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« Wisdom from Silver’s Signal & Noise, part 1: “Predicting” magnitude 7-8-9 terrorist attacks | Main | The black and white -- but mainly gray -- of gun control and drug prohibition, part 1 »

The black and white -- but mainly gray -- of gun control and drug prohibition, part 2

So ... this is actually part two of a two-part series on race, gun control, and drug criminalization.

Last time I went into the motivation behind the series. The more proximate cause was a question posed in the discussion of my post on legalizing drugs. 

The more remote—but more fundamental—was the unsettling sense I had upon reflecting on my feelings on the Newtown shooting.  The shooting upset me (as it did many, of course). But it upset me, too, to realize that I’m not that upset more or less continuously, because in fact young kids are being shot more or less continuously—not in elementary schools in communities like Newtown, but on street corners & playgrounds in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.

They are essentially part of the War on Drug’s “collateral damage.” And I guess in the same way we don’t worry overmuch about “collateral damage” in the form of deaths to civilians in our other wars, we don’t really get distracted by it here at home. . . .

However much progress one thinks can be made by laws restricting firearms, orders of magnitude more can be made by ending drug Prohibition, which like alcohol Prohibition combines opportunities for monopoly profits with the necessity for violent, extralegal enforcement of commercial obligations, creating a hyper-homicide cocktail potent enough to bend the historical curve of pacifism that is the signature of liberal markety societies.

There are some unconscious emotional dynamics at work here that ought to be exposed and critically examined. They include the partisan cultural meanings of recreational drugs that account for their being treated differently from alcohol.  They include, too, the predictably parochial nature of our empathic sensibilities, which lead us to attend selectively to forms of suffering and loss that are in fact universal in their nature and concentrated disproportionately on certain members of our society.

But as always, matters are complicated.

One of the complexities is the profound moral ambivalence that members of inner-city, largely minority communities themselves have toward drug criminalization.  That was the subject of the my last post, which described the powerful case that members of those communities often make for their entitlement to use the expressive power of the law as a countervailing force to oppose social influences—including commercial advertising of lawful products--that they believe unfairly diminish their power to instill in their children the dispositions, tastes, and habits that they (like all parents everywhere) perceive to be essential to their children’s’ prospects for living happy, flourishing lives.

Precisely because the impact of our policies on guns and drugs so profoundly and distinctively affect these communities, the power of their members to make law in a manner that relfects their judgments about the morally complicated, empirically uncertain issues involves necessarily goes straight to the core of their entitlement to enjoy meaningful self-government.

I don’t know what this element of the dilemma means for how political disputes over guns and over drugs should be resolved. If I said I did, I’d be contradicting myself (likely I already have in some place and in some way connected to this topic; only someone who doesn’t actually get the complexity involved will manage to get all the pieces to fit together in an analytically neat and tidy little pattern).  My point is just that this is an element of the dilemma that has to be taken into account; and for that reason, I want to take it into account by acknowledging that it complicates the argument I have been making about the mistaken overemphasis on regulating guns relative to deregulating drugs as a response to our Nation’s unacceptable gun-homicide rate. . . .

So, finally, some data (I’m sorry for going on; I should just accept that it is impossible ever to say enough and not keep trying).

It’s not a perfect measure of the ambivalence that the communities I’m describing feel, but what I’ve done, combining data from several CCP studies conducted over the last year, is break down attitudes on gun control and marijuana legalization by race. 

The sample consists of about 2500 individuals drawn from a nationally representative on-line sample of individuals recruited to participate in CCP studies of one sort or another.  I wanted to cobble together several data sets in order to get enough African-American sample to enable reasonably precise estimates; African-Americans make up 11% of the sample overall.

Start with this:

It shows that African Americans and whites in the sample held comparable attitudes overall toward marijuana legalization—about 60% support, actually—but were divided sharply on gun control, with African Americans decidedly more supportive. 

I’ve put Hispanics and Asians in, too, but realize that they (especially Asians) comprised an even smaller part of the sample, diminishing the precision of any estimate of the attitudes of these groups in the general population (the error bars are standard errors; double the interval, essentially, if you want 0.95 levels of confidence).  But we are on relatively solid ground for African Americans and whites.

Now to do a meaningful comparison of African American and whites, it is also useful to take account of ideology.  Support for gun control and for legalizing marijuana both are associated with being liberal (as that term is used in ordinary political discourse). African Americans are, on average, much more liberal than whites.  Can we see the racial difference, then, as reflecting the greater ideological diversity in the white population?

To answer that question, I think it is helpful to start by getting a sense of just how much more liberal African Americans are than whites.  Consider:

What I’ve done, essentially, is plot the distribution (with a kernel density estimate) of whites and African Americans respectively over a continuous measure of right-left political orientation formed by aggregating the subjects’ self-reported identification with the Democratic and Republican parties and their ideology on a “liberal-conservative” scale.

You can “see” how much more “liberal Democratic” African-Americans are. Whereas the mean score on the scale for whites puts them just shy of the middle of the “Liberal Democratic” scale, the mean for African-Americans is closer to +1 Standard Deviation toward “Liberal Democratic. Minus 1 SD in the distribution for African-Americans equates to being around the middle of the scale; minus 1 SD for whites is a little more than one SD toward "Conservative Republican." 

Basically, “normalizing” the scale for race, one would say that a “middle of the road” African American is as far right within his or her group as a “moderately conservative Republican” white is for his or hers. 

Now consider this:


These are “fitted values” based on regression analyses (click on the thumbnail if you'd like to see them) that treat race, “liberal Democratic” political orientation, and the interaction of those two as predictors for support for gun control and support for marijuana legalization, respectively.  They tell you, in effect, how a progressively more “liberal Democratic” orientation influences positions on these issues for both groups.  I’ve started plotting the African-American line at the middle of the “liberal Democratic” scale because the proportion of African Americans more “conservative Republican” than that is so small—and it is visually misleading, I think, to include them if one is trying to assess how important ideology is in explaining the difference in white & African-American views on drugs & on guns.

What you can see, in effect, is that African Americans are more supportive of gun control, and less supportive of marijuana legalization, than whites of comparable political outlook. 

The effect is most pronounced for marijuana legalization. There, political outlooks and race interact, signifying that the impact of becoming more liberal and Democratic on support for legalization is smaller for African Americans than for whites.  There is no similar interaction between political outlooks and race for gun control; in effect, African Americans are uniformly more pro-gun control than whites at any given point on the political outlook spectrum.

This was basically in line with what I expected. That is, based on what I know of the public opinion research, I expected African Americans to be more pro-gun control and less pro-legalization than whites, and in fact anticipated this effect would be more pronounced for marijuana legalization.

Still, I was surprised by the degree of support for legalization among African Americans generally.  The level of support is higher, I think, than it was in years past. And the differential between African Americans and whites—in relation to political outlooks--smaller than I expected.

I’ll have to ask Tracey Meares, who has studied this, whether I’m right in my recollection/expectation and what she thinks about these results (maybe I can even get her to offer her views on the blog!).

What does this add to the discussion of gun control and drug prohibition?


Information, too, that is only an imprecise indicator of what are in fact very very important differences in perspective, founded on differences in experience and cultural meaning, among citizens who need to deliberate on guns and drugs. 

You should try to learn as much as they can about the sources of these differences, and about the judgments of fact and value that underlie them.  If you don't do this, your positions on gun control and drug prohibition will not be well-considered, no matter what they are.



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Reader Comments (9)

Joshua asks:

The recent election has provided fairly strong evidence validating the accuracy of on-line polling, but I am curious about how you controlled for potential sampling bias. Have you validated your sampling methodology against other sampling methodologies in some fashion? This seems particularly relevant for comparing results across racial lines - so more specifically, how have you factored in the "digital divide?" Do you have a link to your sampling methodology?.

Good question. These data were collected by Polimetrix/YOUGOV. Here’s the link for their stratification methodology. Nate Silver consistently says nice things about YOUGOV and had them ranked near the top in the 2010 pollster ratings (which figured in his weighting of the polls leading up to 2012 election). They and Knowledge Networks are generally viewed as the only on-line firms that generate a reliable general population sample; they are the only ones (as far as I know) who stratify their samples, and one of the things I like best about YOUGOV is that they always get a good minority sample. But as Silver himself emphasizes, you'll get more reliable results by aggregating lots of (valid) surveys that use a diversity of polling methods than you will from any one poll or any one method. I feel pretty good relying on YOUGOV for making assessments about variance across groups of interest in the national population, but I'd definitely check out what other national polls are saying before putting a lot of weight on what these data say about the overall degree of support in the population for marijuana legalization (although I do recall that being over 50% in national polls too).

December 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I've stumbled onto your writings via discussions related to your recent blog post on reforming drug prohibition as a response to gun violence. I've been absorbing your paper on The Cognitively Illiberal State and other works available here, and I'm finding your insights on cultural cognition fascinating and enlightening. They go a long way in explaining some of the root causes of frustrating rhetorical impasses as well as how to better avoid them. I want to let you know that you've earned the admiration and gratitude of this "student" eager to study more from the vast store of top-shelf scholarly work which you have graciously made freely available to all.

If I'm even close to correctly grasping the concept of expressive overdetermination, it would seem that this is one subject area ripe with opportunities in that regard. One can advocate to conservatives who might otherwise oppose drug prohibition reform, based on the presumed reduction in "bad-guy" gun violence without the threat of further restrictions on the right of the "good-guys" to own guns, appealing to their cultural biases, while also appealing to a cultural bias common to those on the left who are uncomfortable with private gun ownership because of the myriad ways in which they are commonly misused, defended as a way of removing perverse incentives to gun violence as an alternative to the usual highly contentious demand for further restrictions of questionable effectiveness. And suddenly we find much common ground where very little existed before.


December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFreeman

@Freeman: Yes, 100% agree. "Liberals" should propose to "Conservs" -- or vice versa -- that new federal gun control be swapped for getting "drug legalization" (from now on I mean that phrase as a shorthand for "sensible deregulation of drugs aimed at removing the mindless, self-defeating, immoral crimnogenic properties of drug laws”). Write that up as an op-ed or something & see if you can get it published.

Now you realize, though, that it's not so "black" & "white" as it were? I don't think all "liberals" will favor legalization. There are conflicting meanings, experiences, objectives, philosophies, etc. on the "left" about drugs. You can see the variance between white & AFrican American "liberals," e.g., in my analyses, which I suspect understate how intense resistance is likely to be among African Americans, say, who are low income & live in inner-city relative to ones who are middle to upper middle class & live in suburbs etc. I think, too, there are likely to be white "liberals" who have a strong "communitarian" streak that views regulation of drugs as appporpriate. (You see, this is why we need better, more discerning measures of the motivating dispositions of the citizens we are talking about that simply "race" & left-right ideology. Like cultural worldviews, say. . . ..)

But *still*, it's a graet point in my view. Write it up & start prosletyzing!

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

There, political outlooks and race interact, signifying that the impact of becoming more liberal and Democratic on support for legalization is smaller for African Americans than for whites.

Again - I think that the "digital divide" might make this determination, based on an on-line data collection methodology, somewhat problematic. In looking at the Yale Law article you linked earlier - there would seem to be an argument made that while class might correlate with views on legalization to some degree among whites, there may not be the same kind of correlation among blacks. The "dual frustration" viewpoint correlated with views favoring legalization among older, less-educated African American women whereas the "libertarian" view favoring legalization tended to correlate with young, educated men. That might lead to a greater degree of correlation to class among whites than among blacks. The paper you linked suggests that because of a greater impact of drug law enforcement in lower-income black communities would lead to a "dual frustration" opposition to drug laws. (And as an aside, I'd have to wonder if that might not have an impact on on-line sampling: (1) on-line data might have a disproportionately high representation of higher educated individuals, (2) on-line data might have a relatively higher disproportion of higher educated individuals among blacks than among whites?

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I could try to assess the possibility of sampling bias of sort you are worried about, but let me see if I understand your concern 1st.

I take it (1) you are surprised/doubtful /uncertain about the finding that African Americans are *less* pro-legalization relative to whites of comparable political orientation. That's the one you are flagging. And (2) you think the sample might be under-representing less educated people, particularly among African Americans.

If I'm right, what is your hypothesis exactly? What would you expect the effect of (2) to be on (1)?

December 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I don't really have a working hypothesis, I'm exploring the data.

My intuitive sense is that among whites, there is a correlation between class and views on decriminalization. I intuitively doubt there is a similar pattern among blacks (due to the disproportionately high impact of drug law enforcement in poor black communities).

As to whether that difference influences the results you're focusing on, I guess it might depend on whether there is a different correlation between class and political orientation among whites and blacks, respectively? My sense is that there is.

There are different ways to look at your findings. One might be to ask why is there more of a difference in views on decriminalization among whites of different political orientation than among blacks? Perhaps that is attributable to class differences among whites that don't occur with blacks.

Maybe a higher prevalence of religious orientation is somehow relevant to a lack of support for decriminalization among "liberal" blacks as compared to "liberal" whites? But then, would that also help explain difference w/r/t gun control?

I guess what I'm wondering about is causal mechanism for your finding. Speculating about casual mechanisms, while dangerous, can also help identify spurious correlations (when a plausible explanatory mechanism is lacking). Admittedly, part of what I'm responding to that your point somewhat reminds me of an inaccurate simplification I often see w/r/t views of blacks in poor communities about a "tough" approach to law enforcement. For example, in Philly, I often see false claims about historical support for Frank Rizzo in the black community. In reality, the views of blacks about a "tough" law and order approach are complex, and the data used to measure those attitudes need to be very sophisticated. Yes, I tend to be uncertain w/r/t the validity (let alone implications) of correlations where I don't see a plausible causal mechanism/explanation. This is particularly true since, because of the "digital divide," I question how representative on-line data would be for the black community.

Just questions, no hypothesis.

December 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


1. I see why you might be concerned that an on-line sample -- even if recruited & stratified in the manner that YG does -- might under-rep low-income & low-education African Americans. But for the reasons reflected in your summary of Meares article (higher income, more educated African Americans more likely to favor legalization), that sort of bias in sample would presumably result in under-stating how much more stronlgy white liberals support legalization of marijuana relatitve to African American liberals.

2. The mean household income for whites in the sample was $40K-$49K, and for African Americans $30K-$39K. The Census Bureau report for 2011 was $52K for whites & $32K for African Americans. For education, The median education for both races in sample was "some college"; that’s about right . *Males* were underrepresented for African-Americans in my sample: 60% female.

3. On religion: I suspect liberal African-Americans are more religious than liberal whites. Some political scientists try to argue that AA religiosity explains AA "conservatism" on "social issues," including abrotion & gay rights. This is a weak explanation, since religiosity doesn't make AAs conservative on lots of *other issues* -- like gun control! The way religion relates to political views doesn't explain difference between whites & AFrican Americans; it's part of the difference that is in need of explanation.

4. I'm sure you are right about Rizzo -- he played race card & even endorsed Nixon in 1972. But it's way too simple to equate AFrican-American with "liberal," "anti-police" etc on criminal law enforcement issues.

December 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

But for the reasons reflected in your summary of Meares article (higher income, more educated African Americans more likely to favor legalization), that sort of bias in sample would presumably result in under-stating how much more stronlgy white liberals support legalization of marijuana relatitve to African American liberals.

That isn't how I interpreted the study. Lower-income AA's also were in favor of legalization - in particular, women.

BTW - are you familiar with this?:

I think it is an interesting approach to unpacking motivated reasoning.

December 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

1. Sounds like I've formed a stylized & inaccurate view of what Meares's thesis is. Maybe she will step in & tell us if these findings are what she'd expect & whether they are consistent w/ what otehrs have found.
2. You are the second person *today* to ask if I've seen this other CCP. I hadn't before now. I will of course sue them to prevent them from using our acronym.

December 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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