MISSOURI: WINNING THE WAR AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2008 by Ed

I am overt about the fact that I have negative opinions about law enforcement in general and specifically regarding the War on Drugs, which is a very poorly disguised War on Dark People We Don't Want In Our Neighborhoods. Racial profiling, especially with respect to traffic stops and vehicle searches, is a politically contentious issue for a good reason. Like many Americans, I was raised to believe that there are lots of black people in jail because black people commit more crimes. That amounts to little more than a very convenient effort to explain away the staggering racial disparities at every step in the process from "License and registration, please" to incarceration.

The Missouri Attorney General has a statutory obligation (since 2000) to produce an annual report on potential racial profiling by the state's various law enforcement agencies. Missouri deserves some credit for being forthright enough to track, report, and publicly discuss this phenomenon, which is more than most states are willing to do. As a society we tend to look for any excuse to avoid confronting the 900-pound racial elephant in the room.

If Missouri is an indication, there is a very goddamn good reason that state and local governments prefer to avoid the subject. In these summary statistics, pay particular attention to the "Disparity Index" (% of total stops / % of total statewide population):

Hispanic drivers are stopped at approximately the "right" rate – that is, they are about 2.25% of the population and 2.25% of the stops. Black drivers, on the other hand, constitute about 11% of the population and nearly 17% of the stops, whereas white drivers are 84% of the population and just over 79% of the stops. While it is not logical to expect perfect correlation (i.e. the occurence of violations meriting a stop are distributed equally among all racial groups) other statistics do more to illustrate the problem.

White drivers are subject to vehicle searches in less than 8% of stops while black drivers are searched 12% of the time (hispanic drivers, at 15%, are almost twice as likely to be searched). That could make sense if the contraband hit rates were consistent, i.e. police search black drivers more but find contraband as often as other drivers. Unfortunately, the numbers show the "hit" rate is highest for white people, meaning that if statistics were to be used to support an argument for racial profiling, it would be that white drivers should be searched more often. Cops are less likely to search whitey but more likely to find evidence of a crime when they do. Funny, right?

There are simply too many factors involved to expect perfect correlation between law enforcement and population demographics. That blacks are 11% of the population does not mean that exactly 11% of traffic offenses will be committed by black drivers. There is a big difference, though, between expecting perfect correlation and finding lopsided statistical inequality. Much like Illinois was unable to explain why whites are significantly more likely to get written warnings while minorities get citations, Missouri's Attorney General concludes by offering no explanation for the disparities. The report is a very diplomatic effort to point out the obvious facts – Missouri cops pull over, search, and arrest black drivers at rates far in excess of white drivers – while simultaneously being pressured to avoid the obvious conclusion. Sure, I suppose it's possible that black and hispanic drivers just commit more crimes (suspend comprehension of the silly contraband hit rate for a second) but, just as it is "possible" that the moon landing was filmed on a sound stage, the available evidence favors much more plausible explanations.

(h/t Matthew)

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