Monday, September 10, 2007

The Jena 6 -- Kevin's Comment and a Response

I want to thank Kevin for his polite and respectful comment to my first post on the Jena 6 matter. Kevin points to his own synopsis on his blog, which strongly supports the "Jena 6 are victims of racist treatment" thesis. Kevin says to me: "You should actually look at the facts of the case before you call for skepticism. " With all due respect to Kevin, I thought I did look at the facts -- my second post gives a fairly long recitation of the facts. If nothing else, it gives quite a few links by which readers can evaluate my judgments. Certainly if I have made any factual errors, I would ask Kevin or any of my other readers to correct any specific mistakes. I don't claim to be immune from error, but I would hope that somebody who is claiming I haven't considered all the facts would identify specific salient facts which we could then discuss.

That said, I think that Kevin has one thing exactly backwards. Skeptical inquiry should precede judgment of any claim. That is, one should ask skeptical questions first and then decide whether there is an injustice, rather than holding off on the skepticism because one sees an injustice. In fact, it's situations like this, where emotions run strong, where the risk of confirmation bias is at its peak. As the Skeptics' Dictionary explains, confirmation bias causes one "to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs."

I hasten to add that people don't fall prey to confirmation bias because they are stupid or dishonest. They fall prey to confirmation bias because they're human, and it appears that this is the way the human mind is wired. And, just to be clear, I don't exempt myself from that. So if Kevin or any other reader has a specific example of a fact that I've overlooked or gotten wrong, I will be happy to correct the record.

In this case, though, I think it is at least possible that some of the pro-Jena 6 bloggers are being led astray by confirmation bias -- spinning the facts in a manner that supports their preexisting conclusion. For example, Kevin said in his original post that "A black teenager was jumped at a party and a bottle was broken over his head by a white teenager." In a subsequent comment (made in response to me), he said "Please look at how the white folks were treated for attacking a black youth."

I assume here that he is talking about the incident in which Robert Bailey -- one of the Jena 6 -- was assaulted at a party, and for which a white man was charged with a misdemeanor. Kevin is making a straight-line argument here -- A) Robert Bailey was assaulted in a manner identical to Justin Barker; B) the white-on-black atttack on Bailey was treated as a misdemeanor, while the black-on-white attack was treated as a felony; C) Therefore, an injustice occurred.

In order for that argument to be valid, however, one would have to show that, in fact, the two assaults were identical. And this is where confirmation bias comes into play. I would agree that, if Bailey was struck on the head with a beer bottle, his attacker should have been charged with a more serious offense. A beer bottle certainly qualifies as a dangerous weapon. However, Kevin is repeating as fact a disputed, or at least unproven allegation. This Washington Post article says that Bailey claims to have been hit on the head with a beer bottle, but does not mention corroboration. Newsweek asserts that he was "punched and beaten with beer bottles," but it is so far the only source I have found claiming there was more than one bottle, and given Newsweek's questionable record of accuracy, I'm not sure we can credit this account.

The accounts of the altercation at which Bailey claims to have been hit with the beer bottle differ from source to source. This local publication gives an account of the incident which puts it in a somewhat different light:

On Dec. 1, there was a private, invitation-only birthday party at the Fair Barn. Around 11 p.m., five black students tried to come into the party but were told by a woman that they weren't allowed inside without an invitation. The boys persisted, saying they had friends inside. A white man then jumped in front of the woman, and a fight started.

A group broke the two up, and the woman asked the white man, not a student, and the black students to leave the party. Once outside, another fight started between a group of white men, not students, and the black students. Police were called, and a white man was arrested. He pleaded guilty to simple battery.

Even though there were reports of one of the black students receiving injuries that required medical attention, there is no record of that.

That's a bit different than Kevin's account, no? Confirmation bias at work. Kevin, and those others who rely upon the prior attack on Bailey to demonstrate a claimed disparity," ignore or undervalue contradictory evidence." In this case, they ignore the fact that Bailey's claim to have been hit with a beer bottle is wholly uncorroborated, and that there appears to be no evidence he sought medical attention. They ignore the fact that, at least on this account, the fight appears to have been mutual combat involving approximately evenly-matched groups, not a six-on-one beat-down. And the people who think it is really, really relevant that Justin Barker allegedly engaged in racial taunts prior to being attacked don't seem at all concerned that Bailey and his friends were trespassing and trying to crash a party.

Note that I'm not saying the prior attack on Bailey shouldn't have been treated as a felony, and that there is no possibility of disparate treatment here. I'm saying that Kevin and the folks campaigning for the Jena 6 haven't proven disparate treatement, and that there are legitimate factual disputes.

All that said, of course I find certain aspects of this case to be troubling. For example, one account cited by Kevin suggests there were improprieties involving Mychal Bell's jury:

An all-White jury, which, allegedly, included friends of the District Attorney as well as family members of the victim, found Bell guilty, despite the fact that many of the 17 witnesses the prosecution brought forth stated that they did not see Bell hit Barker, nor could Barker testify with certainty that Bell had assaulted him. Those who did testify against him offered conflicting testimony.

I haven't read any of this any place else, and I'm not familiar with the publication in which the article appeared. It is clearly advocacy article and therefore deserves skepticism. Nonetheless, if these allegations are borne out, then of course Bell deserves at a minimum a new trial. If these claims are true, Mychal Bell's advocates should be raising these points, rather than harping on irrelevancies.

One final note: In this article, Tina Jones, Bryant Purvis's mother, asserts that her son wasn't involved in the incident. Now of course she would say that, but it is at least refreshing to read one the family members asserting actual innocence. It struck me before that almost nobody seemed to be saying "I am innocent of this crime," or "my kid didn't do it," and to the extent there is real factual doubt as to whether any of these kids did it, the government should have to prove its case in a fair trial.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Bell's mother also proclaims his innocence. At this point, I really have no idea how plausible these claims of innocence are, or how strong the case against them was. I'd like to hear more about that, and less "racism, blah, blah, blah." I think that if they did it, these kids deserve to spend a good long time in prison, but I don't yet know enough to form an opinion as to their guilt or innocence.


Kevin said...

Skeptic. You seem to suffer from the "confirmation bias" of an angry white man who refuses to admit that racism is real in this country. You are being skeptical before you know the facts. It is marvelous to want to discover the "truth" but do not throw out mere skepticism not backed with fact and then fail to actually try to discover the truth for yourself. In doing this, you are just shouting out another opinion not based on any information.

If you truly believe that folks are jumping the gun and crying foul when they shouldn't, do some digging, do some investigating, and lay it out for us.

It is a sad but true fact that racism is quite real in America. And, anyone who thinks that race is not a powerful issue in America is very much deluding themselves.

Those are just my thoughts. I am not going to debate your take on the facts of the case with you. But, if you bring to light additional evidence which would suggest that there is not racial bias in the charges against these individuals, please do bring it forward. It would be important for everyone involved.

Kevin said...

Since you do emphasize the importance of skepticism, I want to point out that the local article that you cite only uses U.S. Attorney Donald Washington as a source. You should now that several blogs have raised a skeptical eye towards Washington's contentions in the case as well as his motivations. Of course, you could also be skeptical of the folks being skeptical of him.

I think that you raise really important points about the initial crime with the nooses being treated more harshly as well as the crimes involving guns in this case.

I don't know if you are from the South, but I just hope that you realize that race is a powerful force here. And, it really does seem from looking at the charges in this case that there has been bias in the prosecution. Perhaps the prosecution has realized this as they have lowered charges in several of the cases at this point.

I agree with being skeptical, but there is a fine line between being skeptical and in getting folks fired up in the opposite direction by race baiting them into thinking that this is not injustice but just a bunch of "liberal" folks playing the "race card."

Anonymous said...

Very well said Kevin.

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