This 25 minute documentary was released last month but I didn’t see it until today. It tells the story of a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer whose focus was on education and the black-white achievement gap. Fryer’s research led him to believe the gap could be closed through some simple steps which involved extra time and work for kids who had fallen behind along with a willingness to fire teachers who weren’t delivering results.
Fryer’s work got him a lot of attention. He won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the John Bates Clark Medal for the best American economist under 40. But the documentary argues that when he arrived at Harvard he ran into some professors with very different ideas.
But Fryer kept pushing his work into controversial territory. For instance, he examined police records in Houston and New York for evidence of racial bias. The results of that research, conducted in 2016 and published in 2019, were considered startling:
The issue of police violence and its racial incidence has become one of the most divisive topics in American discourse. Emotions run the gamut from outrage to indifference. Yet, very little data exists to understand whether racial disparities in police use of force exist or might be explained by situational factors inherent in the complexity of police-civilian interactions. Beyond the lack of data, the analysis of police behavior is fraught with difficulty including, but not limited to, the reliability of the data that does exist and the fact that one cannot randomly assign race.
With these caveats in mind, this paper takes first steps into the treacherous terrain of understanding the nature and extent of racial differences in police use of force and the probability of police interaction. On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences – sometimes quite large – in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors at the time of the police-civilian interaction. Interestingly, as use of force increases from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.2 percent more likely to endure some form of force in an interaction. Yet, on the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls.
But in 2018, Prof. Fryer was accused of misconduct by women who worked in his research lab:
I have no access to the details of the allegations, but Harvard did its work and came back with a report that amounted to a finding that he had flirted with a graduate student years ago, and that a woman he had fired found some of his language annoying. Naturally, these claims were stretched to their outer boundaries, but the initial faculty committee saw nothing of great moment.
In the #MeToo era, rules of double jeopardy don’t apply. Harvard decided to put the case before another tribunal — a secret one, but one that happened to include two black faculty members whose work had received some shade from Fryer’s academic writings. Sure enough, the second tribunal decided that Fryer had crossed all sorts of invisible lines.
Because he had tenure, Fryer couldn’t be fired but he was suspended for two years and his lab was shut down. He returned from that suspension last July. Anyway, here’s the documentary which calls this a case of “industrial strength cancelation.”