How to Tell a Lie with Numbers: Racial Mythologies

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June 8, 2015; New York Times

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow is a consistently good read, often with a message to readers to take a deep breath and look twice or more at what they are seeing in the press in order to get a full picture. In this piece from the NYT, Blow looks at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commonly called the CDC, that as of 2013 indicated that mothers were unmarried in 72 percent of births to non-Hispanic black women. The implication of that statistic has been that black fathers appear to be “flawed, that black fathers are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring and therefore largely responsible for black community ‘dysfunction,’” as Blow describes one of the very common stereotypical interpretations of the finding.

That would seem to be at odds with the finding of Josh Levs in his book All In that most black fathers in America, 2.5 million, actually live with their children and 1.7 million live apart from them. The most logical interpretation is that the couples might be unmarried but living together—like many people do in the U.S., delaying or totally abjuring marriage despite the birth of a child. Unmarried black cohabitators, Blow reports, are according to CDC statistics more likely to have a child in their first year of living together than unmarried white or Asian cohabitators.

Maybe an equally important factor might be related to the issue of prison reform. As it stands now, the high incarceration rates for black men—one in twelve between the ages of 25 to 54, compared to one in 60 for nonblack men—means that many black fathers might be “missing” from families during births of their children.

Assuming they have not been sucked out of their families’ lives by incarceration, what about the “bad dad” mythology attached to black men? Blow reports that a CDC report from December of 2013 “found that black fathers were the most involved with their children daily, on a number of measures, of any other group of fathers—and in many cases, that was among fathers who didn’t live with their children, as well as those who did.”

What is the message then about the “72 percent unmarried” statistic? Without an analysis of context, it looks like a matter of black men making a choice not to be a part of their children’s lives, an interpretation that fits in with an implicit (or explicit) racial bias held by many whites about black families. With context regarding unmarried cohabitation, incarceration rates, and other factors, the statistic can mean many other things.

In the nonprofit sector, context is—or should be—all-important, else erroneous conclusions are drawn about “facts.” This is why efforts like Brick City Live, a new local site for news about Newark (“Brick City”), are important. Brick City Live is meant, in the words of Josh Stearns, director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, “to bring readers behind the news, and to provide much deeper context into the issues and trends in Newark.” A similar notion of providing context for understanding the news seems to be behind the impending launch of CALmatters in California.

A half-century ago, Darrell Huff wrote the wonderful How to Lie with Statistics. That’s always a danger, but the more frequent problem in today’s metric-obsessed nonprofit sector could be titled, “How to Confuse, Obfuscate, and Misinterpret Through Statistics”—as in the common mythology that black men are bad fathers or entirely missing in action.—Rick Cohen