Introducing the Taxonomy of Woke Religion
Over the last year, a growing number of progressives and liberals have pointed to police killings of unarmed black men, rising carbon emissions and extreme weather events, and the killing of trans people as proof that the United States has failed to take action on racism, climate change, and transphobia. Others have pointed to the war on drugs, the criminalization of homelessness, and mass incarceration as evidence that little has changed in the U.S. over the last 30 years.
And yet, on each of those issues, the U.S. has made significant progress. Police killings of African Americans in our 58 largest cities declined from 217 per year in the 1970s to 157 per year in the 2010s. Between 2011 and 2020, carbon emissions declined 14 percent in the U.S., more than in any other nation, while just 300 people died from natural disasters, a more than 90 percent decline over the past century. Public acceptance of trans people is higher than ever. The total US prison and jail population peaked in 2008 and has declined significantly ever since. Just 4 percent of state prisoners, who are 87 percent of the total prison population, are in for nonviolent drug possession; just 14 percent are in for any nonviolent drug offense. And many large cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle have effectively decriminalized public camping by homeless people.
Progressives respond that these gains obscure broad inequalities, and are under threat. Black Americans are killed at between two to three times the rate of white Americans, according to a Washington Post analysis of police killings between 2015 and 2020. Carbon emissions are once again rising as the U.S. emerges from the covid pandemic, and scientists believe global warming is contributing to extreme weather events. In 2020, Human Rights Campaign found that at least 44 transgender and non-gender conforming people were killed, which is the most since it started tracking fatalities in 2013, and already that number has reached 45 this year. Drug prohibition remains in effect, homeless people are still being arrested, and the U.S. continues to have one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
But those numbers, too, obscure important realities. There are no racial differences in police killings when accounting for whether or not the suspect was armed or a threat (“justified” vs “unjustified” shooting). While carbon emissions will rise in 2021 there is every reason to believe they will continue to decline in the future, so long as natural gas continues to replace coal, and nuclear plants continue operating. While climate change may be contributing to extreme weather events, neither the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change nor another other scientific body predicts it will outpace rising resilience to cause an increase in deaths from natural disasters. Researchers do not know if trans people are being killed disproportionately in comparison to cis-gender people, if trans homicides are rising, or if trans people are being killed for being trans, rather than for some other reason. Twenty-six states have decriminalized marijuana, and California and Oregon have decriminalized and legalized, respectively, the possession of all drugs. Progressive District Attorneys in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major cities have scaled back prosecutions against people for breaking many laws related to homelessness including public camping, public drug use, and theft.
And yet many Americans would be surprised to learn any of the above information; some would reject it outright as false. Consider that, despite the decline in police killings of African Americans, the share of the public which said police violence is a serious or extremely serious problem rose from 32 to 45 percent between 2015 and 2020. Despite the decline in carbon emissions, 47 percent of the public agreed with the statement, “Carbon emissions have risen in the United States over the last 10 years,” and just 16 percent disagreed. Meanwhile, 46 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “Deaths from natural disasters will increase in the future due to climate change” and just 16 percent disagreed, despite the absence of any scientific scenario supporting such fears. And despite the lack of good evidence, mainstream news media widely reported that the killing of trans people is on the rise.
The gulf between reality and perception is alarming for reasons that go beyond the importance of having an informed electorate for a healthy liberal democracy. Distrust of the police appears to have contributed to the nearly 30% rise in homicides after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests last year, both by embolding criminals and causing a pull-back of police. A growing body of research finds that news media coverage of climate change is contributing to rising levels of anxiety and depression among children. And there is good reason to fear that misinformation about the killing of trans and non-gender conforming individuals contributes to anxiety and depression among trans and gender dysphoric youth.
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