Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Race, Generalisations and Profiling

Today I came across a couple of very thought-provoking (and controversial!) articles on race issues, one about empirical studies suggesting affirmative action has significant negative consequences, and the other tackles the vexing issue of (especially racial) profiling:

Thus, as Aristotle would have it, if we really want justice, there must be not only rules, but also a discretion-based system to correct for the inevitable errors that the strict application of the rules will produce.

Indeed, the course of history can be written as a tug of war between rule-based and discretion-based methods of organizing and controlling human behavior. Lately, rules are crowding out discretion, and Schauer is all in favor of that. [...]

Schauer's core argument in defense of his position is this: We all use generalizations all the time, whether we acknowledge them or not. So we will all be better off if we are honest about the generalizations we are using, and if we give close consideration to the propriety of the constituent elements of the analytical shortcuts we have created for ourselves. [...]

Here is the important point: Back before the profile was written down, the Customs officials at the borders were already employing rules of thumbs and generalizations.

The only thing that has changed is that there is now transparency in the process. And that is a good thing.

If Transparent Profiling Is Desirable, Can One of the Factors Be Racial?

Once the factors used are made explicit, they can be examined: Do people up to no good disproportionately travel on one-way tickets? The answer is yes.

Do they disproportionately by those tickets with cash? Yes again.

Are they disproportionately young men? For sure.

Are they disproportionately minorities? That one is not so clear, but let's assume the answer -- empirically, as a matter of research -- is yes.

We can then say these four factors have an empirical basis for being in our profile.

Schauer's next step is to ask whether they should be included, and on race, he essentially fudges, which is probably the right thing to do. [...]

Schauer's Point: Transparency Allows Conscious Choice Among Profiling Systems

The important thing for Schauer is not that we decide the racial profiling question one way or another, but simply that we ask that tough question and answer it as a society.

Race issues aside, I think the argument for transparency is a very good one.
But to tackle the really tricky point... should profilers make use of racial statistics and generalisations?
I don't know. But whatever the answer is, it should be the same as whether the profiler is allowed to target individuals based on any other generalisations (eg gender-based ones).

I just don't see any relevant difference between racial and other stereotypes. Men are more violent. Young people are more violent. These are common stereotypes, and if a particular individual who happens to be young and male is targeted by security personnel because of this, then that is no less prejudice than if they targeted him because he is black.

But is prejudice necessarily a problem? Is it wrong to extrapolate from data about a group, to (tentative) conclusions about an individual member of that group? Not intrinsically wrong, I don't think. But there is certainly room for abuse. In particular, it must always be remembered that such extrapolations are extremely unreliable. Doubt should be the default epistemic position.

It seems to me that there is a very real sense in which such stereotypes are dehumanizing, and insulting to the individual who is so targeted. Generalisations deny individuality. They say to us that we are nothing more than the groups to which we belong. I'm not a person, I'm a young white male. Behave accordingly - there are expectations to live up to.

But then again, security personnel have a job to do; one which necessarily demotes everyone to the status of "potential threat". If some sort of sampling is required, then surely we might as well use the most efficient sampling techniques available to us? If given a choice between random sampling, and targeted sampling (such as is more likely to be successful), then isn't it simply common sense to choose the latter?

Well, perhaps, but it still makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable.


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