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.”

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.

In a slam at black government workers, Derbyshire asserts, “ ‘The DMV lady’ is a statistical truth, not a myth.” But what exactly is a statistical truth? It isn’t a truth about your DMV lady.  It’s a probability estimate you might fall back on if you know nothing about your DMV lady. It’s an ignorant person’s weak substitute for knowledge.

The starting point for Derbyshire’s talk is street crime, a situation in which you might have little time or opportunity to learn about the person you’re approaching. All you might see at first glance is color. But once Derbyshire opens that loophole, he extends it to other situations such as the DMV, where you have more of an opportunity to observe and converse instead of guessing. What’s striking in Derbyshire’s advice is his constant emphasis on not learning anything. “Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.” “Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.” “Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.” Those are great ways to avoid getting to know black people. “If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.” Don’t even stop to help someone “in apparent distress,” since you might get drawn into a conversation.

The only context in which Derbyshire recommends investigation is politics: “Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.” But this, too, comes across as a license for laziness: It’s OK to relax your vigilance, as long as the candidate has the right pigment.

To me, the most telling passage in Derbyshire’s talk is this weird observation: “There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners.” Derbyshire calls this fact “civilizationally consequential.”

Really? If you follow Derbyshire’s link, you’ll find that the Fields Medal is awarded for “outstanding discoveries in mathematics." It’s been given to 10 people in this century and to another dozen or so since the first cohort of post-desegregation students reached the age at which top-level math achievement could be assessed. That’s an absurdly small sample on which to base any claim about the mathematical ability of a minority population. (If every Fields Medal were awarded to an American, on a proportional basis you’d expect one black recipient in this century rather than zero.) The list of Fields Medal winners tells you nothing about blacks. But it tells you a lot about Derbyshire. It tells you he’s a math nerd who substitutes statistical intelligence for social intelligence. He recommends group calculations instead of taking the trouble to learn about the person standing in front of you.

Racial assumptions based on aggregate impressions or data can be overcome in particular cases. Look at the Washington Post survey that came out yesterday. In 2004, Americans considered George W. Bush more likable than John Kerry by a margin of 44 to 36 percent. Today, Americans consider Barack Obama more likable than Mitt Romney by a margin of 64 to 26 percent. When whites are asked which candidate “seems like the more friendly and likable person,” 30 percent choose Romney. Sixty percent choose Obama. That’s what can happen when you get to know someone, even at a distance.

None of this depends on refuting Derbyshire’s data. You can believe in group differences in performance (by race, sex, religion, or any other category) on any measure, including intelligence. You can argue that such differences are partially heritable, as long as you’re clear that heritability patterns are ultimately genetic, not racial or ethnic. I’ve defended such arguments before. Egalitarian fundamentalism—the idea that the right to be treated as an individual depends on the strict equality of group averages—is a dangerous mistake.

But if you’re going to present evidence for aggregate differences, you have to tell the rest of the story. You have to acknowledge socioeconomic status, stereotype threat, and other factors that can affect performance. And you have to remind people that drawing inferences about anyone based on race, sex, religion, or any other crude category is a lousy substitute for inspecting or interacting with that individual. If you tell people to protect themselves by avoiding interaction with the person they’re judging, you’re not just rationalizing racism. You’re perpetuating it.

“If you are white or Asian and have kids, you owe it to them to give them some version of the talk,” Derbyshire writes at the end of his piece. “It will save them a lot of time and trouble spent figuring things out for themselves.” And that, in a nutshell, is his error. If your kids don’t take the trouble to learn more about the people they meet, they’ll never outgrow your prejudices.

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