What ever happened to racial profiling?

I’m going to speak this afternoon to my high school alma mater’s legal history class on the subject of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A few years back I had a personal encounter with the guy who helped create the firestorm over alleged racial profiling in traffic stops. It was an experience I will revisit briefly in class this afternoon with a citation to this post.

Heather Mac Donald has done her best to illuminate the facts underlying the racial profiling controversy. See, for example, her National Review article “Reporting while wrong.” The article’s subhead is “The New York Times peddles more ‘driving while black’ malarkey.” As might be deduced from the article’s title, Mac Donald explores the New York Times‘s abuse of the relevant data. This is a beat that Mac Donald covered in her book Are Cops Racist? and that Mac Donald has simply owned as a journalist.

Mac Donald’s NR article begins with an exposition of the key role played by University of Toledo Law School Professor David Harris in promulgating the myth of racial profiling. Harris served as the intellectual guru of the racial profiling campaign waged by the ACLU. As an ACLU consultant, he wrote wrote the influential pamphlet Driving While Black to which Mac Donald referred at the top of her article; the racial profiling litigation that brought the issue of alleged racial profiling in traffic stops to national attention in 2000 was a project of the ACLU.

Mac Donald also notes that Harris expanded his pamphlet into the 2002 book Profiles in Injustice. I read the book when, thanks to ACLU-Minnesota executive director Chuck Samuelson, I was invited to debate Harris in early 2002 on his visit to the Twin Cities to promote the book. I’m not easily shocked, but I was shocked by the misrepresentations and omissions in Harris’s book. It is easily one of the worst books I have ever read.

Harris argues that crime rates are equal among racial groups and that racial disparities in the criminal justice system are therefore a function of bias. He discounts the basic data regarding racial disparities in crime rates, omits any reference to the basic data regarding the racial identification of perpetrators by victims, and dispenses with the related criminological scholarship of the past 30 years or so.

I wrote an article on the subject for the January/February 2003 issue of the American Enterprise that ran with an excerpt from Harris’s book. The article — “Better Unsafe than (Occasionally) Sorry?” — remains available via the Claremont Institute even though the magazine has ceased publication. Harris subsequently wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine:

The personal attack on me in Scott Johnson’s article contains inaccuracies, distortions, as well as a breathtaking slander: that I am responsible for the success of the September 11 attacks. All of this from a writer who never even bothered to talk to me, which could have at least saved him from making many of the errors in the piece.

Although Harris accused me of not talking to him before writing the article, I have an autographed copy of his book that refutes him. He signed it as we ate lunch together preceding his talk to a huge conference of high school teachers in Bloomington, Minnesota. I responded to Professor Harris’s letter to the editor:

The article is not a personal attack on Professor Harris; it is fair comment on his book. I am not aware of any factual errors and he does not cite any. Harris also does not mention the excerpt from his book that accompanies the piece; it allows him to speak in his own words. In any case, the suggestion that I should have talked to him before critiquing his book lacks a basis in any journalistic practice.

Besides, on March 7, 2002, I attended two presentations by Harris in the Twin Cities. After the first of his talks I commented as a panelist. Following the second presentation [at Macalester College], I debated him. I regret Professor Harris has taken offense, but he is a voluntary participant in a serious debate and can expect his controversial claims to be engaged and [challenged]. . . .

I should have added that I never said he was responsible for the September 11 attacks, but come on. That’s a David Harris specialty — it’s ridiculous. I was attacking Harris’s book, not him personally, although the book does not reflect well on him personally. The gist of my American Enterprise article was akin to that of Mac Donald’s National Review piece — the alleged phenomenon of racial profiling condemned by advocates like Harris and demagogic politicians like [fill in the blank] generally does not exist.

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