December 13, 2005

After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, "Lies -- damn lies -- and statistics," still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.
- Leonard Henry Courtney (Lord Courtney), To My Fellow-Disciples at Saratoga Springs (1895)

I find myself grown very tired of the single dimensional proof: this fact supports my stance, look not one step further (lest you perhaps find one that might not). A case in point is the current gloating -- gloating! -- over the recently-released preliminary Katrina death figures: specifically over how the figures undermine any argument that there might have been a racial component to what happened in New Orleans. Thank you, Michelle Malkin, for at least acknowledging that
All of these deaths were tragic, no matter the skin color of the victims
-- even if you did have to add the extra comment which, although it carefully does not say it, nevertheless sketches out the boundaries around a "you were wrong!"

Ah, but words are magic, are they not? Based entirely on what I choose -- or do not choose -- to emphasise, I can create whatever impression I want.

Numbers and ratios are the key to this argument, so let's look at numbers and ratios. However, I first discard the underlying assumption that existence of racism can be proved -- or disproved -- using only death ratios. By itself, death ratio tells almost nothing. They don't tell if one person or another were perhaps better prepared to deal with the aftermath of a flooding city. They don't even tell if the person actually had a home before they died. Perhaps most relevant in this context, they don't tell if the person deliberately stayed behind voluntarily or was forced to stay due to physical disability or economic barrier (both of which might have influenced the disproportionately high numbers of seniors who died, half of them over age 75). Death ratios can only ever tell what, not why or how : and the single-dimensional argument strands on any question that might venture beyond what.

Still, since the factoid of choice is figures, back to the figures I go. (Aware, constantly, that each number here represents a person, with someone, somewhere, who has missed them and suspects and is very afraid that their worst fear might be confirmed ... and since I deal with figures for dead bodies, I know that it will be.) Newsmax tells that
preliminary figures ... show that a majority of the dead in New Orleans and surrounding parishes were actually not black.
Full stop. By presenting the numbers as one isolated racial group against all the rest, Newsmax achieves the intended goal. What is given considerably less emphasis is that
  1. among individual racial groups, the majority of identified bodies are African-American (48%);
  2. race-identified deaths among the next-highest racial group, Caucasian (I use St. Gabriel's term: Newsmax identifies this group simply as "white"), are 41% of the identified total, or one-seventh less; and
  3. 321 bodies have not been identified by race, or over one-third of the whole.
So if I were to spin these exact same numbers ever so slightly differently, I could equally well say that among racially-identified bodies, a clear majority (59%) were non-Caucasian. Or I could just say that the amount of statistical error here would more than suffice to erase the difference between Caucasian and African-American deaths or to multiply it. By itself this proves nothing, and disproves nothing.

Newsmax does catch that the statistics here don't match the original demographics: New Orleans used to be more than two-thirds black. We don't have the information, based on these numbers alone, to know the reason behind the discrepency ... although we do know that a third of the bodies are as yet racially unidentified. Faithful watchers of the CSI [Crime Scene Investigation] television series will know better than I the specific effects on dead bodies of extended exposure to water. I do know it alters their appearance, and their skin colour. I have heard -- but I won't add kerosene to the already extensive rumour-mongering. Let someone who knows for certain say their piece ... and then let someone else say whether it is even relevant.

What I have yet to see documented anywhere are reliable statistics on the racial composition of those stranded in the Superdome or the convention centre; or, in parallel, the racial composition of those transferred through the Astrodome later. These, perhaps, might give some better sense as to whether some factor caused disproportionately more blacks to be stranded in New Orleans than whites: and only then, should it be found to matter, can that factor gradually be isolated and identified (and, if such a factor does exist, it is not inherently necessary that racism be involved).

Only then, if it matches the mores of the greater society -- and if it happens to turn out to be purely economic, it might not, not within a society which firmly believes that economic wellbeing is and should be tied directly to merit -- can the effects of such a factor be resolved.

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