We are two countries now. Americans live in two separate cultures and media environments, which distort our perceptions of the nation.
Ever since the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd, I've been toggling back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC. Each presents an America under existential threat, albeit for different reasons.
But they're both wrong.
On Fox, the big dangers are said to come from protesters and immigrants. If Fox were your only information source, you'd probably believe that Black Lives Matter demonstrators and newcomers from Latin America have overwhelmed our cities with violence and crime.
Never mind that urban protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a little fact that Fox somehow fails to share. Analyzing over 7,000 protests between 2017 and 2020, researchers at Harvard and the University of Connecticut found that 3.7% of the demonstrations — that is, fewer than 1 in 25 — involved property damage or vandalism. Protesters or bystanders were injured in 1.6% of the protests, or less than 1 in every 50.
Yet Fox makes you think that the exceptions are the rule, by recycling video of demonstrators burning police cars and looting stores. Did that stuff happen? Of course. But it's pure demagoguery to play the same violent clips, over and over again, when the vast majority of protests looked nothing like that.
Similarly, Fox would have you believe that impoverished Latin Americans are flooding into the United States and spiking our crime rates. Wrong and wrong. According to the first results of the 2020 census, which were released on Monday, immigration between 2010-2020 slowed to its lowest rate for any decade since the 1970s.
Nearly two thirds of immigrants during the past decade were college graduates, compared to one-third of the American-born population. Over twice as many newcomers migrated here from Asia as from Latin America. And immigrants — including those who are undocumented — are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans are.
The immigrant "threat" is a chimera, ginned up by Fox News and its friends in conservative media.
But when you flip over to MSNBC, you again see a nation threatened. Here we face a different kind of peril: murderous police officers. They especially target African Americans who, we're told, are suffering an "epidemic" of killings at the hands of law enforcement.
But there is no such epidemic. According to a database collected by the Washington Post, police fatally shot nine unarmed African Americans in 2019, down from 38 in 2015. Those numbers don't include Black people who died by other means in police encounters, as George Floyd did.
Yet any way you count, it's impossible to show a widespread scourge of police killings of African Americans in the U.S.
Yet that's precisely what you see on MSNBC, which shows a continuous loop of them. Since the Floyd verdict, especially, the network has devoted enormous airtime to recent police killings in Ohio and North Carolina. If that was all you watched, you could reasonably conclude that Black people are under constant mortal threat from the cops.
Let's be clear: African American men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white men are. Black Americans are also disproportionately subjected to traffic stops, surveillance by employees in stores and a vast range of other indignities. Those are facts, too, and everyone should know them.
But they should also know that the gravest threat to Black lives is not the police; it's crime.
In 2019, when nine unarmed African Americans died in police shootings, 7,484 Black people lost their lives in homicides overall. African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be killed in a homicide, which is the leading cause of death among Black Americans between 10 and 24.
Why doesn't MSNBC share those facts, too, alongside its reports on police killings?
How can we create a society that is safe and just if we continually misrepresent the sources of danger?
That's a question for all of our media right now, and for all of our citizens. We need to find a way to discuss the real problems in America — including racial disparities in criminal justice — without distorting and exaggerating them.
The biggest threat to America isn't protest, or immigration or the police. It's you and me, and our refusal to look at the facts we don't want to see.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of "Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn."