John Derbyshire, Trayvon Martin, and the Ignorance of Racial Profiling

Science, technology, and life.
April 10 2012 9:40 PM

John Derbyshire’s Error

The ignorance of racial profiling.

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John Derbyshire

Mario Tama

This weekend, National Review expelled John Derbyshire for writing, on an unrelated website, a racist response to “The Talk.” The Talk, as described by many black parents in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, is when you tell your son how to avoid triggering stereotypes that might result in him being arrested or killed. Examples: Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t look angry or raise your voice. Don’t carry anything that might be mistaken for a gun. Keep your hands where other people can see them.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Derbyshire’s ugly rejoinder was a “talk” for white or Asian kids. Based on group data, he argued that blacks are relatively dangerous and that nonblack kids should be taught to avoid harm by avoiding blacks.

On Saturday, NR editor Rich Lowry banished Derbyshire from the magazine. Derbyshire’s article “lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible,” Lowry wrote. It expresses “views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.”

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Lowry is a good man and a solid editor. But he hasn’t explained where the line is on race, and how Derbyshire crossed it. Calling the piece nasty isn’t enough. We need to understand what Derbyshire got wrong.

In points 4 and 5 of his 15-paragraph talk, Derbyshire affirms what most of us would agree are the central moral and intellectual principles:

(4) The default principle in everyday personal encounters is that as a fellow citizen, with the same rights and obligations as yourself, any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen. That is basic good manners and good citizenship. …

(5) As with any population of such a size, there is great variation among blacks in every human trait. … They come fat, thin, tall, short, dumb, smart, introverted, extroverted, honest, crooked, athletic, sedentary, fastidious, sloppy, amiable, and obnoxious. There are black geniuses and black morons. There are black saints and black psychopaths. In a population of forty million, you will find almost any human type.

But then Derbyshire adds a loophole to point 4: “In some unusual circumstances … this default principle should be overridden by considerations of personal safety.” He goes on to cite data:

(6) As you go through life, however, you will experience an ever larger number of encounters with black Americans. Assuming your encounters are random—for example, not restricted only to black convicted murderers or to black investment bankers—the Law of Large Numbers will inevitably kick in. You will observe that the means—the averages—of many traits are very different for black and white Americans, as has been confirmed by methodical inquiries in the human sciences.

(7) Of most importance to your personal safety are the very different means for antisocial behavior, which you will see reflected in, for instance, school disciplinary measures, political corruption, and criminal convictions.

This argument, coupled with the loophole, leads Derbyshire to his stomach-turning conclusions in point 10:

Thus, while always attentive to the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences, use statistical common sense: (10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally. (10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods. (10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot). (10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks. (10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.  (10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians. (10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white. (10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway. (10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

Derbyshire thinks his data warrant his conclusions. But all his data references include the crucial term “mean” or “average.” They don’t tell you about the person walking toward you. They tell you what you can assess about the probability of danger when the only information you have is color. Look at Derbyshire’s point 10: “where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences … Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally … If accosted by a strange black in the street …” The common premise in all this advice is ignorance. Not ignorance of data, but ignorance about the person you’re facing.

Derbyshire relies on the same assumption in point 12: “[I]n those encounters with strangers that involve cognitive engagement, ceteris paribus the black stranger will be less intelligent than the white.” Ceteris paribus is Latin for “all other things being equal.” It assumes there’s no difference between a black person and a white person except that each has the average IQ test score for her race. In other words, the equation holds, as a matter of probability, only if you fail to notice anything about the person you’ve encountered aside from color.