So what about negative stereotypes?

Posted: Feb 21, 2001 12:00 AM
For years and at different levels we get fired up by the fear of creeping social estrangement. The "quest for community" was one great expression of this fear, and recent misgivings on the matter of bilingual education and the centrifugalization of America are often heard. One division of this social quandary is racial profiling -- what it says and what it does. John Derbyshire, writing in National Review, has brilliantly examined the question and its implications.

We're reminded that racial profiling went mainstage in a public debate between Vice President Gore and nomination challenger Bill Bradley. The scene, New York's Apollo Theater, February 2000. The debate turned to the shooting of innocent African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police. Sen. Bradley said: "I ... think it reflects ... racial profiling that seeps into the mind of someone so that he sees a wallet in the hand of a white man as a wallet, but a wallet in the hand of a black man as a gun." He promised that if he were nominated and elected, he would by executive order "eliminate racial profiling at the federal level."

How would one phrase such an executive order? How would it have applied in Chicago, in the matter of LaTanya Haggerty? She was shot dead in June 1999 by a Chicago policewoman who mistook her cell phone for a handgun. The policewoman was, like Ms. Haggerty, black.

But there are those who do not wish to linger over the use of racial profiling as a means of maximizing community protection. Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard concedes that crime is disproportionately committed by different racial groups. Yes, he says, outlawing racial profiling will reduce the efficiency of police work and increase the burden on them. So? "Racial equality, like all good things in life, costs something; it does not come for free." Unhappily, goo-goo political analysis does come for free, and can drive a stake through the heart of purposive thought.

Mr. Derbyshire says that it is true that there are negative stereotypes, but that these are acted upon because they can be correct and useful. Stereotypes, in sociological research, are held up as "essential life tools." They introduce "the reality function." "Confronted with a snake or a fawn, our immediate behavior is determined by generalized beliefs -- stereotypes -- about snakes and fawns."

Without the capacity to make generalizations, the guidance of common sense would be forfeited. This is acknowledged even by professional guardians of the racial-profiling flame. Jesse Jackson rose above his taboos to say in 1993 that "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

Sandra Seegars of the Washington, D.C., Taxicab Commission has testified: "Late at night, if I saw young black men dressed in a slovenly way, I wouldn't pick them up. ... And during the day, I'd think twice about it." This arrant reflection of late-night realities on Washington streets provoked hard questioning. Define slovenly, she was asked. She replied, "A young black guy with his hat on backward, shirtail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants down below his underwear, and unlaced tennis shoes."

Ms. Seegars, who is black, would reply to Professor Kennedy that yes, racial equality is a good thing, and yes, it costs something, but driving at night in Washington, she's not willing to pay the cost. Department of Justice figures for 1997 tell us that victims report 60 percent of robberies as having been committed by black persons. In that year, a black American was eight times more likely than a non-black to commit homicide.

The law does and should prohibit discrimination, but applications of that law have to conform with basic realities. According to Derbyshire: "The city of San Jose, California, for example, discovered that, yes, the percentage of blacks being stopped was higher than their representation in the city's population. Ah, but patrol cars were computer-assigned to high-crime districts, which are mainly inhabited by minorities."

The Supreme Court is not blind to reasonable distinctions. If race is only one factor in the questioning of suspects, it can be authorized. The critical point is: No one should be detained or questioned where race is the single distinguishing element. "I have been unable to locate any statistics on the point, but I feel sure that elderly black women are stopped by the police much less often than are young white men."

Among the new attorney general's challenges are to insist resolutely that due process be affirmed, without emasculating elementary approaches to crime detection.