Fox News host Sean Hannity cited two controversial and contested academic studies in his opening monologue on Monday night to downplay allegations of systemic racism in law enforcement following the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who was brutally beaten by five Memphis police officers.
The studies have faced significant pushback from fellow researchers, signaling that Hannity and his producers were seemingly looking to cherry-pick data to make their point and ignore anything that called their predetermined conclusions into question. But even on their own terms, the studies point to significant issues involving racism in American policing, further undermining Hannity’s argument.
Hannity began his show by citing a Washington Post write-up of a 2016 academic article from lead author Lois James at Washington State University, titled “The Reverse Racism Effect: Are Cops More Hesitant to Shoot Black Than White Suspects?”
“According to a study from Washington State University – listen to this – they were reported on by The Washington Post in 2016, quote, ‘Officers are three times less likely to shoot unarmed Black suspects than unarmed white suspects.’" Hannity said.
“When it comes to the most lethal form of force – police shootings – the study finds no racial bias,” Hannity said, quoting the Times’ summary of the paper’s findings.
Hannity then offered a sweeping conclusion not supported by either study he referenced.
“So, based on both academic studies and actual data, there is no systemic racism in policing,” Hannity said. “It doesn't exist."
Hannity’s analysis is flawed on multiple levels: Both studies he referenced found police officers either harbored implicit anti-Black biases or engaged in racist behavior on duty. So even according to these flawed studies, Hannity is wrong. But the problems with each go much deeper, and need to be examined on their own.
In their experiment described by The Washington Post, James and her co-authors observed 80 patrol officers from Spokane, Washington, 76 of whom were white. The researchers then placed them in simulations with would-be perpetrators of different races and cataloged their reactions. They found that officers were on average nearly a quarter of a second slower to fire their weapons at armed Black suspects compared with armed white suspects, a phenomenon they referred to as a “‘reverse racism’ effect.”
As part of the study, researchers also subjected the offices to an implicit bias test that associates white and Black faces with weapons. They found that 96% of the officers demonstrated implicit bias, “with 78 percent strongly or moderately associating blacks with weapons, and zero percent associating whites with weapons,” the Post wrote, with the emphasis in the original.
The study’s primary conclusions about officers being more hesitant to fire on a Black suspect have been profoundly contested – more on that below – but even as its findings have been embraced by law enforcement as proof of “the dangers caused when cops hesitate,” the researchers found a baseline of nearly universal racist bias among police.
Fryer’s research is even worse for Hannity’s argument that there is “there is no systemic racism in policing” – a claim that is completely unfounded based on Fryer’s data set. To the contrary, had Hannity read the opening paragraph in the Times, his entire conclusion would fall apart.
“A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement,” the Times’ article began. “They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.”
More broadly, both of these studies are extremely controversial and have elicited substantial responses that have called their conclusions, the ones highlighted by Hannity, into question.
To take the “reverse racism” hypothesis first, scholars Aaron Roussell, Kathryn Henne, Karen S. Glover, and Dale Willits issued a substantial rejoinder to James and her colleagues in February 2019, titled “The Impossibility of a ‘Reverse Racism’ Effect."
Roussell and his coauthors write that the original study came to a set of mutually contradictory conclusions – that officers in the study did not hesitate to shoot a Black suspect to alter the political salience of the experiment, but did hesitate to shoot a Black suspect to limit the political fallout they or their department might experience, all in fractions of a second, and finally (emphasis original) that police officers “scoring highly on implicit bias against Black citizens has a reverse effect on their shooting decisions.”
On a more fundamental level, the rebuttal takes issue with the original study’s lack of engagement with scholarly work on race and racism. That oversight is most obviously exemplified by the use of “reverse racism,” a phrase the authors used “seemingly without understanding its lack of empirical basis or its use as a rallying cry to roll back perceived gains in civil rights for people of color.” (Notably, James and her co-authors later apologized for their use of the phrase.)
Perhaps most damningly, the rejoinder looks at the actual policing done in Spokane. “Black and Native American residents comprise only 2.3% and 2.0% of the Spokane’s population, respectively, but 10.0% and 7.0% of subjects involved in use-of-force incidents,” Roussell et al. write. If there was some sort of “reverse racism” controlling the actions of Spokane police officers when it came to simulated shootings, it clearly was not present in their actual policing practices.
Fryer’s paper has faced its own criticism from peers. Justin Feldman, principal research scientist at the Center for Policing Equity and visiting scientist at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, stated the issue clearly in his 2016 response, headlined “Roland Fryer is wrong: There is racial bias in shootings by police.”
“There should be no argument that black and Latino people in Houston are much more likely to be shot by police compared to whites,” Feldman writes. “I looked at the same Houston police shooting dataset as Fryer for the years 2005-2015, which I supplemented with census data, and found that black people were over 5 times as likely to be shot relative to whites. Latinos were roughly twice as likely to be shot versus whites.”
Feldman goes on to dissect Fryer’s multiple methodological errors, concluding: “Properly interpreted, the actual result from Fryer’s analysis is that the racial disparity in arrest rates is larger than the racial disparity in police shootings. This is an unsurprising finding, and proves neither a lack of bias nor a lack of systematic discrimination.” In an update to his blog added in 2020, Feldman noted that since Fryer’s work was published at least two additional studies have further called his results into question.
One didn’t need to look at an academic’s blog to see the errors in Fryer’s work, or the Times’ retelling of it. Vox published a skeptical piece in response to the Times’ article in July 2016, throwing cold water on Fryer's claims and methodology.
If Hannity’s producers had been interested in researching this subject, they would have discovered that the two studies the Fox host cited have become linked in their ignominy. A paper published last year by Anna Leuschner and Manuela Fernandez Pinto examines the cultural work done by presenting flawed data that undermines analysis that police disproportionately shoot Black people.
“The authors make questionable generalizations” and “present the studies in a way that makes it easy for right-wing groups and media to misuse them,” the paper notes. “Unsurprisingly, the studies have been embraced and disseminated by powerful right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, and white-supremacist websites such as stormfront.org.”
It’s not a surprise that Hannity turned to these specific, flawed studies for cover in the wake of yet another apparent killing of a Black man in police custody. But even his own cherry-picked evidence doesn't support Hannity's racist defense of policing in America.