On Monday, the Washington Post published a column claiming that George Zimmerman “understandably suspected” Trayvon Martin of being a criminal “because he was black”. Tuesday, they decided to continue this theme with another column, published by an entirely different writer on the Washington Post’s payroll, which also argues that Zimmerman reasonably should have suspected African Americans of being engaged in criminal activity.
Admittedly, Tuesday’s column, by columnist Kathleen Parker, is narrower in scope than Monday’s piece by Richard Cohen. Cohen defended New York City’s stop-and-frisk program because it engaged in racial profiling. Parker suggests that Zimmerman decision to target the African American Martin was “right within his . . . own experience” because “[i]t has been established that several burglaries in Zimmerman’s neighborhood primarily involved young black males.” Yet she quickly takes this claim and inflates it into a broader defense of racial stereotyping — “if we are honest, we know that human nature includes the accumulation of evolved biases based on experience and survival. In the courtroom, it’s called profiling. In the real world, it’s called common sense.”
Both columnists’ defenses of racial profiling rely on a very basic statistical error. As Matt Yglesias explained on Tuesday, it’s probably true that Jewish men are over-represented in the field of political commentary. Yet, if you met a man on the street who identified himself as Jewish, it would be ridiculous to assume that he must be a pundit. Similarly, while the investment bankers who played such a central role in 2008’s near-collapse of the global economy almost certainly consisted mostly of white men, it would be absurd for financial regulators to assume that they should give special scrutiny to certain bankers simply because they are white. It is just as absurd to target the overwhelming majority of young black men who do not engage in violent crime because of fears arising from the small minority who do.
Such racial profiling is not simply lazy police work, it also imposes huge costs on black communities. African Americans are no more likely to use illegal drugs than anyone else — they constitute 14 percent of the US population and 14 percent of monthly drug users — yet they represent 53 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense. Black offenders are at least 30 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white offenders who commit the same crime. In New York City, where there were more police stops of young black men than there are young black men living in the city, white people who are stopped by police are actually twice as likely to have guns or drugs as people of color — a fact that likely stems more from the over-targeting of non-whites than from the fact that white people are particularly prone to law breaking.
The implication of Cohen and Parker’s columns is that African Americans must continue to bear these burdens, despite the fact that crime among young black men is actually in decline. According to the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “among black youth, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are at their lowest rates in 40 years, as are rates of violent crime and victimization.”
It’s worth noting that the National Review — a conservative publication that once accused Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of “deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country,” and that more recently blamed the difficult lives facing many victims of military sexual assaults on “their own bad decision-making — recently fired two writers because of indefensible statements they made on the subject of race.
The man who wrote that George Zimmerman “understandably suspected” an unarmed teenager “because he was black,” by contrast, is still employed by the Washington Post.