Heather Mac Donald in an interview

Old (Heather) Mac Donald Has Some Lies About Racial Bias in Policing

The conservative pundit and attorney is living proof that racism can hide behind academia, and that no one's claims should go uninvestigated.
August 23, 2020
11 mins read

Never trust someone just because their credentials sound fancy. As a matter of fact, these individuals are likely to be less trustworthy than the average person because they enjoy the luxury of others assuming their credibility. As a result, they are often able to get away with peddling nonsense unchecked.

Many academics take advantage of this perceived intellectual authority to present ideology as facts to the unwitting. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than Heather Mac Donald: a fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute who received her juris doctorate from Stanford. Mac Donald is also an author, responsible for timeless classics like “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture” and “The War on Cops.”

As one can probably deduce from the latter title, Mac Donald is a fierce opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an article from June 2020 in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism,” Mac Donald denies the presence of systemic bias in policing altogether. In a 2016 op-ed for The Journal, she goes even a step further, writing, “If police are biased, it’s in favor of blacks.”

In a recent interview with the Center of the American Experiment (CAE) — another mouthpiece for the far right that disguises Republican talking points as scholarship — Mac Donald attempted to make her case.

“What do academic studies say about the question of systemic police bias? Well, I could cite a 2019 paper from the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the proposition that there is no racial disparity in police shootings once violent crime is taken into account. I will not do so, however. The authors retracted that study earlier this month because I had cited it verbatim in Congressional testimony and in several articles.”

While sprinkling in some self-victimization, Mac Donald is claiming that the study’s authors succumbed to the forces of political correctness and abandoned their definitive proof that bias in police shootings is a myth. And yet, that is absolutely not what happened. The story Mac Donald tells is a lie. Allow the study’s authors, David Johnson and Joe Cesario, to explain their reasons for retraction:

“We were careless when describing the inferences that could be made from our data. This led to the misuse of our article to support the position that the probability of being shot by police did not differ between Black and White Americans. To be clear, our work does not speak to this issue and should not be used to support such statements.”

So, to her credit, it is true that the study’s authors had a problem with Mac Donald citing their work. But that is only because she misrepresented the findings. It is quite telling that a study crucial to Mac Donald’s central argument — the study she loved citing more than anything else — does not even say what she claims it does.

This behavior is typical of Mac Donald. Butchering, doctoring and misrepresenting statistics is her modus operandi. Later in the interview with CAE, Mac Donald tried to claim that, if accounting for violent criminality, all evidence of anti-Black bias in police killings vanishes. To demonstrate this, Mac Donald alleged, “Whites are three times more likely to be fatally shot [by police] than Blacks once their homicide rates are taken into account.”

The rebuttal here is so easy it almost feels wrong. So, according to Mac Donald, all else equal, white people are three times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than Black individuals. However, according to Census Bureau estimates, there are just under 4.5 times more non-Hispanic white people in the United States; this would mean Black people are overrepresented by over 37% in fatal police shootings. Contrary to what Mac Donald says, the number she cites strongly supports the thesis of racial discrimination in policing.

Despite touting herself as an expert in criminology, it seems Mac Donald has not even figured out how to properly cherry-pick data. That said, she does a pretty good job of ignoring the abundance of evidence that contradicts her worldview. Indeed, the academic literature on this topic is quite clear: Racial biases exist and are reflected in police practices.

A 2017 study published in Criminology & Public Policy, for example, found that Black people shot and killed by police were twice as likely to be unarmed as white individuals. It would appear, then, that Mac Donald’s assertion that police violence against Black people is commensurate with their “dangerousness” simply holds no water.

Discrimination against Black people is also rampant in police stops and searches. This year, the American Civil Liberties Union reviewed five months of data collected by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. They found that Black people were 410% more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts. For stops that led to no warning, ticket or arrest, Black people were 1465% more likely to be stopped. For searches of the same nature, the disparity climbs further still to 3695%. Meanwhile, Black people only make up 46.5% of the city’s population; whites make up 37.1%.

In addition to disregarding data she does not like, Mac Donald also has a habit of minimizing harm done to Black people by police officers. Take her description of the murder of George Floyd, for instance. During the interview with the CAE, Mac Donald recounted, “One of the officers kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes.”

Perhaps this is a bit of a nitpick, but Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. In other words, it was nearly nine, not eight, minutes, and it is reductive to consider the murder simply a placement of the knee. But perhaps Mac Donald just misspoke; regardless, this falsehood is representative of a reflexive dismissal Mac Donald shows toward the plight of Black Americans. Whatever the grievance, Mac Donald insists the victims are blowing things out of proportion.

Mac Donald also made the absurdly false claim that “Mr. Floyd died of a heart attack during the arrest.” George Floyd died because Chauvin crushed his neck for almost nine minutes — and, as one would expect, the autopsy reports confirm this. Why would Mac Donald misrepresent the truth about what killed George Floyd? Again, maybe this was just another mistake. But it is quite suspicious that every “mistake” she makes seems to absolve bad officers of blame and whitewash their abuses.

To illustrate this, contrast Mac Donald’s obfuscation regarding the case of George Floyd with the frankness with which she speaks about other victims of police brutality. For example, Mac Donald takes a strikingly anti-cop tone when discussing the horrific police murder of Tony Timpa.

Why does Mac Donald appear to have so much more sympathy for the victim, and so much more disdain for the police perpetrators, in this case? Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but it is nonetheless worth noting that Timpa is white. Mac Donald strikes a similar tone when telling the story of Daniel Shaver, another white man killed by the police.

Mac Donald’s biases are obvious and define every aspect of her work. Her pseudo-intellectual crusade is hardly motivated by any meaningful pursuit of truth. Rather, she is a strictly ideological creature — and she does not go to great lengths to hide it.

But still, Mac Donald remains highly regarded in conservative circles. She writes for big publications and often appears on mainstream news outlets. Unsurprisingly, Mac Donald is a favorite of Fox News and Tucker Carlson in particular. On July 27, Carlson called her “one of our smartest guests ever.”

Mac Donald is a thought leader on the Right, providing the academic justification for dangerous ideological tendencies that are already all too widespread within the population. Thus, as tempting as it might be, those who disagree with Mac Donald’s pseudoscientific agenda cannot afford to just try and sweep her under the rug. Rather, her bogus talking points must be confronted head-on, dismantled and exposed for their fraudulence. To discredit Mac Donald is to discredit the prejudices she embodies. This is a battle worth fighting.

Elias Khoury, University of Michigan

Writer Profile

Elias Khoury

University of Michigan
Philosophy, Politics and Economics

Elias Khoury is an undergraduate junior at the University of Michigan. He's also on the editorial board of the Young Democratic Socialists of America's (YDSA) national publication, The Activist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Don't Miss