Rational Profiling: Cabbies Do It Too
You all recall what happened to the former Education Secretary William Bennett when he ventured into the lion’s den of demographics. Intending to condemn utilitarian arguments for abortion, Bennett had said that:
If you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.
With a good deal of foaming at the mouth and gnashing of the teeth, the cultural cognoscenti hastened to label him a racist because his argument was premised on the tabooed truth about “the color of crime.” Those who monopolize discourse in this country quickly stipulated the terms of the faux debate that followed.
Thus even the intrepid Bay Buchanan backed down when Donna Brazile, her CNN sparring sister, insisted that if black people were not so horribly and eternally disenfranchised by society at large, they would not dominate the violent-crime franchise.
James Bowman, reviewer for the British (and brilliant) Times Literary Supplement, agrees that Bennett’s verbal flub was—and is—factually unassailable (gasp), if impolitic. “The remark,” observes Bowman:
was widely characterized as ‘racist’ and President Bush was called upon to disavow the views of his fellow Republican—and he obliged with that new favorite substitute for moral judgement, the word ‘inappropriate.’ Yet while doubtless tactless—the sort of deliberate provocative comment that delights the philosophy professor, which is what Bennett used to be—his words had been in substance nothing more that a statement of the undisputed fact that in America black people proportionately commit more crimes than whites. (My emphasis; Bowman’s utterance)
A word about the TLS: I never tire of commending—and recommending—it for its heuristic pursuit of truth. It’s generally apolitical and always intellectually rigorous. I’m equally energetic when it comes to berating the dreck New York Review of Books for its pamphleteering. The latter’s obtuse art and book critiques, interspersed as they are with interminably long political disquisitions on the purity of Hamas or Cuban-style healthcare, fall into the category of agitprop.
Were the NYRB to succumb and discuss “the undisputed fact that in America black people proportionately commit more crimes than whites,” to repeat Bowman, the “debate” would be couched in root-causes circumlocution and strictly confined to the Three P’s—blame poverty, powerlessness and the pale patriarchy.
When Bush jumped into the ring, Bennett broke down and eventually apologized—an apology taxi drivers might soon be pressured into issuing as well. To decrease the risks of an extremely dangerous job, they profile potential passengers, taking into account a composite of characteristics, of which race is one. I venture that, if human beings were not in the habit of constructing such cognitive categories and using these to predict and protect against risk and danger, our prehistoric ancestor Homo erectus might not have stuck around long enough to evolve into Homo sapiens.
According to the authors of “Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish their Customer’s Trustworthiness” (TLS, May 12), it transpires that in deciding whether to “stop for a fare,” cabbies give preference to “whites” over “blacks.” But they also select older over younger passengers; women over men; individuals over multiple passengers, wealthier over poorer; callers over hailers; and “friendly and calm over aggressive and agitated.” As it is in the taxi driver’s economic interest to refuse “as few fares as possible, they can no more be guilty of racism than they are of reverse sexism or ageism because they prefer older and female passengers,” say the authors.
Since there is no way of knowing whether those passengers the drivers screened out were in fact dangerous, it's difficult to assess the effectiveness of these strategies. Still, not even the most ardent rights-violator would dare suggest cabdrivers be penalized for their prudence. For one, it could cost the driver his life.
Bush, we presume, is aware of the shared characteristics that distinguish Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah, Hani Hanjour (all of the 9-11 “fame”); Mohammad Sidique Khan, Hasib Mir Hussain, and Shehzad Tanweer (of 7-7); Ayman al-Zawahiri’s and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Bin Laden’s Capo Bastones).
If not, his security detail knows “Muslims proportionately commit more airline hijackings and suicide bombings than non-Muslims.” The taxpayer-funded security squads watching over our legislators certainly do not confine their protective efforts to frisking old ladies.
Yet the Bush administration has severely punished airlines “whose pilots have refused to carry Muslim men whom they regard as a security risk.” The Department of Transportation—and resentful Muslim advocacy groups—has no qualms about continually suing airlines for attempting to put the safety of passengers first.
They know they can bank on what Bennett discovered about contemporary America. Better to button up about the “color of crime” than risk being branded a racist. And flying safely is not as important for social survival as flying well under the racial radar.
©2006 By Ilana Mercer