Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly recently justified racial profiling based on “overwhelming… damning” statistics:
It was wrong for [Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer George] Zimmerman to confront [black teenager Trayvon] Martin based on his appearance. But the culture that we have in this country does lead to criminal profiling because young black American men are so often involved in crime, the statistics [are] overwhelming. But here is the headline: young black men commit homicides at a rate 10 times greater than whites and Hispanics combined. When presented with damning evidence like that, and like the mini-holocaust in Chicago where hundreds of African-Americans are murdered each year the civil rights industry looks the other way or makes excuses.
Very well, Mr. O’Reilly. Let’s accept your challenge to liberals to live by the scientific “evidence” we claim to worship — in this case, statistical disparities in anti-social behaviors — as valid bases for criminal profiling, and then re-enact the Zimmerman-Martin confrontation … only with the players’ races and ages altered a bit.
Imagine a black, teenage community watch volunteer, armed with a gun and concerned for the safety of his neighborhood, spots a white, middle-aged man around O’Reilly’s age walking down his street. If the teenager is informed by the statistics of criminal behavior, he knows that middle-aged white grownups age 45-64 experience rates of death from illegal drugs nearly 10 times greater per capita than African American and Latino teenagers and young adults combined (see Centers for Disease Control tabulations). (Older whites also are disproportionately likely to be corporate criminals and commit mass shootings, but leave those statistics aside).
The black teenager knows that rising illegal-drug abuse centered in older white populations (and, to a lesser extent, in older black populations) not only is a “mini-holocaust” — 18,000 deaths among non-Latino whites ages 45-64 in 2010 — it underlies much of the violence, crime and other ills plaguing his and other communities.
So, the black youth confronts the white middle-aged stranger to determine whether he’s there to buy, sell, or get high on drugs, a fight ensues, and the teen fatally shoots the white grownup. Same demographic fears founded in “statistics” as were applied in the Zimmerman case, same deadly result.
O’Reilly serves a conservative network whose audience consists overwhelmingly of aged whites. The puzzle is that President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and other liberal and progressive advocates for racial tolerance also never miss a chance to cite selective statistics warning us how dangerous young black men are.
Asked on the August 7 “Tonight Show” about Martin’s shooting, President Obama replied that teenage boys “mess up” and “won’t always have the best judgment” and reminded us yet again that “young African-American men disproportionately have involvement in criminal activities and violence.”
Was the president, like O’Reilly, telling us that Trayvon Martin (like every young black man) “messed up” and displayed bad judgment by being a member of a demographic group that, statistically, deserves to be suspected of criminal activity and therefore bears responsibility for being shot to death?
Why do these opposite-pole national leaders continue to be so tragically confused about the basics of demographic prejudice 50 years after Martin Luther King’s celebrated 1963 speech that both canonized?
The crisis in 2013 racial discourse is that neither conservative, mass-audience commentators nor progressive leaders right up to the president seem to comprehend that what sociologist William Julius Wilson called “statistical bigotry” is really just traditional stereotyping combined with numerical fraud.
Statistical bigots don’t point out that FBI statistics for offense clearances and arrests by race indicate that black teenaged youths account for 2 percent of homicides, 4 percent of violent crimes, and 5 percent of property crimes in the country. But the fact that the odds of an individual black youth — or white or black middle-ager — presenting a criminal danger in any given instance are millions to one is only one fallacy underlying statistical bigotry.
The real issue is that statistical bigotry is just bigotry. It is always invoked selectively. The president and O’Reilly would be outraged if the drug abuse, corporate criminality, and other “overwhelming, damning” statistics displayed by their graying demographics were exploited to stigmatize and deny members of their cohorts basic rights — including to justify murdering them.
Of course, elites don’t have to worry. Like traditional prejudice, statistical bigotry is never applied to privileged groups, only to powerless populations. Jim Crow with a spreadsheet is still Jim Crow until a stronger commitment to egalitarian discussion of crime and other social issues emerges.