Over the past several days I’ve had a number of exchanges with good people perplexed about what to do with “racial” profiling. Most of these persons have focused not so much on public policy but on their own hearts and fears. They’ve been concerned about their own reactions in situations that, to them, require some level of profiling. They think they’re being “rational” in their profiling or prejudice. And that’s what bothers them most. They think the failure to profile represents an irresponsible risk, and yet they see the injustice—potential and real—of profiling and stereotyping.

Most all of these people are white, work in office settings and have advanced degrees. But few of them actually work with statistics for a living or have much training in their use. Yet, the sole factor that makes them feel rational and justified in their profiling are national crime statistics (in fact, it’s not an actual statistic at all, but a general sense that African American men commit more crimes). They’re left wondering, How do I account for disproportionate rates of crime when it comes to my personal interaction with African-American men?

I’ve been asked this enough and seen it on enough media outlets that I thought I’d offer a couple comments. Take them for what they’re worth.

A Few Common Mistakes with “the Statistics”

Do national crime statistics provide any meaningful information for personal safety? Most people would like to assume so. But, depending on how you use the statistic and what conclusions you draw, you’re actually quite likely to further misrepresent people and worsen the problem of “racial” profiling. Here are five ways misusing statistics create more problems.

Aggregate statistics don’t predict actual situations. In introductory statistics classes, there’s usually some illustration meant to make the student aware of the limits of correlations, that most basic of statistics. You’re told about worldwide ice cream sales spiking in December when temperatures are lowest outside. Then you’re asked if winter causes hunger for ice cream. Of course the answer is no. Correlations do not indicate causality. Some further stats are then used to explain why ice cream sales go up in the winter and we get to see the limits of correlation. When people refer to aggregate statistics as justification for their profiling, they’re making unwarranted predictions about their interaction with African-American men. In this case, the statistic neither causes nor correlates with the lived reality of most white people.

Aggregate statistics include redundancies. How many offenders have committed multiple crimes recorded in these aggregate stats? Significant numbers of offenders commit other crimes after their release. Multiple crimes can be attributed to one individual or group of persons. Take, for example, the incredible rates of violent crime in Chicago right now. Those aren’t crimes randomly committed by random individuals. It’s highly likely that a smaller set of people connected by some other factors (i.e., gangs, drugs, revenge) are responsible for the surge in assaults. If the crime statistics include multiple offenses committed by a smaller number of persons, then it’s not rational to view every African-American male as though he’s a likely criminal ready to assault you. This is called over-generalizing. It’s applying a statistic about some people with particular characteristics to all people whether or not they  share the key characteristics.

Aggregate statistics include geographical concentrations. Consider again the statistics on violent crime in Chicago right now. No doubt Chicago’s crime rate disproportionately contributes to any national crime statistics. Yet few people citing statistics as justification for their informal profiling take that into account. They cite the statistic as though the crime that’s likely in Chicago is just as likely in Des Moines or Greenville. But that’s not true in any measure. The reality is that most people commit crimes where they live. We can’t generalize from one neighborhood to another in this way, especially if we’re generalizing to really dissimilar neighborhoods that lie at some distance from Chicago.

Aggregate statistics include systemic anomalies. The disparities in criminal justice procedures are well-documented. African-American men—especially poor black men—receive stiffer penalties and are convicted at higher rates than other men committing the same crimes. If you want to think more about this, you might consider reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. When we tout “the statistics” we need to recognize that we’re citing systemic biases as well as criminal behavior. Doing so likely inflates the informal probabilities we’re using to justify our profiling.

Aggregate statistics don’t predict inter-”racial” interactions. Again, people tend to commit crime where they live. People also tend to commit crimes against people they know. That’s especially true with assaults and violent crimes where roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of such crimes are committed by people known to the victim. Most of us are more likely to suffer at the hands of someone who looks like us and is known to us than we are by the stranger walking down the street. So, if we’re white, taking aggregate crime statistics about African Americans and applying it in some informal profile is less rational than doing the same with other whites you encounter. It turns out that African Americans are more rational if they profile other African Americans from their neighborhood. Aggregate crime statistics simply fail to justify the profiling that’s happening.

Better Data for Profiling

I think it’s impossible to avoid all profiling. And I think it’s irresponsible to try to avoid all profiling. We all categorize information and draw conclusions. The human mind seems to do that efficiently and automatically.

The issue is whether or not we’re using the appropriate data when we draw our profiles and calculate risks in any given situation. A blanket and imprecise appeal to “statistics” seems to me an improper approach to either protecting ourselves or treating others with respect and dignity.

We might be better off using a simpler set of data: our own personal experience. In your last ten interactions with someone of another “race,” how many times have you actually been verbally accosted or physically threatened? How about the last 50 interactions or 100? It’s not that it never happens. It does. When it does, we understand why persons would be afraid and more vigilant. But for most of us it hasn’t happened–at least not to the level that we can justify our fear and our profiling.

And that’s the heart of the issue for most people–fear. What do I do with my fear? Do I justify it? Do I reject it? Do I act on it? And what must I think of the “other” in a way that responsibly addresses my fear?

The first step would be to admit just how powerfully our fear may be acting upon us. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we’re being “rational” with these statistics when deep down inside we know we’re trying to soothe our fear and justify its existence. Better to face our fear and conquer it with a legitimate use of statistics and information. We don’t want our fear to make a lot of bad decisions for us. We’ve not been given that spirit.

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Comments:


51 thoughts on “Why Statistics Don’t Justify Our Prejudice or Our Profiling”

  1. Carl King says:

    This would have been a perfect blog post, had Chicago not been put on blast. Just kidding. This particular piece of thinking has troubled me for sometime. I have read some conservatives (Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell) giving credence to the bias of statistical profiling and it never felt right. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Jake says:

    You’re on fire, sir. Great stuff.

  3. Anne Vyn says:

    Christena Cleveland blogs about her similar concerns and offers some practical suggestions to promote change: Killing Me Softly: On Privilege and Voice (http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/christena-cleveland-killing-me-softly )

  4. Mel says:

    I agree completely. I hate statistics. I especially hate them in church. They do not allow for the power of the Holy Spirit at all. I get so tired of hearing the divorce statistic, especially applied to my children. Being the children of divorce they are more likely to blah blah blah AND more likely to get a divorce themselves.
    People like to apply statistics to other people to justify how they treat them and never to themselves.

    1. Hannah says:

      Being ‘a child of divorce’ (gosh I hate that term)myself, I also hate the way the church loves to use stats when it comes to divorce. We have to choose whether we’ll trust psychology or trust GOD…

  5. Joseph Randall says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I was jumped by two African American male teenagers when I lived in MN – cost me a big gash to the head and five stitches. By the grace of God, it didn’t make me more suspicious of African American male teens, it made me suspicious of everyone!

    I have been thinking about this text of Scripture ever since the profiling debate has come up:

    Titus 1:12-13: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true.

    Any thoughts on that passage?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Joseph,

      I’m sorry to hear you were jumped by two teenagers in MN. And I’m sorry it’s made you suspicious of everyone. It can be incredibly difficult not to allow past mistreatment affect everything. I know I have felt that way when I consider the mistreatment I’ve suffered at the hands of others. I pray the Lord gives you grace, love and power to replace suspicion and fear.

      Since you’ve been thinking about Titus 1 in relation to profiling, what are your thoughts?

      T

      1. Dan says:

        If I may jump in here… I think the reference to Crete is different, because it’s more of a broader cultural trend enveloping an entire island. To use an analogy, it’s kind of like saying “Americans are greedy, living for materialism while people starve to death across the ocean”. Listeners would understand that this is an example of hyperbole to point out an ill in society and isn’t meant to literally argue that every single American is like that. You still have to evaluate each individual person based on what their actions are.

        With this in mind, we can understand Paul’s statement as just a general warning of what kind of issues he might expect when serving in Crete.

      2. Joseph Randall says:

        Thanks Pastor Thabiti,

        I think that experience made me more of a believer in total depravity – but thankfully not fearful all the time :)

        Anytime I hear people decry stereotypes, I think of the Titus 1:12-13. It does seem clear to me from this passage that a group of people can so live in such a way that a stereotype can be applied to that whole group in truth and honesty. But I love the next verses:

        Titus 1:13-14: Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth.

        The longing here is for change in the Cretans that accords with soundness of faith. In order for this change to take place, the Cretans can’t decry the stereotype – they need to accept what God has said about them as true, humble themselves, receive the rebuke, and turn from their sins.

        So we have one infallible example of a stereotype in Scripture. Does that mean we can stereotype others? I don’t want to do it! But I wonder if, because of this example in Titus, we’ve made stereotyping a greater sin than it really is?? It’s true – white men can’t jump :)

  6. Jeff Morris says:

    Thanks for the write up Thabiti. As a learner, I am constantly confronted by own sin of bias that seems to seep from my skin. It is humbling in the best way as Christ reveals one by one the thoughts I need to take captive. Preach to me my fellow Lexingtonian.

  7. Jon in Oxford says:

    Thanks for writing this Thabiti, I think you covered a lot of excellent ground. One factor I’ve noticed in discussions on profiling though (as you said, usually with white, educated, middle-class folks) is actually that the mathematics underneath their views on profiling are actually wrong. The problem is one dealt with by Bayesian statistics. In short, the probability that a criminal is black (black criminals/all criminals) is very different from the probability that a black person is a criminal (black criminals/all black people). Even when the differential for the first factor is high (in America, it’s about +15%), the differential for the second factor is much smaller (under 3%). If you factor in systemic differences in policing, arrests, and prosecution, I would not be surprised at all if the overall differential dropped to nearly zero. Perhaps the most sadly comic part about some white Christians supporting racial profiling is that its not even a choice between a useful heuristic and the healing power of the Gospel – it’s merely badly-informed fear.

    1. Jake says:

      Very good point.

    2. pduggie says:

      if your suspicions are raised by the actions of a person (skulking, looking menacing, loitering, etc) and you have some level of confidence that the actions a re justifiably suspicious, doesn’t any positive differential of black/white crime INCREASE your confidence in Bayesian terms?

      If I’m wrong, please explain why. I’d like to be wrong

  8. JohnM says:

    Warning: I’m aiming for honesty about what I believe here.

    I don’t like profiling either. I certainly don’t accept it as a matter of policy. It seems too much like guilty until proven innocent. I can imagine being a victim of it, even if I never have been, and I can imagine it would be embittering.

    However,I don’t think white Americans who attitudinally profile – where that’s the right way to put it – black Americans necessarily have mathematics in mind one way or another. They may just have in mind what is constantly in front of them, in the news, or in their very own repeated experience. I don’t think it’s as simple as being entirely right or entirely wrong in terms of the impression formed. It’s not helpful in the long run to oversimplify either way.

    I also doubt we can dismiss the conviction rate of black males as merely owing to disparities in criminal justice procedures. It is plausible that that has something to do with it, but I think it is likely that more often than not the convicted committed the crimes of which they were accused. Our criminal justice system may get it wrong too often, too often for me support a death penalty for one thing, but that doesn’t mean we mostly get it wrong.

    One point that most likely is accurate – middle class white Americans have less to fear from black Americans than do, well, black Americans. Which means any point I might make on this subject that comes across as contrarian might just be more important to black Americans to realize than to white Americans, if I am in any way correct.

    1. Tim says:

      John,
      You make an interesting point about the role of the criminal justice process (i.e., arrests, convictions, etc.) in shaping our views on profiling. I would tend to agree that we can’t completely account for the higher conviction rate for black males on the basis of criminal justice disparities – in the way we normally think of them. We tend to think of disparities in terms of blacks being arrested/convicted *more often* than they should be, relative to actual guilt. However, when we’re comparing arrest and conviction rates of whites versus blacks, we also have to account for the fact that many whites are probably arrested and/or convicted *less often* than they should be, relative to actual guilt.

      As a young adult, I was once stopped, handcuffed, and questioned by police on suspicion of breaking-and-entering. This was due to me mistakenly believing I had permission to enter a building that I had not actually received permission to be in. In any case, I was foolish to be where I was with who I was, doing the things I was. I and everyone with me were white, middle class young adults. The police questioned us for about an hour and finally let us go, after they determined that we were basically “good kids” who simply made a mistake. I’ve often wondered how it would have turned out if our skin had been black or brown. Would we have gotten the benefit of the doubt from the police? I have no idea, but somehow I doubt it.

  9. Micah says:

    Im not sure I know hot to think in a Godly way with “profiling.” I think I frequently justify it in my own life and at the same time I really don’t know how to analyze my own perceptions. I think I need a lot of heart change but honestly I don’t know in what regards or in what ways.

    I’m white, in my late twenties, have a white son, and wear a suit to work. I’m a salesman in the medical field in multiple cities so I work with all races.

    I grew up close to an African American neighborhood where there was much crime but I don’t remember hearing of any of it on my street except for the one African American man who was a drug dealer and was arrested for sexual harassment.

    I have taught in a few school systems where consistently the African American students were unarguably more disrespectful and disobedient than the white.

    I taught GED and ESL classes in the public school system (where I was permitted to use pipers bloodlines to make mock practice questions for the students!) where the students were of all different races and I don’t know how to wrestle through my own profiling. The African American students had the best sense of humor. Is that profiling? The Asians could read and write well while the Hispanics couldn’t but could listen and speak well. Is it profiling to assume these things when a new student comes to class based on my experiences?

    Is it profiling knowing that a white medical practice to whom I now sell is going to be most concerned about etiquette? Or that the African American practice likely caters to Medicaid individuals because of the part of the city I’m in?

    It seems wrong for me to assume these things but you mentioned making conclusions based upon on our own experiences but it seems like my experiences lead me to unjustified stereotypes and assessments of other races (and my own).

    I’m asking these questions honestly as when I honestly assess my own life and assumptions that I make I don’t know how much of me is still a racist and needs repentance.

  10. John says:

    Thabiti,

    May I speak as one who maybe has a little bit different perspective than most whites? I currently work as a criminal defense attorney in the deep south. (Yes all you white people out there, Christians can do that and still be a Christian. :)). I’m white. I’m confronted with this type of issue daily. Please forgive my over-generalizations. They are only given for the purpose of making a point.

    I remember walking into traffic court as a new prosecutor (before I went to the so-called “dark side”) and being absolutely amazed that of the 200 people sitting in court, 175 were black. As I began working cases in this capacity, it became pretty clear that for most of the misdemeanor offenses, it very often boiled down to an issue of money. Somebody got a speeding ticket, didn’t pay it, then got their license suspended, and found their way into jail. Somebody didn’t have the money to renew their tag, got a ticket for it, didn’t pay the ticket, then got arrested. Whites had some outside source of funds to help them pay – blacks didn’t. By and large, poor blacks will end up back in court for probation revocations simply because the criminal justice system requires them to pay so much money – money they simply don’t have. I would very often get an upset, young black man with a ticket for a “window tint violation” or a “tail light out” and no other charges – clearly racial profiling by the cops. I usually would dismiss these tickets (even though they were technically legally valid), but also tell them what they already knew: It’s not fair, but if you drive that Benz with shiny rims and darkly tinted windows, you’re going to get pulled over; so, you better be completely in line with the law so that there’s no question. That’s just the world you live in.

    I would submit that when you begin talking about serious violent felonies – murder, rape, armed robbery, child molestation, etc., whites are just as involved in these crimes. The most popular crime out there – D.U.I. – I see just as many whites as blacks with that charge. I would argue that there are just as many white drug offenders as black drug offenders out there – only difference being that a white can get a prescription for a pain killer. The poor black man suppresses his pain with crack or pot and then gets arrested for it.

    What bothers me, when I’m dealing with a young black man who has done something wrong criminally, is that the racial profiling charge against the police gets offered as an excuse or defense for the criminal behavior. I understand that this charge is an outgrowth of an entire set of experiences – but until that charge goes away as a “fall-back” position when trying to justify wrong behavior, the race problem won’t get any better. This is what makes whites roll their eyes and it merely exacerbates the black/white problem. I remember working a D.U.I. case where a white cop arrested a clearly drunk black woman. He put her in the back of the car, she didn’t know the recorder was on, and she started screaming at the top of her lungs, “I HATE WHITE PEOPLE!!!” This type of stuff doesn’t help anything in the race problem.

    All in all, I agree with you about the statistics. If nothing else, immersing myself in the plight of poor black Americans has greatly increased my ability to “not be afraid” in black culture.

    Just my forty cents worth.

    1. Gary says:

      @John,

      You stated, “if you drive that Benz with shiny rims and darkly tinted windows.”

      If someone (anyone) has the shekels for a Mercedes and shiny rims, then they should have the money to pay for their minor vehicle infractions. It appears to me that it’s simply blown off and ignored. And thus it sounds to me like you may be making excuses for others’ irresponsible behavior.

      1. John says:

        That comment is made in the context of racial profiling – not in the instance of not having money.

        1. John says:

          Sorry for the confusion – I wasn’t as clear as I meant to be.

      2. Dan says:

        At least where I live, there seems to be a general sense that minor traffic violations involving tail lights being out, etc. usually constitute a warning, which is understandable; in the past, when my tail light has been out, I have been ignorant of this until somebody (at least one a police officer) has politely let me know.

        1. John says:

          Yes – I’ve conducted a bit of an experiment just to test this. What a lot cops (not across the board – don’t want to overgeneralize the cops either) are doing to young, black males when they write these minor traffic violation tickets , is that they are trying to find an excuse to search the car for drugs. When they don’t find any, they write a ticket anyways – that’s why I would dismiss them. My experiment has been to not get my right blinker fixed in my car – haven’t been pulled over in years.

  11. Mike Shideler says:

    God did not give us Christians a spirit of fear, He gave us The Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us. Fear is not of GOD . Mike

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Amen.

  12. John F says:

    It’s good to point out the flaws in the statistics and I particularly appreciate John the lawyer’s comment above mine, however I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with the information in the context of a Christian’s life and what the Bible says.

    The Bible says we are all one race, hence we must strive to end racism. God also commands us to love justice and not oppress the poor and the weak, or especially to cause people to become poor or weak. But the Bible also points out that there are many tribes and within tribes (or communities) fathers are a significant influencer of the ethos of a community. In the UK, there are regular media stories about underachievement in schools of white ‘working class’ and black boys and this is usually attributed to absent fathers and complicated familial backgrounds. Shouldn’t the response of the church then be to offer grace and hope and the stability of the church family?

  13. John Baertels says:

    Thabiti,

    I have read over a couple of your latest blog entries and comments posted in response to the comments of others. I would like to ask if you are concerned with the truth of the matters to which you speak or simply interested in sharing your own thoughts and opinions regardless of whether they are based on truth or not? Specifically, in regards to your take on the Martin/Zimmerman issue, you have carelessly overlooked truth, evidence and facts and joined partnership with the liberal media in making this a case about race when that is simply not what the truth of the matter is. Please, please give a listen to the following link (10 mins long) and carefully examine whether or not you have made informed decisions and come to conclusions based on fact or media lies. As Christians, we must be diligent in our search for truth in all matters and test everything. We must abstain from that which is evil and hold to what is good. You have so many that look to you for wisdom and insight. It is imperative that you be extremely careful before posting material because it must be consistent with truth so as to not confuse anyone despeartely searching for truth.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ebu6Yvzs4Ls

    Thanks for listening.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      John,

      I’m coming up for a sermon break so my responses are listed very briefly. I hope they don’t read as terse or short.

      1. Thank you for the video. I watched it and I would class it along the lines of Bill O’Reilly’s “Talking Points” video. It is, in my opinion, a polished and dangerous presentation of some facts and a lot of speculations suggested as facts. It’s a well-done screed and fails to be the journalism it laments is lacking elsewhere.

      2. I have not given an opinion on the Martin/Zimmerman case. The jury has made its verdict and I’m not interested in retrying the case. What I have written about are (a) my own personal applications and (b) my own commitment to oppose “race” as a poisonous worldview-shaping category. Lots of people leaving comments seem to think that if you have any personal reflection, any sympathy over a lost life and grieving parents, or anything to say about “race,” then you must be in league with all the demagogues they fear. I actually think it’s possible to have a personal reflection, mourn a lost life, and hate “race” and “racism” without either (a) claiming this case is about “race” or (b) joining forces with problematic leaders on either the left or the right. Call me crazy….

      3. So to be clear: I have not at any time said that this case was about “race.”

      4. I would encourage you to be as careful as you think I should be, especially as it relates to passing along videos that are as biased in one direction as other videos are in another.

      5. And just so you know, I’ve probably spent less time consuming “liberal media” than than anybody I know. But calling something “liberal” or “conservative” is not a dirty word for me. As far as I am concerned, almost all the media in the U.S. is ideology masquerading as journalism.

      Thank you for dropping by and joining the conversation.

      1. CinDee says:

        1) Facts aren’t dangerous. Neither is connecting dots. The video sheds light on pertinent info that was scrubbed by the media.

        2) You gave your opinion and did your best to explain that you “oppose ‘race’ as a worldview-shaping category”. The pictures, quotes and screencaps you used undermine any argument or explanation you may give to support your opinion.

        3) But you brought up the issue of race…

        4) Have we had any other choice than to hear biases from news outlets? One little video among a sea of “news” warrants “be…careful”?

        5) I’ll take you at your word regarding media consumption…but I’ll admit to having doubts.

        I’ve really enjoyed your sermons in the past. Right now I’m having a difficult time believing you when you say it’s not about race for you. You’re going to go hug your kid? Why? Because TM was shot, or because godly fathers are important in the welfare of their children? You’re glad it’s not the 50s? Why? Because there’s a trial, whereas in the 50s there wouldn’t have been? That’s it? Nothing more?

        I’m just having a hard time believing you. I want to. Your sympathies are what make me wonder what you’re really thinking.

        ~C

        1. Thabiti says:

          Hi CinDee,

          Thanks for joining the conversation. Quick replies:

          1. Misused facts are dangerous. Always have been. What we disagree about is how “pertinent” much of that video was. Even the host couldn’t help but say in various ways at multiple times “maybe” and “perhaps” and other phrases to indicate his speculation. But it didn’t stop him from offering the speculations anyway, as if they were “pertinent.” That’s dangerous and, despite his claims to present the facts and the truth, such speculations go beyond facts and truth.

          2. I would think that having written and spoken about my position on “race” at least since 2008 would (a) prove that my views are not in any way dependent on the Martin/Zimmerman issue and (b) is not therefore undermined by introductory graphics that themselves were used to illustrate the great divisiveness that’s out there.

          3. So, mentioning “race” in a post that says “I’m against ‘race’ as a construct” is the same as “bringing up race” as if to make the case about “race”? C’mon.

          4. Yes, that video warrants a “be careful,” just as all our news consumption and all our favorite ideologues warrant a “be careful.”

          5. You’re welcome to your doubts, but I don’t have any reason to deceive you. But perhaps this will help:

          A. I live in a British overseas territory whose news sources more often than not include UK sources.

          B. I don’t have cable television or an antenna to pick up the major networks. All the TV my family watches is either DVDs or rented movies.

          C. I’ve never had the habit of reading newspapers. The news I read tends to be online and tends to be long form.

          Again, you’re welcome to your doubts. But I don’t need to deceive you and I don’t need you to believe me.

          Yes, I’m going to hug and play with my son. We’ve been having a blast, actually! And, yes, I’m going to hug and play with him because Trayvon and untold others are lost everyday–not just to gun violence but pediatric diseases, car accidents, etc. I don’t want to miss out on enjoying Titus or my daughters any more than I have to. And, yes, I’m going to hug them because I want to make a difference as a father. I don’t see any contradiction between the two. Make of it what you will.

          And, yes, I’m glad I don’t live in the 1950s! I think most people are. And, yes, part of why I’m glad is I have both freedoms and rights that my grandparents and parents did not–including the right of fair access to the courts. And, no, I don’t think that’s a small thing. When you say, “That’s it,” as if that’s small, I think you prove you don’t know how far we’ve come. If I find encouragement in that and you don’t, then you’re the one with the problem. Not me.

          So, I’ve told you what I’m thinking. Not that I had to, but I did. Both in my posts and in this comment. You’re free to believe or disbelieve as you choose. I’m more concerned about thinking, writing and speaking in a way that builds understanding. If you can’t see that, then, again, I’m not the one with the problem.

          The Lord bless and keep us all,
          Thabiti

          1. Joey says:

            Thabiti,

            As always your patience displayed in your thorough response, that as you said, was not necessarily needed. Thanks for your example.

            One more thing I would like to mention about that video (which I have seen passed around social media by…I’ll call them ‘anti-msm’ folks…)is that the host seems to completely miss the irony of posting a video decrying selective fact presentation by the MSM to promote a certain perspective…by selectively presenting facts to promote a different perspective. For instance he mentions height, as though that is more relevant in a fight than weight (which he doesn’t mention.) He mentions Trayvon’s interest in MMA, while ignoring Zimmerman’s training in that same area. Etc etc. Thabiti’s point is well taken that ALL media needs to be watched with discernment.

            1. Joey says:

              *thanks for* is missing from that first sentence of course.

          2. CinDee says:

            Thanks for the response. I would never have posted if I was afraid of push-back, and i fully expected you to address my concerns in a measured, thoughtful way. you did just that. All I wanted to discuss is that what you *say* and what you’ve *chosen* to illustrate your points don’t seem to mesh. I even went back to your other blog posts and read/re-read your responses. In one of your responses, you say that this case is representative of the broader subject of white/black race issues. I’m baffled as to why you’d say that. This case had nothing to do with white/black…which leaves me wondering again (i.e. if you are anti-racism, why would you use a non-race case as a springboard to speak about racism?). I don’t think that means I have a problem. I’m trying to fully get your point, but comments like that make me hesitate. I don’t know what else to say.

            As for the video, I find it revealing. You find it suspect. Okay.

            Thanks for your work. Thanks for your prayer for the church. Thanks for being willing to discuss. Thanks for excellent material to listen to on long runs.

            ~C

            1. Jake says:

              CinDee,

              Keep in mind that defining this case as “about race” can mean many different things. It can, of course, mean that the events that night were influenced by race (i.e. Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as “up to no good”/a suspect in recent burglaries/black and Trayvon noted, at the very least, that Zimmerman was not black). It can also mean that the fact that Sanford PD’s reaction to the events that night were influenced by race (as someone who lives very close to Sanford, trust me that this would not be a surprising thing). It can also mean that the reaction nationwide to the case is influenced by race.

              In other words, to make a blanket statement “this case is not about race” might be broader than you think it is (aside from being self-evidently and demonstrably not true).

            2. CinDee says:

              Jake,I should have said it wasn’t white/black instead of “non-race”.

            3. Thabiti says:

              Hi CinDee,

              Actually I think the difference/confusion we are experiencing has to do with our using “case” differently. It didn’t dawn on me until reading your last comment. I’ve been wondering why some people have insisted that I think the trial is or was “about race” when I don’t. Perhaps it s because when I write “case” a lot f folks have been thinking trial. I’ll read back over posts again, but I’m now aware that I’ve been using “case” to sometimes refer to all the surrounding situation, not in the narrower sense of trial and verdict.

              I see how that can be confusing. It’s certainly been puzzling on this end when folks have insisted, contrary to what I’ve written, that I have a particular view of the trial.

              T

  14. Frank Turk says:

    Thabiti –

    A fan as always.

    What’s the difference between “profiling” and “the suspect has a description which is relevant to his apprehension?” (note: “his” because men commit more crimes than women by a very long shot — almost 10 to 1)

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hey bro,

      Great to hear from you. Quick reply while up for a sermon prep break:

      A suspect matching a description presumes some actual incident/crime and some eyewitness testimony. It’s particular and local.

      Racial profiling is general and global, moving from some incidents or statistics and casting suspicion on an entire demographic, not people matching some known criteria.

      In “racial” profiling, all you’d need to be is “black and male,” or “Arab and veiled,” or “white and conservative.” In “suspect matching the description” you’d need to be more tangibly connected to a crime, a crime scene, and an actual victim.

      Even so, “suspect matching the description” can be basically as general as profiling. One of the most frightening situations I’ve faced was a “suspect matching the description” that was little more than profiling. I was a graduate student at the time. I played basketball during lunch with a group of about 20 faculty members. I popped out of the gym to quickly put money into the parking meter when campus police rolled up on me. They said I matched the description of someone who had assaulted a female student. I asked for the description and they said, “Tall black male.” They had me dead to rights! :-) I explained that for the last hour I’d been playing basketball, had just popped out to feed the meter, and if they would come with me twenty faculty members would testify that I’d been with them for the last hour. They refused. Loaded me into the back of the squad car. Drove me to the dorm and positioned the car where she supposedly could see me but I could not see her. Another officer took the young woman to a window where she–praise God–said I was not the perp. The officer drove me back to the meter, dropped me off with hardly an apology for the inconvenience.

      Even though I knew I was innocent and had witnesses, I knew that if this young white woman were to say “I think that’s him,” my life would be radically different in that moment. And in that moment, I would have faced all the potential dangers that come with protesting and exclaiming my innocence or acquiescing and looking guilty. All because I was, am and will always inescapably fit the description: “a tall black man.” :-)

      T-

  15. Adam Borsay says:

    I want to restate something I mentioned on an earlier post by Thabiti….

    I agree with the limitations of how we use and abuse statistics. But something I struggle with how to address is the impression of black america that is created by popular media. I grew up in a small rural town with few minorities. The majority of my exposure to other races was through movies and MTV. It created in me the impression that if a black man dresses, speaks and acts in a certain way he is a real life example of the violence and criminal behavior that I saw in the media.

    Fair or not, the gang culture that seems to be glorified and celebrated in pop culture is a catalyst in creating a reactive mind set by those outside of that culture. In my opinion, as long as those images are the most prominent ones in culture it will be extremely hard to break a pattern of damaging prejudice.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Adam,

      You raise some good and important points about how media shapes our perception of others. We do–all of us–need to be careful about that. And, it seems to me, we need to be careful to note how our familiarity with some people allows us to nuance our view even though we’re observing the same behavior. For example, it seems to me that some of my white friends have repeatedly blamed hip hop culture for the degradation of Black women and pointed to the worst of hip hop culture as representative and normative of Black culture in general. But we find the same kinds of messages and actions in some forms of rock and roll: misogyny, materialism, drugs and alcohol, violence, etc. But if we’re white, we probably look at that as a small segment of both rock and roll and white culture. We don’t generalize it to make it representative of all of white culture. And you shouldn’t.

      In the same way, AA’s don’t accept the worst of hip hop culture as representative of all of hip hop or all of Black culture. We also tend to avoid thinking rock’s bad boys represent all white guys. It would be nice if more people fought against generalizing those images the way you’re attempting to do. Usually when I hear folks generalizing that way, I know they’re about as unfamiliar with African-American culture and people as I am with rock-n-roll.

      Thanks for your comments, friend. The Lord be with you,
      T-

  16. John says:

    Sorry for the confusion – I wasn’t as clear as I meant to be.

  17. Doc B says:

    First, as is often the case in cultural debate, some terms need to be defined or we’ll end up arguing against each other while not knowing what the other is talking about.

    Racial profiling needs to be clearly differentiated from other types of (legitimate) profiling. An example: You see a man in a ski mask walking toward the entrance to a bank, carrying a black bag and a black rifle. What conclusion do you draw? If you drew any sort of conclusion that he might be up to no good, you are profiling.

    Same situation but different details: You see a black man walking toward the entrance to a bank. What conclusion do you draw? If you drew any sort of conclusion that he might be up to no good, you are profiling (again). This time, you are profiling on race, not behavior.

    Proper profiling is critical in law enforcement. Yet law enforcement is one area of society where the wrong kinds of profiling are often a major problem. Perhaps there is something in the common forms of training that institutionalizes these ideas? (After all, even black cops racially profile, or at least have been so accused.)

    After a crime has been committed, a cop who has a description of the perpetrator as a black man in his 40s stops a man matching that description near the crime scene; racial profiling has not occurred. But after a different crime, a cop who has a description of the perpetrator as a man in his 40s stops a black man in that age group near the crime scene; racial profiling has occurred. And yet the black man in question may indeed be the perpetrator of the crime. Whether or not he was the actual criminal *does not make the determination* if racial profiling occurred or not. It did (because of the way we define it). This begs a bigger question.

    In the criminal justice system, though we have decided as Americans that the evil of putting an innocent person in jail is serious enough that we are willing to let the guilty, on a good number of occasions, go free, we still debate where exactly the line should be drawn. What we haven’t grappled with or come to consensus about is, how much racial profiling are we willing to endure over against how many suspects do we not detain because of the risk of racial profiling? The first reaction of most is to say, ‘none’.

    But absolutes are out of the question. Just as the only way to make certain that an innocent person *never* goes to jail is to never send anyone at all to jail; the only way to make sure racial profiling *never* occurs is to never detain a minority of a particular race.

    This is a hard question, and getting at the answers won’t be easy.

  18. Michael Roe says:

    I profile regularly to protect myself and my family. Profiling is not the issue, strictly racial profiling is the issue. I profile someone based on a more holistic picture of how they present themselves. This includes dress, possible gang or violent tattoos, and public demeanor. Basically, if someone looks like a thug I am going to profile them as someone to be wary of. In my area, central California, we have just as many white kids who look like thugs as we do Hispanics or blacks. I think genuine threat assessment transcends “race.”

    At the same time, assessing or profiling someone does not mean that they hold any less value in my eyes. All men are made in the image of God and all are lost, dead in their sins. All men need the gospel. Being watchful for my own safety and that of my family does not necessarily exclude gospel watchfulness; looking for an opportunity to share the gospel.

    The biblical picture of man and sin re-orients the discussion; taking it from the confusion of our current public discourse and putting it under the clear view of God’s perspective.

  19. Philip Larson says:

    Lifehacker today:

    Avoiding the “Correlation doesn’t imply causation” fallacy is an old favorite. So old, in fact, that it comes with its own Latin adage: cum hoc ergo proptor hoc. However, the counterpoint to this that often gets overlooked is that correlation raises questions about causation. Or, to quote xkcd (again): “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.”

  20. Clark says:

    Wow, Thabiti, excellent post that made me really evaluate my own profiling. I think that we can easily justify racial,profiling with vague statistics, and at the same time I agree with many that there are real and legitimate cases of justified profiling, like young Arab Muslim males getting more attention from the TSA than old white Christian women. But your closing paragraphs on not being ruled by a fearful spirit are spot on.

  21. Melody says:

    I think sometimes people think they’re being profiled because of their race and that they’re missing why they’re actually being profiled.

    I lock my car door when african-american men walk by. And when white men walk by. And when Latino men walk by. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a young man dressed all ganster or if it’s an old man with a cane. I know that *most* of those men are law abiding citizens. But some of them aren’t and I can’t tell the difference.

  22. christopher brown says:

    Thabiti,

    As a black male and former statistician, i really appreciate this post. One other (very common) misuse of statistics that you did not mention is the tendency that many people have to conflate relative frequency with absolute frequency (i.e., although 75% of persons who commit crime-X possess attribute-Y, this does not mean that 75% of persons possessing attribute-Y commit crime-X). i find it dubious that under the guise of being “rational,” so many people demonstrate such a basic misunderstanding of probability.

  23. Bryan Hudson says:

    Very good article! Negative statistics diminish our appreciation for individuals apart from group (statistical) identity. My thoughts and suggestions on this topic: http://www.bryanhudson.com/2013/07/bryans-10-commandments-for-better-race.html

  24. Jake says:

    Thabiti,

    I have loved your thoughts on this issue. I came across this article on Gawker that used satire to communicate what I thought were some of the same points you have been making. I’m posting it for your enjoyment, if you are so inclined to read it and haven’t already.

    The author isn’t racist, by the way; some of his best friends are white.

    http://gawker.com/video-of-violent-rioting-surfers-shows-white-culture-o-954939719?fb_action_ids=10151984702596747&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582

  25. Flyaway says:

    I haven’t read all of the comments so this may have been mentioned. We need school choice–especially in the black communities. The teachers unions are blocking this. I’ve seen several “60 Minutes” programs about how the teachers unions caused the great superintendent of school in Washington D.C. to resign. Another “60 Minutes” showed how the teachers unions prevented incompetent teachers from being fired. In another parents had to use the lottery system to get their kids into good schools. Marva Collins started a school and they had no books. Her advanced knowledge of every subject, and the support of parents, made her school produce outstanding students. Teaching the Golden Rule and displaying the Ten Commandments never hurt any child.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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