Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Better Angels and the War on Drugs

In The Better Angels book, Steve Pinker discards racism and poverty as explanations for black violence.
...the sheer depravity of inner-city violence—toddlers struck by bullets in drive-by shootings, church funerals of teenagers invaded by knife-wielding gangs—could no longer be explained away as an understandable response to racism or poverty.
Marvin Harris made the case that unemployment lead to black poverty. And the data back him up.

Here is the Pew Research Center's statistics on black and white unemployment.

And here is a chart from the US Department of Justice Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980 - 2008. I couldn't find a chart for all violent crime by race, just homicide

The two charts have very different ranges, so I adjusted them to line up according to year, removed the data about whites and added y-axis lines for greater clarity.

The top line is the unemployment rate for blacks. The bottom line is the homicide rate for blacks. It looks like there is some correspondence there especially post-1990: as unemployment dropped, homicide dropped.

Pinker mentions the War on Drugs:
The American imprisonment binge was set off in the 1980s by several developments. Among them were mandatory sentencing laws (such as California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out”), a prison-building boom (in which rural communities that had formerly shouted “Not in my backyard!” now welcomed the economic stimulus), and the War on Drugs (which criminalized possession of small amounts of cocaine and other controlled substances).
One of Richard Nixon's top advisers and a key figure in the Watergate scandal said the war on drugs was created as a political tool to fight blacks and hippies, according to a 22-year-old interview recently published in Harper's Magazine.  
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper's writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday."You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

According to this Vox article as of 2013 half of all offenders were in for drug-related offenses.

Most of the drug-related prisoners were black. And as Vox points out: "Black people are much more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they're not more likely to use or sell them."

Looks like Nixon won his war against the blacks and the hippies in the end.

Pinker has his doubts about the crime decline and incarceration.
But the case that the incarceration boom led to the crime decline is far from watertight. 161 For one thing, the prison bulge began in the 1980s, but violence did not decline until a decade later. For another, Canada did not go on an imprisonment binge, but its violence rate went down too. These facts don’t disprove the theory that imprisonment mattered, but they force it to make additional assumptions, such as that the effect of imprisonment builds up over time, reaches a critical mass, and spills over national borders.
And he admits:
The result is that the United States imprisons far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African American communities who have been stripped of large numbers of men. 
There is an excellent movie, 13th which considers the War on Drugs part of an ongoing program of criminalizing black people. As its Wiki says:
(Ava) DuVernay contends that slavery has been perpetuated in practices since the end of the American Civil War through such actions as criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest poor freedmen and force them to work for the state under convict leasing; suppression of African Americans by disenfranchisement, lynchings and Jim Crow; politicians declaring a war on drugs that weigh more heavily on minority communities and, by the late 20th century, mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. She examines the prison-industrial complex and the emerging detention-industrial complex, demonstrating how much money is being made by corporations from such incarcerations.
So what is Pinker's answer to the decline in crime? People just started thinking differently:
The Great Crime Decline of the 1990s was part of a change in sensibilities that can fairly be called a recivilizing process. To start with, some of the goofier ideas of the 1960s had lost their appeal. The collapse of communism and a recognition of its economic and humanitarian catastrophes took the romance out of revolutionary violence and cast doubt on the wisdom of redistributing wealth at the point of a gun. A greater awareness of rape and sexual abuse made the ethos “If it feels good, do it” seem repugnant rather than liberating. 
In her New Yorker review, Elizabeth Kolbert also pointed out that:
...Pinker names thinking itself as the ultimate pacifier. “One would expect that as collective rationality is honed over the ages, it will progressively whittle away at the shortsighted and hot-blooded impulses toward violence, and force us to treat a greater number of rational agents as we would have them treat us,” 
I've already quoted Marvin Harris on the problem with this approach but it bears repeating:
To insist on the priority of mind in culture is to align one's understanding of socio-cultural phenomena with the anthropological equivalent of pre-Darwinian biology or pre-Newtonian physics. It is to believe in what Freud called "the omnipotence of thought." Such a belief is a form of intellectual infantilism that dishonors our species-given powers of thought. (Cultural Materialism, pp. 59 - 60) 
As I've observed years ago, when devotees of evolutionary psychology (AKA sociobiology) try to explain changes to human culture, which happen in a less-than-evolutionary time span, they get lost.

It appears to me that what happened was, between The Blank Slate, published in 2002 and when The Better Angels of Our Nature was published in 2011, even Pinker had realized how silly it is to try to use evolutionary psychology theories to explain art trends and so had to cast about for something else. He couldn't switch outright to another complete, coherent research strategy because that would negate much of what he had already said in The Blank Slate.

So he used an eclectic hodgepodge of theories that, while they may (but often do not!) explain a single aspect of a cultural phenomenon, don't work to explain an entire system.

The Blank Slate is by far Pinker's most influential book, the New Testament of evolutionary psychology to The Bell Curve's Old Testament. And when Pinker is oppressed by negative reviews, he calls on the evolutionary psychology brotherhood for support. We'll talk about that next.

By the late 1970s the hippies & the blacks were working together, singing about Latinas.