Such is the case with his latest work. At a quiet table in the cavernous Hawksmoor Seven Dials, a branch of the high-end restaurant chain in central London, where the decor is brown and the meat is red, Fryer tells me how he spent two days last year on the beat shadowing cops in Camden, New Jersey. (On his first day on patrol a woman overdosed in front of him and died.) What Fryer wanted to figure out was whether the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — two African-Americans whose deaths led to widespread protests — were part of an observable pattern of discrimination, as activist groups such as Black Lives Matter have suggested. After his week on patrol, he collected more than 6m pieces of data from forces such as New York City’s on cases of blacks, whites and Latinos being victims of police violence.
The graph he passes between the salt and pepper displays his provisional findings. The horizontal axis is a scale of the severity of the violence, from shoving on the left all the way to shootings on the right. The curve starts high, suggesting strong differences in minor incidents, but descends to zero as the cases become more violent. In other words, once contextual factors were taken into account, blacks were no more likely to be shot by police. All of which raises the question: why the outcry in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was shot?
“That’s the data,” Fryer says. “Now one hypothesis for why Ferguson happened — not the shooting but the outcry — was not because people were making statistical inference, not from whether Michael Brown was guilty or innocent but because they fucking hate the police.” He continues: “The reason they hate the police is because if you spent years having hands put on you and [being] pushed to the ground and handcuffed without proper cause, and then you hear about a [police] shooting in your town, how could you believe it was anything but discrimination?”
“I think it’s about incentives and rewards,” Fryer adds. Officers, he explains, are often given the same rewards regardless of the severity of crimes they address, and because they are not punished for using “lower level force” without proper cause, it encourages aggressive behavior.
< “I never believed that going to jail is cool”, he says. It was a sports scholarship (his athletic frame hints at his past as a college American footballer) that took him from a “bad school” to the University of Texas, where he first came across the study of economics. “My grandfather didn’t have much education,” Fryer goes on. “He used to talk in riddles. He’d say little things to me, he’d say, ‘Boy, you start out life with a 10, and you grow up in poverty, let’s take three away. And if you go to bad schools we’ll take another three away. And if you’re brought up by a single mom we’ll take another three away. But you know what’s left? Dignity.’ ” “This is why I can use my own experience,” he says. His past gives him ideas for what theories to test, but only through the data can he reach firm conclusions. “I know the danger of taking away people’s dignity.” But “experience alone doesn’t help us design policies that will work”. ..... As the starters arrive, we turn from his work on criminal justice to Fryer’s focus: education. His first working paper — co-authored with Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame, and published in 2002 before he completed a PhD at Penn State University — sought to explain the “black-white test score gap”, or why black pupils on average do worse at school than whites. To make a somewhat crude distinction, at the time there were broadly two interpretations for the test-score gap. The first, commonly found on the left, was that it was all down to poverty: African-Americans were more likely to be poor and therefore were less likely to do well in school. The second account, more popular among conservatives, pointed to rates of “family breakdown” among African-Americans. .... Fryer’s first and subsequent papers transcended those interpretations by showing the importance of schooling to inequality — in effect, that black kids did worse because they went to bad schools. Conversely, Fryer hypothesised, perhaps great schools could close the gap. Many visits to high-performing charter schools — those relatively free of local government control — and terabytes of data later, he arrived at five common features of a good school: an extended school day and year; the use of data by teachers; a culture of high expectations; small-group tutoring; and a “devotion to high-quality human capital” (well-qualified teachers). ..... He wants to try “education learning accounts”: giving money directly to parents to spend on their child’s education (with more money given to the poorest parents). And he is wrapping up work on how to improve attendance at vital early-years education by giving parents cash incentives, as has proved effective in similar cases in countries such as Mexico. ..... He says he agrees with much of what the president has done through his Race to the Top initiative, which has incentivised the type of charter schools commended by Fryer’s research, often in the teeth of opposition from local governments and teaching unions, which are also influential forces upon the Democratic party. Fryer says that half of the “dropout factory” schools have gone under Obama’s watch. “I’m worried that in the next education bill we’re going to be moving backwards, not forwards.” Hillary Clinton, previously a proponent of charter schools, has heaped criticism on them as she has come under pressure from Bernie Sanders.