What problems do African-Americans face? An initial investigation using Standpoint Epistemology and Surveys
This post is also available at my substack.
This post started from a bit of a weird place. I was in a Discord chatroom, and someone started complaining that Standpoint Epistemology had been “taken way past its carrying weight”.
I didn’t know much about Standpoint Epistemology, so I asked for various examples and resources about it. The resources she gave me that were written by Standpoint Epistemologists seemed relatively reasonable, and the resources that criticized it seemed to me to either be misrepresenting what Standpoint Epistemologists were saying, or to be criticizing people for something other than excessive Standpoint Epistemology.
At some point I got to the conclusion that in order to evaluate these things, it would really be useful for me to apply some Standpoint Epistemology myself. Specifically, since a lot of the discussion in the Discord server was about black people’s experiences with racism, I thought I should apply Standpoint Epistemology to this. In this post, I want to detail how I went about this, and what my results were, so that others can learn from it, and maybe usefully apply Standpoint Epistemology themselves.
Disclaimer: As you will see, this is not a thorough investigation into what African-Americans want. Rather, it is a brief initial investigation, which suggests places for further investigation and further learning. This is probably more a practical tutorial into how I would apply Standpoint Epistemology than an article on race issues per se.
What is Standpoint Epistemology?
It may be good to think of Standpoint Epistemology as an erisology, i.e. a theory of disagreement. If you observe a disagreement, Standpoint Epistemology provides one possible answer for what that disagreement means and how to handle it.
According to Standpoint Epistemology, people get their opinions and beliefs about the world through their experiences (also called their standpoint). However, a single experience will only reveal part of the world, and so in order to get a more comprehensive perspective, one must combine multiple experiences. In this way the ontology of Standpoint Epistemology heavily resembles rationalist-empiricist epistemologies such as Bayesian Epistemology, which also assert that people get their opinions by accumulating experiences that contain partial information.
One important difference is that whereas rationalists often focus on individual epistemology, such as overcoming biased heuristics or learning to build evidence into theories, Standpoint Epistemology instead focuses on what one can learn from other people’s experiences. There is only one underlying reality, but different people observe different aspects of it. As such, Standpoint Epistemology emphasizes that if someone tells you about something that you haven’t had experience with, you should take this as a learning opportunity, rather than concluding that they must be irrational, biased, or crazy.
This notion that one should listen to and believe what others say does not contradict the mathematical underpinnings of traditional rationalist epistemology such as Bayesian Epistemology. Instead, it can be mathematically proven from the assumptions of Bayesian Epistemology, in a theorem known as Aumann’s Agreement Theorem. However, while Standpoint Epistemology follows from Bayesian Epistemology, I feel like we don’t necessarily see rationalists being as positive towards it as they could be.
In the specific case of racism, one article that the person in the Discord server shared with me as an example of Standpoint Epistemology was The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen. This article, taken literally, is a good introduction to how to apply Standpoint Epistemology to areas of race that I wasn’t familiar with. However, the article is written very abstractly, so let’s instead take a concrete application.
What problems do African-Americans face?
I had originally thought of asking black people what their experiences with the police were. However, as a white person who doesn’t even live in America, I thought it was a bit presumptuous to just assume that I knew what the relevant issues for black people were. So rather than assume this, I decided to first ask some black people what they considered most important.
Of course as a white person who doesn’t live in America, I don’t know all that many African-Americans that I could ask. And even if I did, I could worry that I had already preselected them for ideological agreement with myself. Alternatively, you might be worrying that I was pressuring them into agreeing with me as a condition for my friendship or support.
To bypass these problems, I recruited black people from a website where people get paid to take surveys. At first, to get an overview I just asked a broad question, “What do you think about politics? Feel free to mention whatever is important to you; I am broadly interested in knowing what politics you care about.”.
In response to this question, pretty much all the respondents critiqued the way discourse works these days. For instance, a 49 year old black man wrote:
I honestly feel that the landscape of politics has changed over the years to a point where people are more divided on several issues. The two party system does not seem to be working anymore. I sometimes feel that nothing is ever getting done in this country. We used to have very different views by somehow seem to come together to to resolve our issues and get things done. With the rise of social issues like abortion and social injustice taking the lead on many issues today, areas of importance like education and healthcare are taking a backseat to personal differences. Only by working together can this country overcome the many challenges that we face.
A different person, a 43 year old black man, wrote:
I think politics are unnecessarily complicated today. I don’t think the way politics are conducted today is helpful to the people. The parties refuse to work together for the good of the people; they only seem to work for their benefit. I used to identify as a strict Democrat due to my family. Now, I identify as an independent that leans Democrat. I look for the best candidate, regardless of party, when voting and deciding who to listen to.
In my experience, a lot of other people also feel like political discourse has become very bad. I think probably we could learn more about the problems these people face by drilling deeper down into their answers, e.g. asking them for examples of the problems they have in mind.
I didn’t drill deeper because this was just meant to be a brief investigation, and my investigation went in a different direction. You probably already have your own detailed impression of how well political discourse is going, but if you want a more complete perspective, talking with black people about the problems they face in discourse might teach you something new.
That said, there wasn’t a 100% focus on complaints about the discourse, for instance a 22 year old mixed-race woman wrote:
I am a leftist. I believe that empathy should be the foundational tenet of an individual’s politics. The political policies and changes that should be made in society should be just and make the world we live in more equitable, and ensuring basic human rights for all people. I believe politics should also be backed by science and data, and all data shows that conservative policies are less equitable, don’t provide long term solutions, and are more expensive overall than the policies suggested by left-leaning parties. Politics should be founded on logic and empathy for others, and policies made with those things in mind will always be leftist.
Overall, there wasn’t much tendency to explicitly mention Black Lives Matter and the relationship between black people and the police. The one exception was a 22 year old black woman who wrote:
I think politics are a very tricky thing. For me, my view points is more liberal because I feel like people should be treated fairly and everyone deserves equal rights. I care about lgbtq rights and black lives matter. I feel like in general, just because you care about people being treated fairly should not be getting so much flak. So many people are very selfish, and this reflects them in their politics. For example, on lgbtq rights and how people are still fighting against people who are just trying to live their lives. I feel like there should not be a fight against them because people should be able to love who ever they want to without them being in danger.
One thing I was concerned about is that maybe by asking “What do you think about politics?”, I was suggesting to people that they should comment on the meta-level, about how political discourse should work, rather than about object-level policies such as education, health care, and justice. This is one of the downsides with surveys, that it can be unclear whether the questions are understood correctly, but that problem can be mitigated with iteration. Still, clearly there was some strong agreement that the current political discourse is a big problem.
Another thing I was concerned about is that maybe the people in question didn’t have much personal experience with the police (perhaps some sort of selection bias was going on), so in order to investigate both whether the participants had experience with the police, and whether I had asked about their political views in a suboptimal way, I decided to run another survey.
In this second survey, I asked people “What do you think is the most important political question/topic/area?” and “Have you ever been stopped by the police?”. Furthermore, in order to not be implying to the participants that the survey was uniquely about police, I also asked about random unrelated questions, such as “Have you ever tried to start a business?” or “Are you satisfied with your education?”.
5 out of 10 participants reported having strong political opinions, and 7 out of 10 answered the question about the most important political question, with the responses listed below:
The most important political topic is police crime.
The most political area is social issues (race, sexuality, gender, etc).
Social and Environmental Equity
Why we’re talking about politics?
EQUALITY WITH JOBS PERSONAL
Furthermore, 8 out of 10 of the participants reported having been stopped by the police, so clearly there wasn’t some crazy selection bias against participants having had interactions with the police, and probably the original focus on political discourse was in part driven by the question phrasing.
Overall, I would say that these results suggest that police are not the sole important issue for black people, and that different black people have different concerns. In fact there is a lot of overlap between the policies that black people are most concerned with and the policies that white people are most concerned with. These facts probably don’t surprise anybody, but they are nice to see confirmed by my own investigations.
I think it would be massively beneficial to dig more into the problems with discourse, education, social and job equity, etc., which the participants mentioned. However, again, this is just an initial illustrative investigation, so I will restrict myself to digging into a single thing:
What about black people and the police?
Part of what originally inspired me to do this survey was discussion about police racism. In order to not be presumptuous, I think it was good that I did the investigations in the previous section. But still, I am curious about what is going on with respect to the police.
So I fired off a third survey, asking the following question:
What did they respond?
A 46 year old black man:
I’ve had quite a few, mostly bad. On at least two different occasions, I’ve been detained for an extended period of time primarily because I had white women in my car (I am a black male).
In the first case, they assumed that the 1 woman was in my car under duress. In the second case, they assumed that the 3 women in my car were my prostitutes. Neither was the case.
I’ve also had an encounter with a cop who assumed that the reason I was wearing a large heavy coat in warm weather was because I was shoplifting (the actual reason was that I had just flown from Minneapolis to Atlanta).
All in all, I do not have a super positive view of cops, but I feel that it is important to treat each individual cop separately and not mass-categorize them as prejudiced/incompetent.
A 50 year old black woman:
The police stops my husband for no reason at all. He’s driving while black in a BMW truck and they will stop him. He’s not driving fast, reckless or anything. They will search his truck, find nothing, and then have to let him go. He can be sitting parked in his truck and they will bother him.
A 52 year old black woman:
I have good and bad experience with police. I had an officer help me with a tire blowout in South Carolina when I was driving alone at night. He stopped to assist and made sure I was ok despite the fact that I was lost because I did not know the roads well in the area.
I had a negative experience with police when I was stopped on the street I lived on due to a light that blew and the officer seemed paranoid because there was a recent killing of an officer. Since I knew this, I had to advise him of my issue that night to not alarm him and not cause him to be trigger happy.
I also had a bad experience when the police were called to my University after the Rodney King verdict because they were out of control when students were holding a peaceful protest. While I was not at the protest because I was taking an exam, the police made it difficult for students who were not even involved and started treating everyone around them bad including students who were coming out of buildings that were classroom settings and dorms and using teargas. The protest meeting was several buildings away at the library which was no where near these buildings.
A 25 year old black woman:
I was driving to a Memphis TN for the first time on my way to a bridal shower. I was running late, so I was in a bit of a rush. I got to a certain part of town and I was pulled over for speeding. I was terrified of what could happen, given the fact that this was a southern state and a part of town that I was unfamiliar with. I was pleasantly surprised at how gracious and nice the officer was. He must have seen the curlers that were still in my hair and the fact that I was in a dress. When I told him where I was headed, he chuckled and let me off with a warning. I was grateful that that experience was as mild as it was.
A 35 year old black man:
I remember when I was younger and I was driving home. I got pulled over and accused of speeding even though I was going the speed limit. This was my first bad experience with the police. I tried to argue my position, but I wasn’t able to convince the officer. It was a frustrating experience because I had just started driving and the ticket caused my insurance to go up. I was driving a nicer vehicle at the time and I feel that played a part in why I was pulled over as well.
A 46 year old black man:
I was pulled over by the police about a year ago after moving into town. I was searching for the bus stop that is said to be at a certain location. There was no bus stop and the neighbors called the police for soliciting etc. I got in my car and drove to another supposed bus stop when I was pulled over. I found the experience a bit helpful but very uncomfortable at the same time.
The officer explain the situation to why I was pulled over. Also he explained he hadn’t seen a bus stop in the neighborhood and he’s been there for 20 years. Having that bit of information was enlightening to why I didn’t see a bus stop.
The only thing that made me feel uncomfortable waws his hand on his weapon the whole time. I didn’t feel welcomed but I did understand his reasoning.
A 27 year old black man:
One of the first experiences I had with the police was when I was a kid my dad’s car broke down and somehow an officer spotted us and gave us a ride back home. That was before cellphones, of course.
Another experience I remember was when my mom and dad got into a heated argument and my mom called the police. Now, without context it sounds like my dad was physically abusing my mother, he wasn’t. She would almost always get very loud and dramatic about their disagreements and it was clear she couldn’t handle solving problems with just words. So, in that vain, she would call the police to try and scare my dad into backing off of his stance on whatever they were arguing about. I specifically remember the cop escorting my dad out of the house in order to speak to my mom and ask her questions. The cop was gone not too long after that since the 911 call wasn’t for anything important...
These are the only experiences with police that I remember.
A 24 year old black man:
My most memorable experience with the police was when I attended a training session to learn more about law enforcement. During the session, I learned about the importance of understanding why someone wants to become a police officer, and how to handle difficult situations that may arise in the line of duty. This experience also helped me understand how my own experiences with law enforcement may be shaped by my race or ethnicity, and how to use those experiences to inform my work as an officer.
A 42 year old black woman:
My experience with the police has gone pretty well. I will first admit that when I am ever pulled over by an officer, I am really nervous and anxious. Honestly, just seeing an officer’s police car makes me feel slightly uneasy. When I see the red and blue flashing lights in my rearview mirror, I feel very uncomfortable. I ensure that I obey all of the police officers commands.
When the officer approaches my vehicle, I usually feel more at ease once I can see that they are approachable and respectful. Being respectful really goes a long way. I honestly feel that being an African American and encountering an aggressive officer, that my life could be in danger.
I also feel that just being African American that sometimes I may be pre judged as being “difficult.” Or possibly expected to act in a certain manner just because of assumed stereotypes. And possibly the past experiences of the police officers that I may encounter.
There are many police officers that are very caring and truly enjoy helping people. But, there are a few police officers that are mean and aggressive for no reason. If a person is complying with each command that is given, there should be no aggression involved.
I do also understand that each day, a police officer’s life is always at risk. And it truly is a life or death situation each time they are called to action. I have so much admiration for police officers as they put their life on the line every single day for the general public. I have many family members and friends that are apart involved in Law Enforcement. I have been raised to obey the law. As long as it is within reason and fair. Thankfully, all of my interactions with police officers have gone well.
A 52 year old black woman:
My experiences with the police have been minimal but, the few times I have had interactions with the police have not put police in a favorable light.
Interaction #1 -
A police officer was part of a funeral procession and was swearing in front of children because the procession was not moving along the way he wanted, this was not necessary and was so unprofessional. He lost the respect of everyone who witnessed this while wearing the uniform.
Interaction #2 -
I met a young cop who had an attitude and was hateful for no apparent reason. I was able to speak with him alone and talk to him about how he appears to young people and that he had a chance to make a change about how the police were viewed in his community. I hope he listened or found a better career.
Interaction #3 -
The main reason I don’t trust the police is that when my family needed help- the police officer viewed us as the suspects instead of the victims.
We were renting a home and one night a bounty hunter came to the door threatening us because they were looking for an individual that we did not know. We had just recently moved into this rental house, so maybe the person lived there before us, I don’t know. But we had small children in the house and did not want this so-called bounty hunter shooting up the place, so we called the police to come and straighten this out.
While one of the officers was talking to the bounty hunter, I overheard the other cop speaking to someone on the radio saying that we were probably hiding the person in the house! Even though, we were the ones who call the police in the first place.
After all, was said in done, the cop did not apologize -maybe because we were a mixed raced family and that particular cop was a racist who did not have the discernment of common sense. Those experiences have led me to view all police officers as untrustworthy. It doesn’t matter if you are the victim, they will only help who they want to help.
Given all these experiences, it makes a lot of sense to me why the black trust in the police in America is so low. It seems like there are quite a few problems in these interactions. However, there are also positive interactions, and I don’t doubt that having the police is important for society.
I have sometimes seen people criticize Standpoint Epistemology for being inflammatory or irrational. There do seem to be some people who use language superficially similar to Standpoint Epistemology in order to shut down discourse. However, it seems to me that the underlying principles in Standpoint Epistemology are sound enough.
And these principles don’t have to be disempowering. While “shut up and listen” may sound tiring, it is important to remember that going out to find people willing to educate you (possibly in exchange for payment, as in this post) is an active action you can take in order to improve your understanding of your world. Knowledge is power!
One of the benefits of Standpoint Epistemology is that it is very efficient. People naturally observe and remember many of their experiences as they live their life, and it is relatively quick to just ask them about it. This post only took me about a day’s worth of work, and less than $100 worth of money. If scaled up to be more comprehensive, it would presumably take more work, but presumably also be more informative.
We also shouldn’t forget that this is only a part of the story. I asked black people to describe their experiences, but I haven’t allocated time to ask police about their experiences. A functioning policy for society should presumably address both the problems black people face and the problems the police face.
When applying these methods, it is probably important to think about sampling. For example, I asked ordinary black people about their ordinary experiences with police; meanwhile, police probably interact disproportionately with hardened criminals, so they probably have very different perspectives. This means that seemingly contradictory experiences (such as black people feeling they are usually acting reasonably and police acting unreasonably, versus police feeling that they are usually acting reasonably while black people are acting unreasonably) may be due to differences in selection bias (such as police disproportionately getting called to the scene when someone is acting unreasonably).
The issue of selection bias becomes especially important in the context of politics. Politicians, activists, journalists and commentators may choose to specifically amplify the black voices that agree with them, while disregarding the ones who disagree. I think for any view there will almost certainly be someone who has some rare or extreme situation that causes them to endorse it, but often that situation will not directly be relevant for the applications you would have for that view. As such, if someone has an opportunity for doing heavy selection to find a standpoint that agrees with their own biases, I would be skeptical and would try to get a broader selection of opinions.
It is also worth being aware of self-selection. Plausibly, when the participants were scrolling through the surveys to find one of interest to them, those who had more negative experiences (or unusually positive ones) with the police were more likely to click on my survey. There are ways of mitigating this problem, such as placing the questions as just one smaller part within a bigger survey. I mostly did not do this because I just wanted to quickly get a rough expression, even if it was potentially somewhat biased in one way or another. This (and other biases in various directions) does mean that my results should be taken with a grain of salt.
I think these investigations can be taken much further. One could ask more questions or deeper questions of the people one is interviewing. One could ask more demographics about more subjects of interest. It seems like it would be good for society to better map out the problems that different people are facing, so that these problems can be fixed, and it seems like people describing their experiences would be a good step forward with respect to this.
One potential problem with the current investigation is that despite the initial open-endedness, it was still fairly rigid and controlled. I had no real back-and-forths with the participants, and I did not talk much about the purpose of my questions or do much (beyond having open-ended questions) to directly allow them an opportunity to redirect my attention. Someone who has time for a deeper investigation should probably do a more egalitarian and interactive approach, e.g. setting up interviews and informing participants about the deeper purpose of their investigation.
Thank you to Justis Mills for proofreading and feedback.