We've all heard of the offense of "driving while black." But not everyone has heard the good news: It doesn't exist anymore. According to an authoritative report, black motorists are no more likely than whites to be pulled over by police. So how has that study been greeted? As proof that police racism is still a powerful force.
It's a widely accepted article of faith that cops systematically engage in racial profiling against dark-complexioned folks. Yet this is the second consecutive survey from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics—using information supplied not by police but by citizens—that finds law enforcement to be admirably colorblind when it comes to routine traffic enforcement. Not a puny achievement, but one that was overlooked by people straining to find lingering discrimination.
The complaint is that though they get stopped at the same rate as whites, minority motorists are more likely to get unfavorable treatment during the stop. According to BJS, 3.6 percent of whites are searched, compared with 9.5 percent of blacks and 8.8 percent of Latinos. African-Americans are more likely to have force used against them and to be arrested. And they more often feel their treatment is unwarranted.
What can we make of these figures? Not what is claimed by critics like those at the American Civil Liberties Union, which labeled the disparities "disturbing," and columnist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, who detected "powerful evidence that racial profiling is alive and well." Some people get their exercise jumping to conclusions.
The researchers at BJS tried to discourage snap judgments. "The apparent disparities documented in this report do not constitute proof that police treat people differently along demographic lines," they warn. "Any of these disparities might be explained by countless other factors and circumstances that were not taken into account in the analysis."
Plenty of other elements could generate these divergent patterns. Why would black drivers be arrested more often? Maybe because African-Americans commit crimes at a far higher rate and are convicted of felonies at a far higher rate. In 2005, for instance, blacks were nearly seven times more likely to be in prison than whites.
Those disparities are bound to affect the outcome of traffic stops. Most blacks, like most whites, are not crooks. But since the average black driver is statistically more likely to be a criminal than the average white driver, he's more likely to have an outstanding arrest warrant—which the police would find when running a computer check of his license. A computer check that turns up a long rap sheet will probably induce the patrol officer to ask for a look inside the trunk.
A motorist of felonious habits is also more likely to have illegal guns or drugs on board. If the contraband is visible to a traffic cop, or if it shows up in a search, the driver can expect to be arrested. Not to mention that the vehicle itself may turn out to be stolen.
Given the racial gap in crime rates, it would be a shock if traffic stops didn't generate more searches and arrests of blacks than whites. Even in a world where cops are completely free of racial prejudice, that is exactly what you would expect. There is a similar difference, after all, between the sexes—males are nearly twice as likely as females to be arrested during a stop. Is that because cops are sexists? No, it's because men commit more crimes.
Trying to find "compelling" evidence of racism in this data is a fruitless task. Robinson makes much of the fact that blacks who are stopped are more likely to be sent on their way without any corrective action, even an oral warning. That, he says, "suggests there was no good reason to stop these people." Or it might suggest that cops cut African-American motorists a bit more slack on petty issues, perhaps in the hope of improving their reputation.
Whatever they do, the cops can't win. Blacks don't get stopped more often? Big deal. Blacks have higher arrest rates? Proof of racism. More blacks are let off without a warning? More proof of racism.
And if fewer blacks were let off without a warning? I'll let you guess how that would be interpreted.
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