Appearances can be deceiving in a number of ways, Issac Bailey told an audience at a Tuesday event.

During his hour-long conversation with students and faculty, Bailey—a Harvard Nieman Fellow—spoke about the intersection of race and politics. Invited by the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service in conjunction with the Duke chapter of the NAACP,  he emphasized that personal bias can affect the veracity of a report. 

“The context of facts is everything,” he said. 

Bailey gave an example from his own life—he once “picked up a prostitute and then accidentally told his wife.” 

Although his remark raised eyebrows and drew a few scattered laughs, Bailey quickly explained that he was driving through Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he saw a disheveled woman bleeding from her skinned knees on the side of the road. 

He took her to the nearest hospital, where he unintentionally called his wife when he sat on his phone. Although Bailey technically based his initial statement in truth, the circumstances surrounding the incident completely altered how people judged his action.

Bailey extended that same logic to the prevalence of murders committed by black men. He said that he confronts this issue regularly, as conservatives within his national audience critique his calls for reform in American policing by citing that black men, only 6 percent of the population, account for about half of the national murders. 

Readers often ask Bailey to justify his position, he explained, as this percentage of black murderers seemingly indicates innate violence. Bailey posed the dilemma to the audience, and the response was unambiguous: the factors which penetrate a specific community—especially with reference to gang violence—should not apply to an entire population.

Bailey admitted that he no longer takes the time to respond to his readers by identifying flaws in their arguments. These folks aren’t intent on hosting a serious discussion, he explained.

Furthermore, Bailey described the deception in categorizing any group as a monolith. For instance, he pointed out the hypocrisy in the fact that white men execute mass shootings and become serial killers much more frequently than black men. No one legitimately suggests that white men are predisposed to these heinous crimes, and Bailey called for society to bestow that same presumption of innocence to black men. 

Invoking statistics, Bailey illustrated the ways in which those with an agenda misconstrue the alleged threat of black men. Bailey reminded that—though the above-mentioned 50 percent figure appears colossal at first glance—it amounts to only 7,000 in a population of 11 million young black men. Moreover, brutal home circumstances during one’s formative years spur many men into homicidal activity. 

Bailey disclosed his own turbulent family life with an abusive, alcoholic father who beat his mother, barely more than a child herself, and the stringent regulations imposed on blacks in a Jim Crow-era sundown town. Bailey surmised that a lack of stability contributed directly to the incarceration of four of his eight brothers. In Bailey’s view, many people overlook these conditions and examine his brothers as mere additions to a statistic.

“All of the context washes away and is forgotten. All they know and want to know is that each one is a monster,” he said.

Ultimately, Bailey told the audience to challenge the status quo and explore beyond the peripheries. 

In his own writing, he has confronted acts of discrimination fostered by President Trump’s administration and also discussed the May 2018 incident at the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop between Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs, and a cashier. 

“We have to continue to grapple with the truth, even when it’s hard," he said.