Numbers Up: Politics of Racial Profiling

Posted: Jul 06, 2001 12:00 AM
There is one obvious solution to racial profiling we never hear proposed. If the police merely detained, questioned, searched and bothered more whites, then the scourge of racial profiling would no longer exist. A friend of mine pointed this out to me. He's WASPier than topsiders and turkey sandwiches. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, that didn't keep him from being detained at the airport recently. The security people pulled him out of the line, interviewed him extensively and he couldn't figure out why. Afterward he joked that maybe the airport cops were trying to get their "white guy" averages up so they wouldn't be accused of disproportionately stopping people from the Middle East, Chechnya or Afghanistan. You see, in an important sense, racial profiling, the "disproportionate" scrutiny of racial minorities, i.e. blacks, by law enforcement is nothing more than a statistical phenomenon. Unjustly hassle a few more whites and the greater injustice evaporates. This may seem more than a bit cold-hearted. But the fact remains that the problem of racial profiling is the unseemly - and often unjust - underside of the race-based numbers game America plays. Take affirmative action. It's based upon the harsh reality that African-Americans are disproportionately poor, undereducated and disadvantaged. Lyndon Johnson defended the approach by explaining that you can't take a man who's been hobbled with chains all of his life and expect him to run a fair race against someone who hasn't been. Whether you agree or disagree with affirmative action as originally conceived, or with what it has become, we can all agree that statistically speaking blacks are worse off than whites in this country. Which is why it's so odd that so many people dedicated to defending quotas and the rest of the racial spoils system, those who argue that "root causes" are the source of all social ills, are so stunned by the suggestion that the underprivileged segment of our society, which is disproportionately black, would be responsible for a disproportionate number of crimes. In fact, if you take the assumptions behind race-based social programs at face value, you would (ital) have (end ital) to expect that blacks would commit more crimes than whites. And guess what? They do. No matter how you slice the data, it is impossible to reach any other conclusion. Even if you (foolishly) dismiss such things as arrest, conviction and incarceration rates, you still have to contend with what victims of crimes say; and they disproportionately report that their assailants are black. You can't say the racism of white victims is at work either, because the vast majority of victims of black criminals are blacks themselves. Many liberals are in denial about this, says William Tucker, writing in a recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard. For example, Tucker notes that in 1999 the New York State attorney general issued a report declaring that blacks and Hispanics were "disproportionately represented" in 10,000 police stop-and-frisks in New York City. This was intended to be prima facie evidence of bias in the system. But was it? African-Americans make up 44 percent of the Big Apple's population, but they accounted for 49 percent of those stopped and frisked, Tucker says. Yet, blacks were identified as the perpetrators in more than 60 percent of street crimes - (ital) by the victims of those street crimes. (end ital) Blacks also made up 55 percent of those arrested. Tucker writes "from these numbers, you can more accurately argue that blacks were underrepresented in stop-and-frisks." During John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli insisted: "Statistically, it cannot be borne out that certain ethnic or racial groups disproportionately commit crimes. They do not." This is simply a lie. If it were true, there would be untold hundreds of thousands of innocent blacks and Hispanics in prison and an equal number of guilty Irish, Chinese, Hmong and Pennsylvania Dutch murderers on the loose. The unpleasant reality of racial profiling is that it works. If you scrutinized every Colombian and Jamaican male between the ages of 18 and 35 you would undoubtedly find more drug dealers than if you searched every Amish male of the same age. That's because Jamaicans and Colombians are, according to everything we know about the drug trade, disproportionately involved in that business. Whether the search would be just, is another question altogether. Racial profiling - along with other factors - undoubtedly contributed to the drop in crime over the last decade. And with crime falling, it's hardly surprising that outrage over the insults of the practice are on the rise. It's harder to tolerate draconian measures when you're winning the war on crime than when you're losing it. That's why everyone from Hillary Clinton to Attorney General John Ashcroft is promising to rid America of racial profiling. And that's fine, there's a good argument that says the state shouldn't interfere in your life solely because of your race. Indeed, that's why affirmative action should go, too. But we should all realize that there may be tradeoffs in the process, i.e. more crime. But at least the numbers game would stop.