Victor Davis Hanson creates a stir with his politically incorrect version of "The Talk" about racial profiling:
Holder noted in lamentation that he had to repeat to his own son the lecture that his father long ago gave him. The sermon was about the dangers of police stereotyping of young black males. Apparently, Holder believes that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yet I fear that for every lecture of the sort that Holder is forced to give his son, millions of non-African-Americans are offering their own versions of ensuring safety to their progeny.
In my case, the sermon — aside from constant reminders to judge a man on his merits, not on his class or race — was very precise.
First, let me say that my father was a lifelong Democrat. He had helped to establish a local junior college aimed at providing vocational education for at-risk minorities, and as a hands-on administrator he found himself on some occasions in a physical altercation with a disaffected student. In middle age, he and my mother once were parking their car on a visit to San Francisco when they were suddenly surrounded by several African-American teens. When confronted with their demands, he offered to give the thieves all his cash if they would leave him and my mother alone. Thankfully they took his cash and left.
I think that experience — and others — is why he once advised me, “When you go to San Francisco, be careful if a group of black youths approaches you.” Note what he did not say to me. He did not employ language like “typical black person.” He did not advise extra caution about black women, the elderly, or the very young — or about young Asian Punjabi, or Native American males. In other words, the advice was not about race per se, but instead about the tendency of males of one particular age and race to commit an inordinate amount of violent crime.
The normally insightful Ta Nehesi-Coates delivers an utterly failed analogy in response:
Let us be direct -- in any other context we would automatically recognize this "talk" as stupid advice. If I were to tell you that I only employ Asian-Americans to do my taxes because "Asian-Americans do better on the Math SAT," you would not simply question my sensitivity, but my mental faculties. That is because you would understand that in making an individual decision, employing an ancestral class of millions is not very intelligent. Moreover, were I to tell you I wanted my son to marry a Jewish woman because "Jews are really successful," you would understand that statement for the stupidity which it is.
It would not be acceptable for me to make such suggestions (to say nothing of policy) in an enlightened society -- not simply because they are "impolite" but because they betray a rote, incurious and addled intellect. There is no difference between my argument above and the notion that black boys should be avoided because they are overrepresented in the violent crime stats. But one of the effects of racism is its tendency to justify stupidity.
No difference between a hiring decision, a marriage decisioon and a decision to avoid certain groups congregated on the street? TNC actually notes the key difference himself a bit further on in his post:
My point is that parents who regularly have to cope with violent crime understand the advantages of good, solid intelligence.
Knowledge is good. No kidding. And in choosing to hire an accountant all sorts of relevant intelligence can be gleaned during the interview process. Similarly, one has an opportunity to learn a bit about a prospective spouse during the dating process. But how does that analogy apply in the context of walking down the street in an unfamiliar city, as described by VDH? Unless TNC routinely passes down streets where the locals are handing out resumes, I suspect his experience is that, in a strange city, he has essentially no intelligence at all about the specific qualities of a group of young locals hanging on the next corner.
And yet he has to make choices, as do we all. Matt Yglesias offers an interesting 'What're the odds?' perspective:
Trolling the universe this morning, Richard Cohen wrote a column arguing that it wasn't racist of George Zimmerman to suspect Trayvon Martin of being a criminal because everyone knows that a disproportionate share of violent crimes are in fact committed by young black men.
I think what Cohen really means to be arguing isn't so much that neither he nor Zimmerman are racists, but that racism is the correct social and political posture. That white people have good reason to fear black men, and that therefore all black men should be put in a subordinate position. But as a logical argument, Cohen here is falling afoul of very poor statistical inference. For example, the vast majority of newspaper op-ed columnists in America are white men just like Richard Cohen. But that doesn't mean it's reasonable to see a white man walking down the street and assume he's a newspaper columnist. If you look specifically at Jewish men, you'll see the stereotype that we are disproportionately represented in the field of political commentary is absolutely accurate. And yet it is still not reasonable to assume that some randomly selected Jewish man is a professional political writer. Even right here on the mean streets of Washington, D.C.—a city that's legendary for its high rate of punditry—a clear majority of Jewish men are not pundits. It's just a very rare occupation.
By the same token, the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street and begin treating them like criminals.
That is interesting in terms of police behavior and 'stop and frisk' but not really helpful to private citizens trying to walk home safely. However, if the statistical point is that lightning rarely strikes, then what, one wonders, is the Yglesias position on buckling one's seat belt? In forty years of driving I've never needed one, yet I buckle up anyway.
One also wonders whether risk and return enter into a Yglesian calculation. Passing up a potentially great accountant or marriage partner on the basis of pre-suppositions that could be tested against available evidence carries a personal cost, so 'stupid' is an appropriate word to describe that. But the cost of crossing the street to avoid possible street thugs is what - a lost opportunity to shake the hands of strangers and advance race relations? The cost of locking one's car doors if a stranger approaches is what - a failed opportunity to make a life-long friend?
This is tricky - we are balancing the high probability of giving a small offense to the kids on the corner or the approaching stranger versus the small probability of avoiding a beatdown. Their annoyance, my pain. Hmm - is it OK to lock the car doors if the "click" is inaudible?
Rod Dreher is quite thoughtful on this:
How does this play out in real life? When I lived in DC back in the 1990s, if I was walking back to my apartment on Capitol Hill after dark — the Hill was not nearly as safe then as it is now — I would cross the street if I saw young black men dressed like street thugs coming at me. Those men could have been fine upstanding Christian gentlemen, but I wasn’t willing to take that chance. Had I passed them at high noon, I wouldn’t have given them a second thought. But at night, in that neighborhood, with them wearing those clothes, I made a choice. Had they been black men in office wear, I wouldn’t have given them a second look. The fact is, they fit the visual and demographic profile of the overwhelming majority of street criminals in Washington, DC, in those days. Chances are every time I did that, I was making an inaccurate negative judgment of those teenagers. But you know, given what was going on in DC at the time — e.g., a friend and co-worker was made to lie face down with his girlfriend in front of their Capitol Hill house while a black male thug held a pistol to their heads as he robbed them — I was willing to accept the risk of having committed thoughtcrime.
If a teenage white male chose to cut his hair and present himself like a skinhead on the streets of a city in which there had been lots of skinhead attacks on minorities, would you really say that a black, Hispanic, Asian or Jew would be wrong to cross the street at night when he saw white guys who fit the visual and demographic profile of skinheads coming? I wouldn’t.
If buckling a seat belt is a good idea even though the risk of an accident is low, why is crossing the street to avoid a group of street youths a bad idea?
A lot of the reaction to the VDH 'Talk' is nitpicking. For example, here is Andrew Sullivan:
Treating random strangers as inherently dangerous because of their age, gender and skin color is a choice to champion fear over reason, a decision to embrace easy racism over any attempt to overcome it.
It’s also spectacularly stupid.
I can fully understand and appreciate TNC’s incandescent, yet reasoned, rage at the piece. Do yourself a favor and read it in full. But Ta-Nehisi’s core point is that making such blanket warnings about an entire group of human beings is just dumb if you actually care about the safety of your kids. It puts the race/gender/age category before all other obvious contexts: neighborhood, street, school, college, inner city, distant suburb, daytime, night, crowded places, dark streets, and the actual observed behavior of the young black man.
Maybe I am just a far more sophisticated reader than Mr. Sullivan can imagine, but when VDH wrote "When you go to San Francisco, be careful if a group of black youths approaches you.” I was able to infer that we were not talking about a group of young men inside a busy office building, an art exhibit or a college library. Since the topic was street crime in unfamiliar cities ("When you go to San Francisco" was a helpful clue), I managed to make the leap to inferring that VDH was operating in the context of unfamiliar streets in unfamiliar cities.
But let me propose a different puzzle. We are back in college and it is the first day of science lab in the big course that will be critical for graduate school and professional prospects. Our test subject, Johnny, walks into the classroom and sees five empty seats; whoever he sits next to will be his lab partner for the semester, with significant likely impact on his final grade. High stakes!
Seat A is next to a large, athletic-looking no-neck white guy in the back of the room. Johhny knows the school's football team has a lot of sway in the admission process and a lot of the jocks are a lot more impressive on the field than in the classroom.
Seat B is adjacent to a petite Asian girl. (Does your answer change if it is an Asian guy?)
Seat C is next to a young Thurston Howell III look-alike (or a young John Kerry). Legacies do get a preferential admission atr this school.
Seat D is next to a generic white bread male.
Seat E is next to a conventionally dressed black male. And since you ask, this school has preferential admissions based on race diversity.
Johnny (who is a boring white guy like me) has ten seconds to choose. What partner gives him the best chance of a good grade this semester?
YOUNGER AND WISER: Here is Andrew Sullivan on hate crimes, from 1999:
"What's So Bad about Hate"
Human beings generalize all the time, ahead of time, about everyone and everything. A large part of it may even be hard-wired. At some point in our evolution, being able to know beforehand who was friend or foe was not merely a matter of philosophical reflection. It was a matter of survival. And even today it seems impossible to feel a loyalty without also feeling a disloyalty, a sense of belonging without an equal sense of unbelonging. We're social beings. We associate. Therefore we disassociate. And although it would be comforting to think that the one could happen without the other, we know in reality that it doesn't. How many patriots are there who have never felt a twinge of xenophobia?
This comes close to endorsing deplorable racism. But no worries - he quickly veers off into nonsense:
Of course by hate, we mean something graver and darker than this kind of lazy prejudice. But the closer you look at this distinction, the fuzzier it gets. Much of the time, we harbor little or no malice toward people of other backgrounds or places or ethnicities or ways of life. But then a car cuts you off at an intersection and you find yourself noticing immediately that the driver is a woman, or black, or old, or fat, or white, or male. Or you are walking down a city street at night and hear footsteps quickening behind you. You look around and see that it is a white woman and not a black man, and you are instantly relieved. These impulses are so spontaneous they are almost involuntary. But where did they come from? The mindless need to be mad at someone -- anyone -- or the unconscious eruption of a darker prejudice festering within?
I deplore these false choices - hands up if you feel equally threatened by a woman and a man. I don't see any hands...
But just for myself, if I am not going to be offered any other clues about the setting, I would feel more threatened by a black man than a white man (and a white woman not at all). That is based purely on crime statistics and not some sense of racial superiority; if dress clues suggested it was a black doctor or a white Hells Angel, I would switch my pick. As to what I would do differently based on that subtle risk analysis, well, not much - I wouldn't duck, roll and lay down covering fire just becasue a black guy was on the sidewalk behind me, if that is what you are worried about.
If you disagree, take it up with Jesse Jackson.
AND WHO ARE THE MULTICULTURALISTS RESPECTING DIVERSITY NOW? From NK in the comments:
And that's what any thinking person does in public places when the only information you have is the behavior adopted by people who are strangers to you. In fact, it is cultural arrogance to think that somene you don't know thinks and behaves just as you do. Simply not true in our vast diverse society.
And staying away from certian neighborhoods? OMG! From jim: