Sunday, August 08, 2010

On profiling

This is a perfect example of an idiotic meme about profiling.

Walter E. Williams starts off talking about how doctors use race and sex in determining health questions to ask and tests to order. Then he discusses how that's not "profiling" and the pulls this "gem" out of ... uh, the air.

There is no sense of justice or decency that a law-abiding black person should suffer the indignity being passed up. At the same time, a taxicab driver has a right to earn a living without being robbed, assaulted and possibly murdered. One of the methods to avoid victimization is to refuse to pick up certain passengers in certain neighborhoods or passengers thought to be destined for certain neighborhoods. Again, a black person is justifiably angered when refused service but that anger should be directed toward the criminals who prey on cabbies.

There's a lot that's wrong with this article. But let's look at the first thing first. What is "profiling"?

Profiling is the idea that criminals often follow set patterns. And when it is attacked, it is attacked when people who follow those patterns are targeted for attention by the police, not because they've done something wrong, but because they fit the profile.

Profiling was used as an excuse to make a stop, and then search for evidence of unlawful activity. It's a violation of the Fourth Amendment - we have the right to be left-the-hell-alone by the police unless there's a valid reason to bother us.

A lot of people (like Mr. Williams) whine about profiling as if it refers to never using patterns, and never thinking about statistics, because they haven't bothered to educate themselves about it. (Or, possibly, because they know what it is, but feel that it's useful to do some liberal bashing by pretending it's something it's not. And if Mr. Williams dislikes being thought of as potentially dishonest, he should only be angry at the Limbaughs, Becks, Coulters, and Breitbarts of the world, not at the cabbies - er, bloggers - who feel they've been burned too often to be trusting.)

But there's more to it than that. People who choose to engage in prejudicial behavior (refusing to stop for black people when driving a cab) *are* engaging in racist behavior.

Those who refuse to stop for a particular subset of black people - people who look like troublemakers, for whatever reason - aren't being racist. They are possibly prejudiced - it depends on how well-tuned their "looks like a troublemaker" sense is. I'm sure there are cab drivers who've been driving for years, who'll pick up someone who looks to most folks like a dangerous gang member, making a stop at the candy store so our "dangerous gang member" can distribute some sweets while visiting the local orphanage. And similarly, perhaps our hypothetical veteran driver will pass up a gentleman by the name of Macheath wearing such nice, white gloves without a trace of red....

The point is, there's nothing wrong with a cabbie getting scared of a fare, and deciding to take a pass, but there is something wrong with a cabbie making that decision based upon something innocuous, like skin color. To place that blame solely upon criminals is to ignore the cabbie's agency. We all get to make choices, including the choice to face our fears and determine how realistic they are, and modify them.

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