Deep secrets of racial profiling (2)

A few years back I had a close encounter with the guy who helped create the firestorm over alleged racial profiling in traffic stops. It came as the result of an invitation extended to me in 2002 by Minnesota Civil Liberties Union executive director Chuck Samuelson to debate the guy. The MCLU is the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

For a long time the ACLU has constituted itself as one front of the left-wing hive’s assault on law enforcement in the name of racial disparities. John wrote about its recent study of low-level offenses in Minneapolis here; the recent ACLU study is here. The debate prompted me to read the guy’s book and write about it in a piece I’m posting below following a few more prefatory comments.

Heather Mac Donald has done her (formidable) best to illuminate the facts underlying the racial profiling/traffic stops 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 peddling the racial profiling party line. 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 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 I found in Harris’s book. It is easily one of the worst books I have ever read.

I should add that Chuck Samuelson seems to me an old-fashioned kind of liberal who believes in the virtues of discussion and debate on contentious topics. Chuck was entirely responsible for my encounters with Harris even though I doubt that he agreed with anything I had to say.

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 AEI’s American Enterprise magazine that ran with a brief excerpt of Harris’s book. The article — “Better Unsafe than (Occasionally) Sorry?” — remains available via AEI’s online archive even though the magazine has been interred and transformed into The American. I’m pasting in a copy of the article below the break. Rereading it, I remember it was heavily rewritten by American Enterprise editor Karl Zinsmeister. Following the article is the exchange of letters I had about it in the American Enterprise‘s pages with Professor Harris. This is more or less the way things looked to me in 2003:

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David Harris is the University of Toledo law professor who provided much of the intellectual heft behind the war on racial profiling. His 1999 report for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed most of the anti-profiling law suits, was entitled “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on the Nation’s Highways.” In 2002 he expanded his argument into a book.

The national ruckus Harris helped stir up has, among other results, made it hard for security personnel to use intelligent profiles to uncover potential terrorists in airports, at our national borders, and at visa offices abroad. That is a mistake that has already come to haunt the U.S. horribly [here I referred to a sidebar quotation from the book]. And so long as anti-profiling crusaders prevent law enforcement officials from carefully applying profiling tools, Americans will continue to be needlessly exposed to potential re-runs of September 11.

Harris and his compatriots are clever enough to present themselves as friends of law enforcement, who are just trying to help the police do a better job. Harris himself purports to object to racial profiling mostly because it’s “ineffective.” But the reality is that he has launched a broad and misguided attack on America’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Like most of the activists who have turned the campaign against racial profiling into a crusade, Harris practices a shoddy form of racial politics with which we have become all too familiar.

The thesis at the heart of the anti-profiling complaint—that racial disparities in crime rates and arrests reflect racially biased policing—is torn to shreds by basic criminological data. David Harris argues that crime rates are equal among racial groups, and arrests, convictions, and incarcerations are unequal simply because police, prosecutors, and courts systematically pick on minorities because of the color of their skin. The logic of his argument ends in a demand for justice by racial quota.

The contention that crime is committed at equal rates by members of various ethnic groups is the central premise of the ACLU’s anti-profiling argument. If that premise is false, their argument fails. And the stakes are high. The issue of alleged ethnic discrimination by police has taken on a heightened importance amidst the war on terrorism. Many of the profiling issues that began as farce over traffic enforcement stops are now replaying themselves in the war on terror as potential tragedies.

Contrary to the view of the world propounded by David Harris and the ACLU, racial disparities in law enforcement generally reflect racial disparities in crime rates. It is true that racial disparities exist at many stages of our criminal justice system. Blacks have been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated at rates far exceeding those of whites for as long as official data on the subject have been compiled. Middle Eastern Arabs have been disproportionately associated with air terrorism for more than a generation.

These disparities have been studied for evidence of systematic discrimination, and it is now widely accepted among serious scholars, such as Professor Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota Law School, that higher levels of arrests and incarceration in the U.S. by ethnicity result substantially from higher levels of crime, not racial bias. Sometimes the magnitude of the racial disparities in crime rates is huge. The black murder rate is seven to ten times the white murder rate.

Harris claims that disparities in arrest and incarceration rates are a function of systemic law enforcement bias. Finding that the best national data do not agree, he arbitrarily declares the data wrong: Citing statistics from the National Crime Victimization Survey, he correctly states that more than 50 percent of violent crimes are unreported. Harris then absurdly implies that it is among these unreported crimes that the otherwise undetected white criminals are hiding.

Harris’s argument on this basic point does not reflect well on his methods. He makes such claims not only against cops, but against all parts of our justice system. According to him, “Just as with arrest statistics, incarceration rates measure not crime but the activity of people and institutions responsible for determining criminal sentences.” In other words: Judges are racists too, just trust me.

Harris implies that if law enforcers just weren’t so darn fixated on Arabs, blacks, and other minority groups, officials would discover that comparable levels of crime and terrorism are committed by whites, and just left unpunished. But we have statistics on the race of perpetrators as identified by the victims of unreported crimes. And guess what? They closely track the racial identity of perpetrators in reported crimes. Harris omits this inconvenient fact brought to light by the National Crime Victimization Survey, even though he relies on that same survey to build other parts of his argument.

The anti-profilers’ campaign against law enforcement is particularly bizarre and perverse given that minorities are vastly more likely to be victims of crimes. What kind of “civil rights campaign” prevents the police from incapacitating criminals who prey on minority groups? If police flinch from law enforcement for fear of generating bad arrest data that will label them racist, the great harm that follows will fall disproportionately on law-abiding residents of lower-income neighborhoods.

The controversy over “racial profiling” originated in data regarding traffic stops and airport searches that disproportionately affect blacks and ethnic minorities. In his book, Harris traces profiling back to Operation Pipeline, the 1986 Drug Enforcement Administration effort to enlist highway police in interdicting illegal drugs as they are transported by distributors on the nation’s highways. Harris’s argument that Operation Pipeline resulted in unfair racial profiling by highway patrollers in New Jersey, Maryland, and elsewhere is predicated on studies that falsely assume there are no ethnic differences in driving behavior, and that all ethnicities violate traffic laws at the same high rate. It is also based on the assertion that drug violations are roughly equal across groups.

But a definitive study commissioned by the New Jersey attorney general and designed by the Public Service Research Institute of Maryland found that on the New Jersey Turnpike blacks speed twice as much as white drivers—and are actually stopped less than their speeding behavior would predict. (The study was released after Harris’s book had been published.) Elsewhere, Harris conflates statistics on drug use among racial groups (roughly equal) with statistics on drug distribution (as far as we can tell, not close to equal). It is drug distributors that highway patrol officers are seeking out, not drug users.

Several of the studies used by profiling opponents to indict police show nearly equal “hit” rates between whites and blacks despite the fact that blacks were searched at higher rates. (Hit rates are the rates at which searches result in the discovery of contraband.) In Maryland, “73 percent of those stopped and searched on a section of Interstate 95 were black, yet state police reported that equal percentages of the whites and blacks who were searched had drugs or other contraband,” groused the New York Times. “Studies have shown that being black substantially raises the odds of a person being stopped and searched by the police—even though blacks who are stopped are no more likely than whites to be carrying drugs,” complained the New Republic last year. What these statistically misleading statements overlook is that if the hit rates are about equal, there is no discrimination. It appears the police are focusing on legitimately suspicious behavior, and not simply picking on people by ethnicity.

The war on racial profiling has obscured two important facts: Racial profiling does not exist where the ACLU has persuaded everyone it does, such as on the nation’s highways and streets. And it does not exist where it should, in the nation’s airports and airlines.

Unfortunately, the facts have yet to catch up with the myths promoted by opponents of criminal profiling. Many Americans—including many of our leaders in politics and law enforcement —continue to treat profiling as illegitimate, as if it were disproved and discredited. That is the product of a political campaign, not of scholarly research. And it is a policy which leaves innocent Americans far more exposed to danger than they ought to be.

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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.

FOOTNOTE: See also my Power Line post “A racial profiling footnote,” quoting Heather Mac Donald’s 2002 New York Post column on the New Jersey traffic stops study, and Mac Donald’s Spring 2002 City Journal article “The racial profiling myth debunked.”