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)


Individuals who spend any appreciable amount of time around me understand that I love reasoning via analogy. It has many advantages as a rhetorical tactic: it is powerful when done well, easily communicated, and full of potential for sarcastic humor. I'm sold.

Making a valid analogy, however, involves more than simply comparing two things that share a common characteristic. Comparing me to Michael Jordan works on some level. We're both male. We're both residents of the Chicago area. We both play basketball on occasion. We're both over 6'3". Nonetheless, subbing His Airness in place of Ed in an analogy isn't even remotely appropriate – unless the point being made specifically deals with one of the (few) things we share in common. And even then it's probably going to be a hell of a stretch.

To far too many of our Very Serious Professional Commentators, finding one superficial similarity is enough to mash the gas pedal on the Analogymobile. Take, for example, Michael Medved on Obama's pastor. Yes, Howie Kurtz at CNN apparently thought Michael "Slavery Wasn't So Bad" Medved was the best person to offer thought-provoking commentary on this racially-charged subject.

(The) truth is that people responded indignantly to Reverend Wright not because he’s black. It’s not about race, it’s not because of the racial outlook of the church, which very specifically defines itself as an afrocentric church and emphasizes blackness, blackness, blackness.

They didn’t respond to it that way. If a white pastor had made the comments that Jeremiah Wright had made, people would have been equally indignant (emphasis added).

Let's ignore for the moment how laden with non sequiturs this is. He's reading minds (claiming to know why "people" responded as "they" did), making unsupported conclusions ("It's not about race"), double-bagging hypotheticals (talking about how the public would hypothetically react to a hypothetical white pastor) and mischaracterizing his subject (I bet the church thinks of itself as being about, oh, maybe "Jesus" more than blackness). Let's let him slide on that. The underlying analogy is more ridiculous.

Black Pastor making these comments = White Pastor making same comments. The issue here, Medved insists, is the content of the speech. So who made the comments is irrelevant. Race is simply not an issue.

Unfortunately, black and white people are not interchangeable parts in the United States. When a black pastor makes comments specifically about race in a public forum it is beyond silly to claim that race simply isn't in the equation – especially when, as Medved just claimed, he preaches at the First Blacknited Blackptist Black Church of Blackness. So Medved's assertions that race is irrelevant are, on their face, ludicrous. Furthermore, the reaction to this speech is taking place in the context of a partisan political process. This is an event in the course of a competitive election. Medved is happy to wheedle on about why race is not a factor but he ignores partisanship. In the midst of a heated election, how is partisanship not a determinant of how "people" are reacting? Maybe his mind-reading powers ran out before he could divine the answer.

A good analogy would preserve the two crucial components of the equation: the speaker and his comments. Rather than shitting on the public's intelligence with this Red Herring discussion about whether or not this is "about race," a half-decent commentator might make a half-decent analogy that contributes to understanding the public and media response to the comments. Consider these two questions:

Would the reaction be the same if the pastor was white?

Would the reaction be the same if the pastor was supporting McCain?

Which one of those adds to a discussion of the dynamics of partisan competition and this election? Which one is a weak effort by a one-note commentator to grind his sole ax?