Ivy League librarians call for an end to all policing

December 4, 2020 • 1:00 pm

My impression of librarians is that they are sensible and anti-woke, at least in terms of their stand on free speech and free expression. After all, they are the guardians and disseminators of all knowledge, the opponents of censoring books, and I have respected them immensely. They’ve also been a huge help to me in my academic work as well as in writing my popular books.  I guess I thought this admiring view would hold for their other opinions as well. But I was sorely disabused this week when I read two screeds by high-class librarians.

The first one, below, is from a group of 13 “Ivy League+” librarians—including one from the University of Chicago—who have signed a document calling for major changes in universities and libraries. The most important of these is a call for the complete elimination of the police. Not just campus police, but all police.  This document, in fact, doesn’t materially differ from the unhinged manifestos and lists of “demands” regularly issued by students at American colleges. I am disappointed.

The Ivy+ manifesto begins with the requisite invocation of George Floyd as well as the required (but unevidenced) claim that their institutions are not only structurally racist, but complicit in sustaining that racism (emphases in the following are mine):

In early June, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, library organizations and directors issued statements condemning racism and racial violence. A statement from the Association of Research Libraries [JAC: see below] implored that “[i]t is incumbent upon leaders of libraries and archives to examine our institutions’ role in sustaining systems of inequity that have left Black communities and other people of color in the margins of every aspect of our profession.”

. . . We recognize that librarianship, an overwhelmingly white profession, has systematically marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and librarians with disabilities. The conceptualization of our demands would not be possible without the labor and leadership of these very librarians, theorists, activists, and communities. We also recognize the privilege and power held by Ivy+ and other major research libraries, and thus, it is imperative that we use our privilege to speak out against library practices that cause harm. We build from and stand in solidarity with abolitionist movements happening in all library spaces. We believe in order to fully embody the ethics of librarianship it is necessary to align with the practices and aims of abolition. We hope many more voices will join us in signing onto these demands and in this bold and beautiful work of dreaming, demanding, and being in a better world. Reckoning with our own histories of and complicity in white supremacy and anti-Black racism is in the best interest not only of our institutions and patrons but our profession at large. Libraries are not neutral, nor should they be silent — but we’ve heard, seen, and spoken enough — solidarity is not found in statements, but in actions, and the time to act is now.

Have libraries really been this bigoted and nefarious?

And they’re also said to also sustain the police. The group says that they—the librarians themselves—have internalized their bigotry:

. . . we believe libraries have not gone far enough in this examination by refusing to fully consider our relationships with policing, surveillance, and the prison–industrial complex. These library statements do not explicitly name policing itself as the problem — an expression and exacerbation of racial capitalism and violence — despite it being a very real and dire existential threat to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), as well as those in the LGBTQIA+ community. Therefore, we find these statements morally and politically insufficient responses. Without naming the specific problem of policing, these statements not only let libraries off the hook for the many ways in which we have internalized the practices of the carceral state in our profession, but also leave the door open for “both sides’’ arguments or appeals to “law and order,” and encourage dangerous and ineffective reforms.

I won’t waste my time attacking this, for, according to Hitchen’s Razor, claims unsustained by evidence don’t need to be refuted by evidence. Perhaps these statements  just constitute the necessary self-flagellation and moral preening needed before they call for the elimination of both campus and regular police . They never, of course, say what will replace the police.

The solution to police violence is not reform but an abolition of policing in all its forms. Therefore, we call on the leadership of our institutions and all of our colleagues to embrace an abolitionist vision of a hopeful, life-affirming future and to immediately begin the work of divesting from police and prisons with the ultimate goal of the complete abolition of law enforcement and surveillance from library spaces, campuses, communities — in short, everywhere.

No more cops! They’re not just talking about campus police, for they want the abolition of law enforcement and surveillance from EVERYWHERE. Who will enforce the law, then? Apparently, nobody.  The attempt of students to disband the campus police at the U of C have already failed, but the librarians’ feeble attempt to adduce “evidence” for the ineffectiveness of campus policing is risible.

Many people will acknowledge the harm done by police and law enforcement but question the safety implications of defunding and divesting from policing on campus. But reporting from police forces shows that law enforcement and surveillance do not keep campuses safe. As Black organizers across the country have been declaring in the streets, “We keep us safe.” Therefore, we demand that library leadership remove any reliance on law enforcement as a means of addressing conflicts that arise in all library spaces by 2022.

I invite you to look at the link they give above. It goes to a Twitter thread from an associate professor at our University’s Harris School of Public Policy, a thread that uses our campus police database to show that black people get stopped disproportionately often by the campus cops, both in person and in traffic, compared to their frequency in the Hyde Park as well as in the University of Chicago student population.

That’s it: those data say nothing about the inability of campus police to keep the campus safe. And the disproportionality doesn’t point to any one cause; there could be more incidents involving black people, it could be genuine bigotry and racism, or it could reflect the fact that we’re surrounded by black communities and the campus police patrol a much larger area of the South Side than just Hyde Park. (Hyde Park extends south for 8 blocks, from 51st street to 59th Street, while the campus cops patrol 27 blocks—from 37th to 64th Street: more than 3 times the area of Hyde Park proper, with almost all of the additional area comprising black residents.)

Is this the best that librarians can do to support their claim? Librarians? They have all the research in the world at their fingertips, and this is what they do?

There are many other demands, of course, including eliminating video surveillance in libraries, divesting from companies that use prison labor, and so on, but I’ll let you read the document itself. (I myself happen to agree that prisons should not be privatized.)

And there’s a similar list of demands representing a much more extensive group of librarians—the Association of Research Libraries:

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries at comprehensive, research institutions in Canada and the United States. ARL member libraries make up a large portion of the academic and research library marketplace, spending more than $1.4 billion every year on information resources and actively engaging in the development of new models of scholarly communications.

You can read their statement below. It’s mercifully shorter than the Ivy+ document, but still makes the unevidenced claim that libraries “sustain systems of inequity”. Some of the “demands” are reasonable, like ensuring that there be an equitable proportion of employees of color, but others, like “highlighting the work of theorists, educators, and other scholars who have been studying about these phenomena for decades,” represent an ideological position that is unseemly for librarians. They want to emphasize Critical Theory. (That alone has taken this group down a notch.)

But that’s just my view. It’s Friday, and I’d rather be walking along Lake Michigan (which I will) than calling out these endlessly circulating manifestos of self-flagellation and insupportable demands. So you can read this one for yourself:

It’s not, of course, that I’m in favor of racism. Rather, I’m against extreme and histrionic statements that included unfounded claims, and against proposals that restrict speech and action but do nothing to help solve the problem of racial inequality in America. And I can tell you one thing: eliminating all police, both campus and public ones, is not going to do what the proponents think it will do.

Cornell’s student assembly votes against disarming campus police; outraged students vow to remove from office those who voted the wrong way

November 22, 2020 • 1:00 pm

It’s possible that Cornell University doesn’t need a campus police department, much less one with armed officers, but the University itself clearly decided they needed one (parents like to know that their kids have their own “security guard force”). This isn’t my call, though I would maintain that, due to my own school’s location on the crime-ridden South Side, the University of Chicago does need cops with guns.

But, as we know, students at almost every campus with its own police have called for defunding them or for disarming those cops who carry weapons. (This includes the University of Chicago.)  What’s unusual is what happened at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where the student government voted down a resolution to disarm the cops. Click below to see the article in the student paper, the Cornell Daily Sun:

You can see the long resolution below that decries the cops for three pages with “wheras”s concentrating on racism, and then proposes the short resolution:

Be it therefore resolved,

Supporting data and trends overwhelmingly show that police on college campuses should not have access to lethal weapons as it is unnecessary and proves to increase the likelihood of danger/use of lethal force rather than decrease;

Be it finally resolved,Cornell University must take action by immediately disarming the Cornell University Police department of all lethal weapons.

There is no data that convincingly show that disarmed campus police reduce crime (or harm) more than armed police, though the resolution adduces data showing that unarmed security patrols reduce crime compared to no patrols.  The way to deal with this issue, if you want a good study, is simply to disarm the Cornell Police for several years and see if there is less crime or less harm. That is not going to happen, though, as the students have no say in whether the police are armed or not. While it is possible to do a sort-of-controlled study, that one would be polluted by possible temporal changes in crime. All it would take to settle the issue, though, is one school shooting to which campus police couldn’t respond in kind.

After a fractious three-hour meeting, the student assembly, the SA, voted down the resolution 14-15-1. I’m stupefied not only that the vote was against disarming, but was such a close vote (these things are usually lopsided on the Woke side).

Immediately, a group of protesting students accused the SA of racism. From the Daily Sun:

While the protest occurred at the CUPD headquarters, the other target of organizers was clear: Recalling the 15 Student Assembly voting members who voted against the resolution.

The complications of assessing racism in police departments

June 26, 2020 • 9:45 am

In a few previous posts (e.g., here and here), prompted by claims of African-American linguist John McWhorter, I examined the various biases and difficulties that plague attempts to see if police kill black suspects at a higher rate than whites. This new article in FiveThirtyEight, though not providing an answer to the problem, shows further complications in the attempt to get answers, so that at present we have no idea if there are racial disparities in who becomes the object of police violence.

Click on the screenshot to read:

There are three ways to compare racial disparities:

1.) Proportion of racial populations who are victims of police violence.  As is well known, about 0.096% of black men and boys will be killed by the cops during their lifetime. That compares to 0.039%  among whites: a 2.5-fold difference. But this doesn’t mean that blacks are more likely to be killed in police encounters, because they may encounter police more often, even if the “kill rate” is the same among races. Which brings us to the second calculation.:

2.) Proportion of racial populations who are victims of police violence, normalized by the proportion of encounters with police. As McWhorter pointed out, blacks encounter police more than whites, so even if both races experience violence at the same rate per encounter, there could still be a differential mortality of blacks at the hands of the cops, but one that wouldn’t necessarily denote racism. There are some data on this, as the article notes:

One example of an encounter denominator approach is a 2019 study by Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard. He found that police shoot white, Black and Hispanic Americans whom they’ve stopped at equal rates.3 At first blush, that would seem like evidence that the police are not racially biased — every demographic is being treated equally, after all.

As I pointed out, though, this statistic is not perfect because the types of encounters and their dynamics may differ among races, and you need to control for that, which hasn’t been done But the FiveThirtyEight article adds another complication:

3.) Members of racial groups might be stopped at different rates because of racial bias itself. This is called “collider bias.” There  are in fact data suggesting that although the frequency deaths per encounter may not differ among races, blacks and whites may be stopped at different rates. And that, in fact, seems to be the case, as we knew from traffic tickets, a disparity (blacks stopped more often) that disappears after dark when race becomes less evident. And, as the article says, it seems as if blacks are stopped when there is less evidence for stopping them than there is for whites, a difference that would reflect racism:

But we know that police officers are more likely to stop Black and Hispanic people than white ones — and that more of those stops are unfounded. Researchers measure this with something called the “hit rate,” or the rate at which contraband is actually found on the people who were stopped. A lower hit rate implies bias because it means that the decision to search someone was made with less evidence. White people stopped in New York City, for example, were more likely to be carrying a weapon than Black and Hispanic people who were stopped. White drivers stopped by the police were more likely to have contraband than Black and Hispanic drivers nationally.

As political scientists Knox, Will Lowe and Jonathan Mummolo, among others, have pointed out, that complicates Fryer’s findings. All of a sudden, what at first appeared to be equal treatment actually suggests unequal treatment. Because of the initial discrimination in who gets stopped, the sample of stopped people isn’t the same across races. The different hit rate indicates that stopped white people are actually more likely to have contraband, on average, than stopped Black people. In other words, in a world without discrimination in who was stopped — if the Black and white people who were stopped were equally likely to be engaged in criminal activity — you’d see an even bigger disparity in outcomes.

In other words, black people stopped by cops may be less likely to be engaged in criminal activity. To control for this, we need the data about the proportion of blacks versus whites who were observed and stopped or not stopped by police. To get this data seems impossible (you can be stopped for acting suspiciously, or just because you’re black), but the differential “hit rate” suggests that cops are targeting blacks at a higher rate than whites without good reason. And that suggests racial bias.  Curiously, I think this is pretty evident when explained in words, but FiveThirtyEight presents the same results graphically—to my mind, not clarifying matters much.

And even if bias doesn’t emerge in the rate of killings, it does come out in other aspects of the justice system, for an encounter with a cop is only the first step in a long chain of events that might culminate in jail. The article gives evidence of bias in the subsequent steps of the process:

Across the U.S., demonstrators have spent the past few weeks protesting against racial disparities in the country’s criminal justice system. There’s plenty of data to back them up: Black and Hispanic people are stopped more frequentlyincluding traffic stops, and are more likely to be arrested. Once stopped, police are more likely to use force against, shoot and kill Black citizens. And then once in jail, Black defendants are more likely to be denied bail, which in turn makes conviction more likely. And when convicted, sentencing is also biased against Black defendants, with Black defendants more likely to be incarcerated.

I haven’t read the links in the previous paragraph, which of course could be themselves biased (for example, is race the only reason why black defendants are more likely to be denied bail, or are there other factors like criminal records or the nature of the crime?). But I think there are enough data to conclude one thing: there is evidence for racism in police practices and in the judicial system, and this must be remedied.

On the main issue of whether black deaths at the hands of police reflect racism, at least in part, we don’t yet know the answer. To rephrase Hitchens’s Razor, what can be asserted without evidence must be buttressed with evidence before it can be accepted.

h/t: Ken