The General Social Survey asks respondents a few questions about the use of police force. The baseline question is worded, “Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?” (Since this is rather wordy and not easily condensed, I’ll be referring to it generally as “approve of police use of force” or something similar henceforth.)
Personally, this feels like a low bar. Off the top of my head, I would approve an officer striking a man who was assaulting someone and not stopping, or who otherwise might be a danger to themselves or others.
It turns out this view isn’t necessarily common, though. Race, education, and sex are important factors, while political ideology seems—surprisingly, in my opinion—not to have a significant relationship to views on the use of force.
Large racial differences in approval of force
There is a strong relationship between race and approval of police use of force. The black-white gap is particularly striking: black people are between 35% and 49% less likely than whites to say they can imagine approving of a policeman striking a man. That’s a massive opinion gap on a pretty fundamental aspect of policing.
Being afraid to walk one’s neighborhood at night doesn’t correspond to increased approval of officers’ use of force. For blacks, being afraid to walk their neighborhood at night actually may be associated with decreased approval of police use of force (p=.06).
Having a personal relationship to an officer does seem to make black people more likely to be able to imagine an officer justifiably striking a citizen. Notably, black and white people are about equally as likely to have a relationship to a police officer.
Education positively associated with theoretical approval of use of force
Okay, this was a big surprise. Personally, I’d assumed more education would mean less approval of force by police. This felt like a pretty easy extrapolation from existing social science research that negatively correlates educational attainment with authoritarian tendencies, which I figured would make someone more likely to be okay with the police using force. I also thought that since people with advanced degrees tend to live in safer neighborhoods, they’d feel less need for forceful policing.
Admittedly it’s hard to tell if we’re just observing collinearity between race and education, so I created facets by race. Unfortunately, some of the sample sizes are too small for reliable inference (e.g. there are only 11 black graduate degree-holders in the 2018 sample, hence massive confidence intervals). There were only consistently adequate sample sizes among whites, for whom the pattern holds broadly.
No significant relationship between political ideology and views on force
Another foray, another surprise! I’d expected large ideological gaps in approval, which I certainly didn’t find.
Men vs. women
If the above suggest that the people least enthusiastic about police use of force are those most likely to experience it (minorities, people with less education), women’s reliably lower rates of approval of police force complicate that narrative.
Race, however nebulous a concept, is typically thought of as static among individual human beings. And yet, millions of Americans may wake up on Census Day, 2020 as a member of a different race–at least, on paper.
The proposed changes are meant to help align census definitions with the way Americans think about race. It’s an incredibly difficult, if not quixotic, task, due in no small part to the census’ historical ambiguity on the issue.
A little background
Since its inception in 1790, the United States Census has tracked racial data. The federal government uses this data to track health and environmental outcomes across populations, promote equal employment opportunities, to redistrict, and to inform federal policy with regard to civil rights.
Because the decennial census data are used for redistricting purposes and inform race-related social policy, you can count on a lot of advocacy and politics influencing every step of the process.
The Census Bureau collects data in accordance with the guidelines set for it by the Office of Management and Budget. This data is self-reported (though it has only been this way since 1960) and is acknowledged to adhere to social, rather than scientific, definitions.
Here’s what’s happening
A proposal by the Office of Management and Budget suggests creating a new racial category, MENA (Middle East and North Africa), and combining the ethnicity and race questions. Together, both changes could affect the way over 60 million Americans racially identify.
Under current guidelines, people with “origins” in the Middle East and North Africa are considered white. Critics, notably the Arab American Institute, claim this categorization is an inaccurate vestige of anti-Asian immigration law from the 19th century that led Middle Eastern immigrants to advocate for white status. Creating a separate racial category will allow for better data collection and confer upon “MENA-Americans” the same legal protections and privileges granted to other minority groups, they argue.
Hispanics, on the other hand, are not currently considered a race by the census, but rather an ethnicity. In fact, the only two options given to Americans for ethnicity are “Hispanic or Latino” or “Not Hispanic or Latino.” This has meant that Hispanics have been free to self-identify with any race they feel accurately describes them–a choice that has produced some confusion. Given that freedom, a slight but increasing majority of Hispanics have chosen to describe themselves as white (53% in 2010, up from 47.9% in 2000).
But by collapsing the ethnicity and race questions into one general question, the next census may change that.
Having Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin appear next to other race options may encourage Hispanics who had previously considered themselves white to simply identify as “Hispanic”–after all, Spain is notably absent from the countries listed under “white.” As Mike Gonzalez writes for National Review:
The proposed census form defines “white” as “German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, etc.” For “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish,” the definition is “Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, etc.”
Now, if you’re a Mexican American who has always considered yourself white because of your Spanish ancestry, you have one choice. You would never check a box designated for persons of German, Irish, or other origins north of the Pyrenees, because that doesn’t describe you. So the only choice you have is Hispanic.
Social definitions of race are neither static nor universal…nor immune to bureaucracy
This is far from the first time bureaucratic lines around race and ethnicity have been redrawn. Different federal policies and amendments thereto have led people to alter their racial and ethnic identities for hundreds of years in America.
The most obvious example would be the term “Hispanic,” which was first officially used in the 1970s. It’s more of a political and bureaucratic convenience than a valid anthropological grouping, and is rarely used outside of the United States. Yet today many Americans celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, listen to “Hispanic music”, and identify as Hispanics.
Another example would be Indian Americans’ historical flirtation with different racial categories. In the early 1900s, there were several court cases in which individual Indian Americans were determined to be white and non-white, depending on the case. In 1930 and 1940, the census listed “Hindu” as a race, but in 1970 Indians were instructed to self-report as “white.”
By 1980, that had changed again and Indian Americans were grouped under “Asian.” However in 1990, 10% of respondents with Indian origins self-identified as “white” and 5% self-reported as “black,” despite being specifically instructed to check “Asian” by the census. Non-Asian identification rose in generations removed from immigration. Among US-born South Asians, the portion that identified as white rose to 25% in 1990.
Allowing greater leeway in racial reporting has also yielded significant demographic changes.
A change to census policy beginning in 1960 allowed respondents to self-report race, rather than require verification from a local enumerator. As a result, the Native American population has since exploded in a way that can not be explained by birth rates or immigration. A 2000 change that allowed respondents to select multiple races furthered this trend.
Tilting at windmills
The best lesson is that race in America has nothing to do with biology and is as informed by politics as much as it informs them. Racial identities are more idiosyncratic and plastic than we tend to think of them as being. The census doesn’t–and cannot–tell us about the actual genealogical diversity of America; what it actually measures is our collective perception thereof. That perception and the metrics by which we assess it are constantly changing.
The great irony here is that the OMB and the Census Bureau are both causing and reacting to changes in perceptions of racial identity in America! In order to ask questions the way they think respondents want to hear them, they inadvertently place their thumbs on the scale. Even though racial and ethnic data are self-reported, they will always be influenced by the definitions put forth by the OMB.