Two statistics loom heavily in the discussions journalist Issac Bailey has with readers concerning the topics of race and crime.
Bailey is known for addressing that explosive issue with a balanced honesty that goes behind sound bites and misleading numbers. At a talk last week at a speech hosted by POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service, Bailey highlighted the figures of 6 percent and 50 percent. These numbers represent the 6 percent of the American population that black men constitute and the 50 percent of U.S. murderers that in some years they account for. Bailey said conservative white readers regularly send him these two numbers as reason to fear black men.
But looking deeper into those numbers brings other interpretations, he said.
“In journalism, context is everything,” Bailey said. “Facts are fine, but the context of the facts mean everything. With race, we take things out of context all the time, which changes the meaning. We are arguing against distortions with more distortions.”
There are about 11 million young black men in the United States. With 7,000 murders committed, that means that the percentage of black men who are committing these murders is infinitesimally small, regardless of what numbers you believe.
“When it comes to race,” Bailey said, “a lot of things don’t make sense.” To Bailey, these statistics and their varying interpretations mean that “we are making a choice about who to fear and why. It also tells me that we can choose to make a different choice if we want to.”
Bailey used his own family as a case study. One brother is in prison for murder. One is a manager and works in real estate. One owns two fitness centers in Washington, D.C. Another is a preacher. Another, a car salesman. One is in prison for drug and gang involvement. Another is serving a 16-year sentence. Still another is in federal prison for 20 years.
“These are black men from one family, one household,” Bailey said. “For me, each of our stories matters. Not just the good ones, not just the bad ones. We have to figure out how to grapple with these . . . and to make sure we have it in the proper context. Otherwise we will make things worse.”
The family life history goes deeper. Bailey narrated his mother’s forced marriage at age 14 to a 41-year-old man. He described his father’s alcoholism and the domestic violence his mother experienced. Shortly after his oldest brother, at age 8, attempted to kill his own father an effort to protect his mother, his father started beating the brother, as well. At the same time, his father faced the threat of racism outside their home—a threat, Bailey said, that diminished his worth and presented dangers, including lynching.
Bailey said that act of courage is an important part of his older brother’s story, but one that has been erased. “All most people want to know is that he killed a man.” He said that in ignoring the context behind such facts, we “make sure we don’t have any responsibility in fixing this mess.”
Bailey cautioned against the danger of categorizing black men into good or bad, criticizing prison reform activists who advocate only for men who committed a certain type of crime and not others. In demonizing men who commit violent crimes, Bailey maintained that we strip away the vital context and humanity of a person.
At the same time, Bailey urged the audience not to downplay serious problems to avoid stereotypes. “We need to try to solve these problems,” he said. “We also need to deal with the fact that people are actually dying.”
“I’ve been trying to write about this issue for the past 20 years, and I still don’t know if I’m getting it right,” Bailey said.
His final message was a call to action. He implored the Duke audience packed into a corner room of Rubenstein Hall to “not look away from the hard stuff, to not flatten this out, to not lie to yourself about any of this, because we have to find a way through this, and we cannot get there without grappling with the full truth. Even when it's painful. Even when it hurts like hell.”