Statistics on Inequality are Not Lived Experience

Added together, a disproportionate number of people of colour suffer from a whole range of disadvantages. The statistics reveal a fundamental problem (or web of related problems) in society that we might label “institutional Racism” or “Structural Racism” or “Systemic Racism.” This is dreadful and we must work hard to dismantle these structures and remain vigilant that we do not make biased assumptions about people of colour, based on our acceptance of them as the norm. 

But statistics are not lived experience, as I’m always saying. Any individual of colour may not have experienced all, or even any of these disadvantages. For example, according to statisa.com, Police have shot just under 1000 people a year in the USA, since 2017. The number of people of colour is disproportionately high in each year. However, every year the total number males has been well over 900 (940, 942, 961, 983 and 996, to be exact, excluding the incomplete data for 2022). The total number of women has always been under 60. (45, 53, 43, 38, and 56), so a woman of colour is not at significantly increased risk of being shot by the police, whereas a man of colour is. (Individual black women have been shot, as have a higher number – although a lower proportion – of white people and so these statistics were of no use to them, as individuals, at all.)

So, when any white person encounters any person of colour, each may have experienced any, or any combination of, a whole range of privileges, disadvantages, or discriminations, just as each may hold any number of biased beliefs about the other. This white financier’s son may have been traumatically abused and neglected as a child while that woman of colour, brought up on a council estate by a single parent, may have been lovingly cradled in the bosom of a warm, extended family. This woman of colour may be the Oxbridge educated daughter of a cultured diplomat. This afro-Caribbean kid from an impoverished background may be formidably intelligent, or lucky enough to go to a good school with teachers who nurtured his talents; that white boy from an affluent area may have severe learning difficulties or crack-addicted parents. Who knows? 

Through a coincidence of factors in my upbringing, I seem genuinely to lack the anti-Semitic assumptions so wincingly present in British society.  This was luck not judgement. (I assumed, until I moved to England, around the age of 30, that tropes such as the Jewish Banker stereotype were dead, in the British Isles. I was wrong.) You cannot tell on an individual level who has suffered more. You cannot even reduce the unique experiences of human existence to a single unit or rubric to compare them.

Whole population statistics, national or world-wide, will involve thousands, even hundreds of thousands, even millions, of exceptions to the trend. Significant trends and disproportions in statistical data can involve small numbers and proportions of the population. For example, the British government’s own data on prison populations for 2020 showed that Black people made up 3% of the general population, but 10% of those receiving custodial sentences. As the total prison population in 2020 was, according to World Prison Brief (@prisonstudies.org) 79,514, that puts the number of Black people in prison at just under 8000 out of a population of just under 2 million, or 0.04%. So, while Black people are disproportionately jailed, and this is a sign of systematic injustice, imprisonment is not the common experience of black people (or any other ethnic minority) and any person of colour you meet is unlikely to be an ex-convict. 

Assumptions should not, then, be made, by either party in a personal encounter. Individuals are not responsible for statistical injustices; presuming that someone share the prejudices or the ignorance of other members of the group you’ve assigned to them is prejudice. You have “prejudged” them.

We are all far more intensely and viscerally aware of our injuries than the abstract idea of any one of the literally infinite number of ways we haven’t suffered (and that goes for all minorities groups, too.) If this is “privilege”, everybody on the planet has some form of it. It is a necessary constituent part of human identity because each human consciousness is singular and isolated from all others. We should all strive to overcome our insensitivities, but they should not be used as an accusation. What elevates us is our capacity for imaginative empathy, which leaps that gulf. Celebrate it.

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