hoped “the media” would start to cover Obama’s speech from 5 years ago.  If only he had a radio show, a television show, a website, a friend named Tucker who worked for a media outlet at another website to talk with on television, and a web-muckracker named Matt to promote Hannity’s multi-platform megaphone…