We are five minutes into our lunch when Roland Fryer asks if he may use my notepad and pen to draw a chart. The youngest African-American to take up a tenured professorship at Harvard University is explaining his new research on racial differences in the use of force by US police. As a teenager, Fryer had guns pulled on him “six or seven” times by cops. “But,” he says, sketching a downward curve from left to right, “there is a disturbing trend of people discussing race in America based only on their own personal experience.” In a voice with a hint of southern drawl, he adds: “I don’t care about my personal experience or anyone else’s — all I want to know is how that experience gets us to data to help us know what is really going on.”
Understanding what is really going on led last year to Fryer, 38, winning the John Bates Clark medal, an annual award for an American economist under 40 and arguably the second most prestigious economics gong after the Nobel Prize. His empirical work has eviscerated stodgy thinking about race, education and inequality. Through his Education Innovation Lab, founded in 2008, Fryer is attempting to reshape how America thinks about public policy, statistic by statistic.
Such is the case with his latest work. At a quiet table in the cavernous Hawksmoor Seven Dials, a branch of the high-end restaurant chain in central London, where the decor is brown and the meat is red, Fryer tells me how he spent two days last year on the beat shadowing cops in Camden, New Jersey. (On his first day on patrol a woman overdosed in front of him and died.) What Fryer wanted to figure out was whether the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — two African-Americans whose deaths led to widespread protests — were part of an observable pattern of discrimination, as activist groups such as Black Lives Matter have suggested. After his week on patrol, he collected more than 6m pieces of data from forces such as New York City’s on cases of blacks, whites and Latinos being victims of police violence.
The graph he passes between the salt and pepper displays his provisional findings. The horizontal axis is a scale of the severity of the violence, from shoving on the left all the way to shootings on the right. The curve starts high, suggesting strong differences in minor incidents, but descends to zero as the cases become more violent. In other words, once contextual factors were taken into account, blacks were no more likely to be shot by police. All of which raises the question: why the outcry in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was shot?