Illinois Governor Blagojevich and the Fallacy of Racial Disparity
July 10, 2005

According to a July 1, 2005 press release from the State of Illinois, Governor Blagojevich will take measures to "eliminate racial disparities in traffic stops." Blagojevish's position rests on a common fallacy that mere disparity implies wrongful discrimination. If there is "disparity" in conduct or behavior, one might expect "disparity" in law enforcement.

The absurdities in the press release begin in its first paragraph:

The study . . . found that minorities are more likely to be pulled over than whites for a traffic stop and two and a half times as likely to have their car searched when pulled over.
Why would anyone care about how "minorities" are treated? That puts blacks, Mexicans, Japanese, Iranians and Pitcairn Islanders all in the same category. Wrongful discrimination, when it happens, is usually more specific: A prejudiced police officer might very well be less inclined to pull over a neatly dressed Chinese gentleman driving an expensive car than an identically behaving young black male in full gangsta regalia driving an '83 Pontiac. If police agencies in Illinois really are wrongfully discriminating against black people, then comparing minority pull-overs and searches to the percentage of "minorities" in the population would significantly underestimate the extent of that discrimination.

Other problems with the report are illustrated by this text from the fifth paragraph:

In Illinois we estimated the minority driving population to be about 28%, while the overall percentage of minorities pulled over was 33%.
As percentages, 28 and 33 are pretty close. Whenever I read about a statistical gap, I ask myself if it's really anything to worry about. For example, if 70% of the white people who show up at a night club are allowed to enter while only 10% of the black people who show up are allowed to enter, it is fair to conclude that, in all likelihood, the club is practicing racial discrimination. (Nightclubs should be allowed to discriminate, but that's another issue entirely.) On the other hand, if the numbers were 70 vs. 60, then I'd probably say, "Oh, well, maybe the black people who show up are somewhat less clued in on the dress code." Some of the arguments against affirmative action have that weakness. They might assert that an 80% graduation rate after five years for white students vs. a 70% rate for black students proves that affirmative action is a failure. Most of the outcome differences I've read about are greater than that, but when they are close, which they occasionally are, I don't think they are anything to worry about. Likewise, 28% of population vs. 33% pull-overs is NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT.

Here we have more silliness:

. . . in more than 47% of the agencies studied, the percentage of minorities pulled over was less than the estimated percentage of the minority driving population.
The number is completely meaningless. Suppose, for example, that there was a town in Illinois called Albaville which was all white and where the Police always pulled over any black person unfortunate enough to be driving through town, resulting in 25% of their pull-overs being of "minority" motorists. But that would be less than the 28% "estimated percentage of the minority driving population" in the state.

The statistical stupidity continues:

The study's most troubling finding is that minorities are more than two and a half times as likely overall to be the subject of a consent search. A consent search is one in which there is no other legal or procedural justification for the search. These searches are based on a request by the officer to search the vehicle and are highly discretionary. Less than 1% of whites pulled over were subjected to consent searches, while 2.27% of minorities pulled over were subjected to these searches.
First, if officers have "probable cause" to search your vehicle, they don't need your consent. If they ask for your consent, you don't have to give it. As to the 1% vs. 2.27% differences, maybe officers are more likely to have valid suspicions (short of probable cause) in the case of minority drivers than in the case of white ones. Or maybe minority drivers are less likely to know that search requests can be refused. Hard to say. But if percentages of searches resulting in the finding of evidence of criminal activity were close for white and minority searches, then where is the wrongful "discrimination?" But we are not told about search results, so we don't know.

Secondly, the fact that 2.27% is almost "two and a half times" 1% merely makes a small difference look like a big one. This and all the other comparisons in the press release are absurd because the press release itself states, "data specific to traffic stops by the Illinois State Police show equal treatment between whites and minorities in the areas of stops and citations." In other words, the differences that do show up, as far as the state police are concerned, are due to differences in behavior, not wrongful discrimination.

I think Governor Blagojevich is exactly like President Bush. No WMD, no 9-11 links, no threat to America. We went to war anyway. Similarly, the Illinois "racial profiling study," as far as I can tell from the press release, found absolutely no wrongful discrimination.

So why is such great attention given to small differences? I've said it before: At the end of every multicultural rainbow, there is a pot of gold. The "solution" to the non-problem involves "sensitivity training for police officers," the employment of a "team of national experts," and "a task force of community leaders," etc. Even if the problem isn't real, people are getting paid to solve it. Buddies of Blagojevich? Possibly. Or maybe we should call them the Halliburtons of Diversity.

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For further reading, you can start with an excellent, somewhat long article from the Spring, 2001 issue of City Journal: The Myth of Racial Profiling by Heather Mac Donald. Also see Exposing the 'Myth' of Racial Profiling by George F. Will, reposted on the Jesse Jackson, Jr. for Congress website. American Renaissance has a discussion thread based on the State of Illinois press release.

 
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