On April 12, Harvard University researcher and economics professor, Dr. Roland Fryer joined the UNC Charlotte community in the Student Union multipurpose room to present the sixth annual Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) Lecture, titled the “Economics of Race,” as a part of the Bank of America Civic Series.
Fryer’s research focuses on a highly speculated social issues in modern America, such as crime, discrimination and poverty, utilizing economic approaches to examine these effects.
Susan McCarter, professor in the School of Social Work and opener of the speaker series, explained Fryer’s research as unique in that it “combines economic theory, empirical designs and social issues,” later making inferences off of this research for future policies.
Fryer began the lecture by mentioning a few key concepts in relation to the role of incentives (and adversely, retribution) in creating and implementing policies. He explained that his first research project, of which he was given a $20,000 research budget, was used to buy pizza or give money to public school kids in the Bronx in order to do well in school.
“You have to be really sophisticated with the way you design [an incentive structure],” Fryer said. “When you gave the kids incentive to do well in school, math scores went up but reading scores went down. Incentives may sound okay now, but in 2007 this was highly controversial.”
Fryer tied in the concept of racial differences in police brutality, a long-term research endeavor that he’s been working on.
In order to carry out the experiment, Fryer embedded himself in the police departments by receiving police training in order to understand police culture, build trust and obtain the data needed for research.
“It’s eye-opening to understand a little bit of what happens on the other side of the equation,” he said.
The statistics of the study found with 5.5 million instances with non-lethal use of force, there is a 54 percent difference in odds ratio for blacks. Fryer also noted that when perfectly compliant, there’s still a 25 percent difference in odds ratio between races with lower level uses of force.
However, when observing the data for the 1,317 officer-involved shootings, Fryer found there wasn’t a substantial racial difference in the odds ratio. He predicted this may have to do with the fact that it’s a life-altering decision to set off a weapon as an officer, as officer-involved shootings have many more investigations and the stakes are much higher.
“There is a distinct difference between racism relative to higher stakes and lower stakes,” he explained. “People can behave strategically and respond to incentives.”
Fryer gathered this data from cities across the country, but mentioned many police departments often times weren’t willing to be transparent with their data. Some don’t have the data in a format where it would be feasible to analyze it–the data from Houston even needed to be hand-coded. Some just don’t have coherent data, some are more unwilling or untrustworthy.
“They don’t want a sloppy journalist taking the data and painting it in a certain way,” he said, adding that this was understandable.
He said that it’s difficult to isolate race as a factor and take into account gender, sexuality and other factors when doing research.
“It’s hard to know how race permeates other factors, with race under the umbrella of being a social construct,” he said.
He alluded to the notion that “no discrimination” has been the null hypothesis since the 1950’s and as a result; it takes more evidence when discrimination is a factor, given that it’s the null–in a jury trial, you’re innocent until proven guilty and in the same sense it’s not discrimination until proven otherwise.
When a student asked how to use incentive to eliminate economic disparities, Fryer said we need to increase economic mobility, since many people are coming to market with different skills, or their skills are being marketed differently with the presence of an achievement gap.
“We have to stop treating it [social reform] like it’s a flood in Nepal, saying ‘oh that’s too bad, I wish we could do something,’” said Fryer. “It’s easy to say we’re going to do something, but the critical element is empathy.”