Posted by on January 12, 2015

I would like to talk today about one of the trickiest topics our society faces.  One that touches on a number of sensitive subjects, such as race and religion, and on the rights of individuals, groups and society.  But now is the right time to talk about it, since the recent events in Ferguson and Paris have brought it starkly into focus.

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I read a number of articles quoting statistics about the number of times that blacks were stopped for questioning by police versus their overall percentage of the population.   And the numbers were always grossly disproportionate.  The articles nearly always suggested that this was racially motivated harassment by a predominately white police force; the black community certainly perceived it to be this.

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I am predictably reading articles (including one in Bloomberg entitled “Terrorist Stigma Haunts France’s Marginalized Muslims”) containing quotes from French Muslims such as “(m)y friends say they are being looked on as if they were responsible for what happened” and “(t)he large majority are going about the lives peacefully, and just a few are causing problems.  It will be very unfortunate to put everybody in the same bag.”  Once again, a group is objecting to the attention being drawn to them by the actions of a small minority of malefactors and attributing this general attention to racism or religious animosity.

But this is not racism and this is not Islamophobia.   This is mathematics.

Young black males commit an amount of crime that is grossly disproportionate to their representation in the population (a casual search of the web quickly turns up a number of articles and research pieces on this subject; here is one example). And this is not just the “victimless” crimes that many would like to see abolished, such as the drug laws, but also many forms of violent crime.  Likewise, and here I cannot cite any scholarship but it is manifestly true, acts of terrorism in today’s world are much more likely to be committed by Muslims than by any other identifiable group.

Now, fair-minded people can disagree about the reasons for this disproportionate behaviour, but fair-minded individuals cannot disagree about the facts.  (Unless you subscribe to the opinion, for example, that black crime statistics reflect “racism” embedded in our law enforcement system.  If you do, then I suggest you read the research.  This theory has been tested and found wanting. You should also spend a little more time living in the real world.)  The question here is whether members of these groups can reasonably expect that the rest of society will ignore these facts in conducting their day-to-day lives.

Mankind lives under conditions of uncertainty and it always has: where is the hunter most likely to find the antelope to feed his family and tribe today; are the approaching strangers likely to trade with us to our mutual benefit or attack; which course of study is more likely to result in an interesting and rewarding career, anthropology or computer science?  Mankind’s intelligence has evolved to help us make these types of decisions, almost always on the basis of probabilistic information.  In fact, we are machines designed (in the evolutionary and not religious sense) for making decisions under conditions of uncertainty on the basis of probabilistic information.

So, when a white couple crosses the street to avoid an oncoming group of black youths, are they really being racist?   Can the black community really expect them to react otherwise, in defiance of all facts and rationality?  Can young blacks really expect to be stopped for questioning by police in the same proportion as other groups, when the likelihood of them committing a crime is much higher?  Likewise, can the Muslim community reasonably expect that they will not be “racially profiled” at airport security checks, when the probability of their committing an act of terrorism is vastly higher than, say, a non-Muslim family with small children?  In a world of limited resources, where not every mildly suspicious group of youths can (or should) be stopped for questioning or where not every traveller can be subjected to an individual security check, can we afford to ignore known probabilities when allocating these resources?

A related question: We routinely anguish over the correct relationship between society and groups such as blacks or Muslims, but what can society reasonably expect from the relationship between these groups and their aberrant members?   Bill Maher, the very left-wing comedian, recently caused controversy  by pointing out that, although Islamic terrorism is committed by a very small minority, it benefits from the support of a larger group.  At a minimum, society should expect that these groups do not encourage this type of anti-social behaviour, but should we expect more?  The simple fact is that the group is much better placed to influence, through peer pressure, education and, if necessary, denouncing, the criminal minority than is society at large.  If an identifiable group wishes to avoid a social stigma, then it has to acknowledge that no entity in society is better able to eliminate its basis than itself.

Frankly, I am not sure what the right policy response is to this problem.  It could be that officially sanctioned discrimination is such a slippery slope that it must be avoided, even at the cost of inefficiency.  Perhaps our current policy of polite hypocrisy is the best response, where rules against racial or ethnic profiling are more honoured in the breach than the observance.  But I do think that we can conclude that society has a right to expect greater responsibility from groups that harbour anti-social minorities than it is currently receiving.  And if a group fails to take this responsibility, then it can hardly complain when broader society takes protective measures that are discriminatory, but which are nonetheless based in fact and are proportionate.

Roger Barris, London


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Henri Alster
Roger, this manifestly makes sense and the Israeli Airport Security uses profiling as a matter of course when checking for bomb carriers, unlike the Brits and others that care more about not offending than being (cost-)effective. One can’t at the same time deny however that at least when it comes to Blacks in the US, their treatment once apprehended (“I can’t breathe” and many other examples), is often appalling. Maybe not racist but if the police is excessively brutal with all w/o discrimination, maybe they need to tone it down. It is not necessary. Small quibble, your key point is… Read more »