Williams on Profiling

Friday, August 21, 2009

Walter Williams has written a thought-provoking piece, posted at Capitalism Magazine, on racial profiling as a means of economizing on information costs -- thought-provoking, but not perfect.

On the one hand, Williams does successfully make the case that using race or ethnicity is warranted in some circumstances:

In a 1999 article, "Capital Cabbies Salute Race Profiling," James Owens writes, "If racial profiling is racism, then the cab drivers of Washington, D.C., they themselves mainly blacks and Hispanics, are all for it. A District taxicab commissioner, Sandra Seegars, who is black, issued a safety-advice statement urging D.C.'s 6,800 cabbies to refuse to pick up 'dangerous looking' passengers. She described 'dangerous looking' as a young black guy ... with shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants, unlaced tennis shoes."
This is a very good example. Let the wrong character into your car and you could wind up robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Spend too much time trying to figure out whether to do business with someone and you starve.

My mild quarrel with Williams arises from his colloquial, albeit loose use of the term "racial." For example, he starts building his case that racial profiling is a way to cut the cost of gathering information by noting that certain medical conditions are more common among blacks than among other racial groups, and ends by shifting over to crime, for certain types of which blacks (at least in the United States) are much more prone.

The problem with this is that it lets slide too easily the fact that there is a difference between genetic makeup and cultural background. Differing racial incidences of certain diseases might, for example, simply reflect the fact that genetic susceptibility to these diseases differs among races. (Risk for some diseases could also (or only) reflect cultural differences, but for our purposes here, this is irrelevant.)

But what about crime rates? Barring certain rare mental conditions, individuals possessing free will commit crimes. What might account for a racial difference in crime statistics? Culture. While one always has free will, some cultures encourage civilized behavior better (i.e., make it easier for one to form rational habits) than others.

Owing largely to the history of slavery and legal persecution blacks have suffered in America, that group is not only genetically distinct, but culturally distinct, and failing to make such a distinction thwarts intelligent discussions about racial matters in two ways: (1) by making it easier (by failing to challenge the surface plausibility of their claims) for racial determinists to claim that the ills of black America are due to an inferior genetic makeup and, thus not soluable within an integrated society (i.e., one that respects individual rights); and (2) by allowing multiculturalists to insist that we all pretend that nothing is culturally wrong, by (incorrectly) slamming any and all criticism of black American culture as merely racist.

Both "alternatives" ignore free will (and, with it, morality) and short-change the individual, black or not. I agree with Walter Williams that practices like racial and cultural profiling are warranted sometimes, but failing to distinguish between the two makes it hard to address some of the very problems that so often make cultural profiling of a racial group necessary to begin with.

Perhaps "group profiling," as is done in non-racial categories (search term: prejudice) all the time, might be a better term.

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo.


madmax said...


This is another excellent post on race relations. When you post on this subject you always add clarity to this subject.

The left constantly argues that whites are racist but the more I read I see that there is great hostility to whites from a coalition consisting of women, gays and non-whites. Below is a link from a PaleoCon blogger who writes on cultural issues. Yes there are the typical pro-religion sentiments. But in the blog post he links to three tv ads which are so anti-white that they are difficult to watch.


It seems that we are moving in the direction of terrible racial strife in this country. And the left has basically closed down the possibility of any rational discussion of it. Men like Williams and Sowell, no matter their flaws, are heroic just for challenging the blacks-as-victims ideology that is so dominant today. I feel that Objectivism is going to have to address race, gender, sexuality, marriage decay, etc at some point in its future. Free markets are important but most people are interested in answers to society's social ills too and the only people ready to challenge the left are the religious traditionalists or the materialist "biodiversity" conservatives. Objectivism is going to have to make its presence felt in this area.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks! I'm glad you appreciate these posts in addition to the fact that your comments have often added insight or interest to the discussions.

I just had time for the first two ads at the link, but they are shocking even by today's blood-and-gore-jaded standards.

Even without such blatant racism, though, Objectivists would have to address such cultural issues: The war against the individual is, after all, a multi-front affair.

These videos just demonstrate how urgent the situation is.