An “unexpected” Ferguson effect that was entirely predictable

We have discussed from time to time Jim Scanlan’s insight that reducing an adverse outcome tends to increase relative racial differences in rates of experiencing the outcome. Thus, for example, if one lowers the passing score for an employment test because that test is disqualifying minority applicants at a disproportionate rate, more minority applicants will pass the test but the test will disqualify members of this group at an even more disproportionate rate.

The same dynamic applies outside of the testing and employment contexts. If members of a particular group have a disproportionate amount of difficulty meeting a standard, it’s very likely that members of that group will be even more disproportionately clustered at the low end of those who don’t meet it.

In this article, Jim applies his insight to the Justice Department’s complaint against Ferguson, Missouri. He writes:

[C]ontrary to the premise of the complaint in the case (and myriad other DOJ actions) that generally reducing adverse criminal justice outcomes will tend to reduce (a) relative racial differences in rates of experiencing the outcomes and (b) the proportion blacks make up of persons experiencing the outcomes, in fact generally reducing the outcomes tends to increase (a) and (b).

One practice of the City of Ferguson that the Justice Department identified was the city’s heavy reliance on traffic and court fines for municipal revenue. The traffic stops that produced this revenue disproportionately affected American-Americans.

In response to the DOJ’s concerns, and concerns of the Missouri legislature over the same phenomenon, Ferguson significantly decreased the percentage of revenue it derives from traffic stops. Thus, the number of traffic stops has decreased significantly. As a result, as Jim predicted, blacks now make up an even larger percentage of those who are stopped:

An August 7, 2019 New York Magazine article titled “5 Years After Ferguson, Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops Have Gotten Worse” reported that, while traffic stop revenues had been dramatically reduced in recent years, measures of racial disparity that are functions of the proportion blacks make up of persons stopped had increased in Missouri and are especially large in Ferguson.

Instead of being happy that fewer blacks are being fined, civil rights groups are outraged that the disparate impact of the traffic fine process has increased. This, despite the reality that their demand for fewer stops and fines was always likely to produce this outcome.

Thus, municipalities like Ferguson face the worst of all worlds in this regard — less revenue, more disparate impact, and more discontent.

Most of the time, the only way to end the disparate impact of any standard or practice that has one is to eliminate the standard or practice, or to establish two standards or practices — one for whites and one for the relevant minority group[s].

I suspect that certain civil rights groups and certain government lawyers favor one or the other of these methods. It’s a key element of the war on standards.

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