Why No Racial Profiling? (and the President’s Shrewdness on Health Reform.)

The Gates ‘arrest episode: It does not matter but it’s symptomatic of a certain mood. I suspect it’s also further proof of the President’s presence of mind. Several comments.

A Harvard Professor who is black, Henry Louis Gates, tries to force his front door open because it’s stuck. His taxi driver, also black, is helping him. This is all happening in a tony Cambridge neighborhood. A white neighbor calls the police because she suspects a burglary in progress.

The cops arrive. The white cop in charge asks to see an ID. The professor first refuses, then he shows the cop an ID without an address, or maybe, one with an address; reports vary. Words are exchanged. The professor accuses the cop of racial profiling. The cop arrests the professor for “disorderly conduct.”

It seems to me most commentators are missing the boat, usually in revealing ways. First things first.

Conservatives who will not admit that there are pushy, abusive law enforcement officers with a quick-trigger temper are denying the obvious. They are likely in bad faith. The charge under which the professor was arrested tells it all. “Disorderly contact” is a b.s. charge. I will bet it almost never sticks before a jury of twelve peers, unless the accused is actually drunk in court, or really ugly. That’s the charge police officers use when they are really pissed off and don’t know what else to do.

I had an encounter with a pushy law enforcement officer myself a few months ago. Read about it in my essay on this blog, “Yosemite Enema.”

Some conservatives add gratuitously that the professor was “rude” to the cop. So? Since when is it illegal to be rude to cops? That’s exactly the day I fear, as a conservative, when rudeness to police becomes a crime. Police are our servants who happen to be doing a difficult job. Being rude to a cop is uncivil, like being rude to a cab driver. Period.

A couple of days later, several police officers’ associations held a nearly hour-long press conference to protest the President’s statement on the mini-event. (See below.) That’s ridiculous. Sensitive cops! Just what we need! Next thing you know, a couple of them will be sobbing on camera at the verbal injustice done to one of them.

It appears that the professor accused the cop of “profiling.” I don’t care that the second arresting officer, in the foreground of the best photograph of the event, was black. Why wouldn’t the cops be racially profiling?

People who are called upon to intervene on a possible crime scene, of necessity rely on appearances. In particular, they must ask themselves what’s out of place: a butcher’s knife on a playground, a man with a set of tools in a large parking lot, a woman screaming at a man who tries to restrain her. If they did not, we would fault them, and rightly so.

When using appearances, they must engage in split-second probabilistic calculation. There might be an innocent explanation for the knife. The man with the tools might be about to do a quick fix on his own car. The woman might be screaming in grief because she just received bad news on her cell phone. Nevertheless, many cops will chose to intervene because they decide, in a split-second, that the probability of mischief is not negligible. In most case, we will think they are doing their job properly. Would they not intervene, they would often be punished, professionally.

It turns out, Americans of African appearance commit proportionately many more non-white collar crimes than do Americans of European appearance. It turns out, wealthy areas of Cambridge are overwhelmingly white. Had the thought not crossed the cop’s mind that he was witnessing a burglary in progress, he would have been a dolt.

Here is a digression: The question of whether cops are more readily hostile to black than to white citizens for reasons other than visceral racism is a taboo topic. There is a simple sociological study crying out to be done. It won’t be. Here it is: Do African-American police officers respond differently to black and white suspects? Do they consider them with greater suspicion than they do white people?

Racial profiling” is frowned upon and, in some areas and for some purposes, it’s illegal. This must cause tremendous waste of police resources. When you waste police resources, you enable additional crime, including homicide. If you don’t believe me, conduct the following mental experiment:

The police in your town is hot on the tracks of serial killer, or killers. Acting on a tip, they focus on a group of older, church-going black ladies. What’s your reaction, focusing on the judicious employment of law enforcement resources? Below, here is mine.

Serial killers who have been captured are overwhelmingly white. They have been nearly all males. With a few exceptions, they have been between 16 and 35 years of age. They are almost all loners.

I believe the police is probably wasting its time and worse, letting a dangerous person free to kill again. This police behavior is bordering on criminally negligent in this case. What’s wrong with the police strategy? In a word, it’s not profiling. In particular, it’s not engaging in the sort of racial profiling the situation reasonably demands. The serial killer is very likely to be white. The police is also at fault for not engaging in sex profiling. The killer is probably male. And so forth.

The probability of someone black, female, old, and gregarious (belonging to a church group) being a serial killer is so low, people of that description should go right down to the bottom of the list of suspects. Police strategies that don’t comply to this set of probabilities are irrational and irresponsible.

So, it’s racial profiling against blacks specifically that is banned because of past racist actions by police at some times, in some places. That is still irrational from a crime-fighting perspective. The solution is not to prohibit any sort of racial profiling but to establish the appropriate reward structure for cops such that any profiling that does not pay dividends in convictions becomes a visible, embarrassing and punishable waste of their time.

Incidentally, the victims of black crime are mostly black. We are not doing anyone a favor, except fading civil rights organizations, by failing to protect black people against black predators.

Here is another facet of this tiny event: The professor’s profile. (Oops, that was bad!). First, he is clearly a professional, academic African-American (not an African-American professional; that’s something else). He has a good number of publications as befits a Harvard professor. Those are almost all books. This is legitimate but I have to note that books escape the harsh censure of blind-refereed scholarly journals. If there is a pro-black bias anywhere in academia, it’s much more likely to manifest itself with respect to the publication of books than with respect to the acceptance of scholarly article in refereed journals. In addition, his books are about various aspects of being black in America. If there were (conditional), a mutual aid society in American academia, Black Studies, broadly defined would be a good place for it. It would be one of the good places for it as opposed to, say, civil engineering, or English. Still no book is easy to write, I readily admit.

In case, you are wondering, I am displaying no sour grapes here. When I was an academic, I played unambiguously with the big guys. Professor Gates chose not to, maybe, or perhaps not. No one dictated to him the ambiguous career course he chose. He did not have to be professionally black. Our most useful economists,a great teacher, is Thomas Sowell. He is ablack man but he is not professionally black.

Harvard has been good to Professor Gates. That’s why he lives in a ritzie white suburb instead of among the people for whom he poses as an intellectual spokesman. A couple of days after the non-event, he sent a communication to the press from his other home, on Martha’s Vineyard. No desperate, exploited ghetto kid, the professor! Yet, he could not have made the same living had he not been actively black. I mean, as opposed to a bus driver who happens to be black, or as opposed to an African-American brain surgeon, for example. I figure he had no choice but to confront the white officer in the vituperative manner he did. To have done otherwise would have been a denial of his whole life and career.

Of course, the only important facet of this tiny near-non-event remains the President’s seemingly impromptu comment about it. Commentators, including some on the Left, criticize him for criticizing the Cambridge police actions without sufficient evidence. They say it shows a troubling lack of judgment. I am not so sure.

President Obama was once an academic himself ( a mediocre one; i explain this judgment in a previous posting). Certainly, he must have known that Cambridge Mass. is not Cambridge, Miss. Besides, he is aware that 2009 is not 1909. He must have known also that the said police department, in that liberal town serving that liberal university, must not shelter many closet racists. (It turns out the arresting officer once kissed a black male athlete on the mouth in public. Well, he gave him mouth-to-mouth, anyway.)

The President delivered himself of his summary judgment about the Cambridge police near the end of a press conference on health care reform. The conference gave absolutely no new information. Even the lazy, ass-kissing Washington press corp was uncomfortable. The health care plan was already tanking in Congress because of a report from the independent Congressional Budget Office. Health care is the Democratic issue par excellence. The President’s entourage has been know to plant questions at press conferences. The distracting question about the professor incident saved the President from having to squirm to avoid more possible embarrassing questions on the official topic of the conference, health care. Semi-apologizing a couple of days later was a small price to pay for this respite.


About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Current Events, Socio-Political Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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