Supporters of stop-and-frisk policies love to toss around statistics about race and crime. Whether they know it or not, they’re simply lying with numbers.
Last week actor and progressive activist Kal Penn touched off a social media firestorm when he tweeted his support for New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy:
@CWmsWrites lol well already been a victim of violent crime. It's a sound policy and we need to stop trying to get rid of it
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— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) August 13, 2013
When challenged on the racial profiling implicit in that policy, Penn offered a familiar defense:
@BridgetMarie it angers us all but the stats don't lie. We need to do better to uplift our urban & rural communities.
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) August 13, 2013
He then tried to defend himself in an article at the Huffington Post, arguing in part that Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it hard to discuss complex issues like stop-and-frisk:
I think the entire context of my tweets was lost – probably because I tried to make some snarky cynical banter in a tweet about “activist judges.” (That was meant as a jokey way of using words that we usually see on far-right news networks but was received about as well as my role in The Mask 2.) My original point was a conversation piece. As people of color is this effective? Does it have merit? How do we make our own communities of color safer (since we are collectively more often victims of crime)? It was a mistake to try to casually engage in 140 characters with folks who I thought understood my background and beliefs; instead, folks misunderstood this as a strong advocation of something entirely different. I feel terrible about that and am sorry.
After four days of conversations, public and private, Penn admitted he was wrong:
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) August 17, 2013
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”
Although often misattributed with aphorisms that he never uttered, Mark Twain did write that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
The statistics commonly cited in support of stop-and-frisk and other racial profiling practices are a classic case of lying with numbers, as Salon‘s Brian Beutler explained yesterday in a brilliant article about the mugging that nearly killed him:
About half a block up Euclid, Matt and I encountered two young men – both black, both wearing hoodies, characters culled from Richard Cohen’s sweatiest nightmares. They wanted our phones, which we were cleverly holding in front of our faces as we walked.
We declined, gently under the circumstances. I worried we might end up in a fight. Maybe one of them had a knife, or a larger group of friends around the corner. I know I would’ve surrendered my phone eventually, but not before suggesting they go hassle someone else. Maybe they’d figure we weren’t worth the trouble.
They didn’t oblige. The kid opposite Matt drew a small, shiny object from wherever he’d been concealing it and passed it to his accomplice, who was standing opposite me. A second or two lapsed – long enough for me to recognize they weren’t joking, but not long enough for me to beg – before it discharged clap clap clap; my body torqued into the air horizontally, like I’d been blindsided by a linebacker, and I fell to the ground.
Beutler was shot three times, in the shoulder, chest, and abdomen. The chest wound punctured a lung and barely missed his aorta and spine. The abdominal wound bruised a kidney and ruptured his spleen.
Yet he was determined not to let that horrific incident define his view of race, as he writes in response to Penn’s tweet:
Penn got in trouble for touting the supposed merits of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. To the objection that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, he responded, “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”
But that’s a non sequitur. A false rationale. Take people’s fear out of the equation and the logical artifice collapses. Canadians are highly overrepresented in the field of professional ice hockey, but it would be ridiculous for anyone to walk around Alberta presumptively asking strangers on the street for autographs. When you treat everyone as a suspect, you get a lot of false positives. That’s why above and beyond the obvious injustice of it, stop and frisk isn’t wise policy. Minorities might commit most of the crime in U.S. cities, and be the likeliest victims of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of causes that should be addressed in a lot of ways. But crime is pretty rare. Not rare like being a professional hockey player is rare. But rare. Most people, white or minority, don’t do it at all.
“No, I don’t play basketball. Do you play miniature golf?”
Beutler’s Canadians=hockey metaphor reminded me of a tall, black stand-up comic. He began his act with the joke “No, I don’t play basketball. Do you play miniature golf?”
I can’t remember the comic’s name, but a Google search turned up this thought-provoking article at Love Isn’t Enough by Liz Dwyer:
My seven year-old son is very tall for his age. He’s been in the 90th percentile for height his whole life. He’s also African-American. It seems like in our country, Black + Tall + Male = having to constantly hear, “You better put him in basketball! He could be the next Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan.”
Yes, if you’re a tall, African-American boy, you are destined to be a basketball player.
She goes on to relate her son’s interest in soccer, and his first time playing on a youth basketball team:
When the soccer season came to a close, it only seemed natural to move my son on to the next sport, basketball. He was assigned to a team and it quickly became clear that he was the tallest kid on it. He was also the only black child in the entire division. I can’t begin to tell you how excited his coach was. “Come on over here! You’re going to be our rock star.”
I was immediately irritated. I found myself sitting in the bleachers, watching the first practice and thinking, “That coach only said my son’s a rock star because he thinks that since my boy’s black, he knows how to play.” The truth of the matter was that up till then, my son had only played basketball a couple of times. My husband never played competitive sports so it doesn’t come natural to him to toss a basketball or football around every day. I was a cheerleader, not a basketball player, and quite frankly, his learning to read above grade level has been our top priority, not sports.
The very first game of the season, my son scored three baskets and led his team to victory. Afterwards, the coach gushed about my son, saying, “He’s really got some natural talent there.”
I wanted to ask, “What do you mean ‘natural talent’?” but before I knew it, the coach was talking to another parent.
Dwyer later wonders if she was reading too much into such comments:
This year we were out of town and so we missed soccer registration, but back at the beginning of August, the guy working in the recreation center office made sure to mention that basketball registration would be happening in November.
Again, I found myself wondering, am I only being told this because the guy behind the desk figures a black kid will like basketball more, or does he genuinely not want my son to miss out?
It made me realize that this is one of the most insidious things about racism: It takes a psychological toll on you since you constantly have to turn this stuff over in your head. The vigilance it requires to be sure my son is not being treated in a prejudicial manner gets exhausting. I don’t like having to wonder whether something I’m told or the way my boy is treated is a symptom of either conscious or subconscious racism.
Come to think of it, one of the reasons I like my son’s pediatrician so much is that after checking my son’s vision, the doctor said to him that he has such perfect eyesight that he could be an airline pilot. The doctor never says, “Wow, you’re tall! You should be a ball player!” I wish no one else did either.
“Everyone who’s ever shot me was black and wearing a hoodie”
It’s true that most NBA players are tall, black males. But there are millions of tall, black males in the world, and there are only 450 players on NBA team rosters. Yes, there are other tall, black males who play basketball in youth leagues, high school, college, other professional and semi-professional leagues, and casually on local gyms and playgrounds. Even so, the number of tall, black males is many times greater than the number of total number of male basketball players. In a population of 330 million, only 26 million Americans play basketball.
To guess that a given person must (or should) play basketball because he’s a tall, black male is to fall for what statisticians call the base rate fallacy. Simply, over 90% of Americans do not play basketball. Even if you assume tall, black males are twice as likely to play basketball as most Americans, the likelihood that any given tall, black male does play basketball is … less than 20%.
The same is true for crime. Yes, 73% of the suspects arrested for crimes in New York City in 2012 were people of color, but statistics from Washington D.C. show that the vast majority of young blacks have never committed a crime. Brian Beutler sums that up brilliantly in his conclusion:
That’s what I remembered when I began my recovery five years ago. In the preceding 25 years, I’d crossed paths with thousands and thousands of black people (including, obviously, those who became friends). Over the same stretch I’d also crossed paths with thousands and thousands of people wearing hoodies (there was surely some overlap). I got very, very unlucky one time. Adding it all up, I figured my odds of avoiding a repeat of that night are pretty good.
Everyone who’s ever shot me was black and wearing a hoodie. There just aren’t any reasonable inferences to draw from that fact.
To assume that every black person is a criminal – as New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy does – is to commit the base rate fallacy: lying with numbers.