Baltimore Juries and Epistemology

David Simon (of “Homicide” and “The Wire” fame) has an excellent article which begins with a puzzling statistical observation.

It’s a curious item – a draft report by a local non-profit foundation, a simple statistical study of the difference between Baltimore criminal juries and those of the surrounding, suburban counties.

It seems that in Baltimore, one of the most violent cities in America, jurors are far more reluctant to convict criminal defendants than in the suburban enclaves that ring the city.

He goes on to explain this statistic in a simple, devastating, and deeply depressing manner– the explanation is absolutely obvious for anyone who knows key facts about Baltimore, but nobody discussing the statistic bothered to learn these facts. (And although it may be along the lines that you’re expecting, the specifics are shocking.) Along the way, he reflects on economic and racial divides in America, and the way that they impact on our knowledge, on what questions we ask, and on what we pay attention to. He also discusses differing reactions to The Wire in Europe and the US, arguing that both get something deeply wrong, and analysing why and how they go wrong. (And yes, it is relevant.) Basically, example after example of importance for anyone interested in the intersections of epistemology and politics.

(Thanks, Mr Jender!)

11 thoughts on “Baltimore Juries and Epistemology

  1. I was reading some Sandra Harding last week, and I think this piece nicely reflects her recurrent thesis: knowledge produced by `starting with marginal lives’ is better than knowledge produced by and for the privileged classes. Baltimore’s Black working poor aren’t just criminal statistics, to be harassed as needed to garner the approval of White suburbanites (who are, in turn, thought of as nothing more than chips to be won in a poker game played by the wealthy and powerful) ; they’re citizens, complete with powers of memory and judgement and a sense of justice.

  2. I’m curious about the argument behind this statement:
    “knowledge produced by `starting with marginal lives’ is better than knowledge produced by and for the privileged classes.”

    What kind of knowledge are we talking about and how is it “better”? Is it more reliable? While I don’t think of knowledge as justified true belief (Gettier, blah blah) and epistemology isn’t my primary area of focus, I have a hard time with this claim being floated without any kind of caveat…

    Maybe I’m missing something. Aren’t both perspectives legitimate in certain contexts?

  3. ck, for about two years, I read numerous books and articles and spent literally hundreds of hours thinking about your questions. (And wrote and rewrote two 40+ page papers that unsuccessfully attempted to answer them.) At the level of detail and precision analytic philosophers are used to, my highly considered response is: I don’t know.

    But step down a few levels, and hopefully you’ll see what I saw in the Simon piece: The knowledge produced by and for the politically powerful is, pragmatically and epistemologically, pretty much worthless; while that produced with the lives and interests of the marginalised and powerless in mind is much, much better. And this is because the powerful have an interest in ignoring the humanity of the powerless.

  4. Noumena, I’m sorry I didn’t read the article first (normally I do, but I just bookmarked this one and then spotted your comment). I grew up in Maryland, but in one of the privileged areas (Annapolis), so the article was really painful to read.

    I wonder, though, if the blanket statements about “politically powerful” and “marginalized” don’t help— the crux of the article as I saw it, lies in the revelation that Baltimoreans had been deprived of their civil rights for political aims:

    “Is it so hard to understand that the same people who had their civil rights cleanly dispatched, who spent nights in jail because police officers lied on them and dragged them off without charge – that these people might be inclined to disbelieve the word of law enforcement in any future criminal case?”

    The particular kind of marginalization described above leads to a legitimate change in one’s epistemology. In particular, testimony ceases to be an authoritative, reliable source of knowledge. It’s been corrupted. But, at least to me, this doesn’t entail claims like “the powerful have an interest in ignoring the humanity of the powerless” or “knowledge produced by and for the politically powerful is, pragmatically and epistemologically, pretty much worthless”.

    Perhaps, as an analytically trained philosophy student, my knowledge is just bumping up against its limits, revealing it to be “pretty much worthless.” But I suppose I’m concerned that painting the picture in such stark oppositional terms 1) makes it hard to see a solution and 2) implies some kind of ethical hierarchy connected to power and who has it (i.e. the powerless have some superior moral claim).

  5. CK, I’m with you actually on this one– though I liked the way Noumena described the situation in Baltimore. I think it’s a huge mistake to say that ALL the knowledge produced by the politically powerful is worthless. The powerful undoubtedly also have important knowledge– politicians, for example, know how the legislative process works, and this is valuable knowledge.What seems right to me is the point that many standpoint theorists have been working toward more recently (which makes them less like traditional standpoint theory): that multiple perspectives (and communication between these perspectives) are vital to knowledge-seeking.

  6. But this doesn’t mean that we give up the understanding that such multiple perspectives are hierarchized, does it? I guess this might lead to a kind of combination of these theses, the idea that knowledge held by the powerful relies upon blindness to or silencing of certain marginal knowledges or perspectives, with no assumption that those marginal knowledges or perspectives contain the answers for Everything (which is illustrated amply by recent discussions of white feminism on the intertubes). The question of value or “worth” is an interesting one implicit here as well: for whom are these knowledges valuable or worthless? And under what conditions? To what ends?

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