On Friday, November 11th, a meeting was held at the University of Michigan Law School to discuss the relationship between the University’s Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) alerts and diversity. The meeting was chaired by Ph.D. student David Green, who later published an opinion piece in the University’s student-run newspaper, The Michigan Daily, critiquing DPS specifically, and how we discuss race more generally. I would like to respond to Mr. Green’s piece, both because I share Mr. Green’s objective of promoting a constructive, critical dialogue regarding race and because I have concerns about the assumptions Mr. Green makes in constructing his argument.
In his opinion article, Mr. Green writes that, “In 2010, 3.28 percent of men at the University were black; and the total number of black male residents in Ann Arbor was less than 7.7 percent. Between November 2007 and October 2011, 62 incidents provided descriptions of the suspect whereby black men represented 48.3 percent of alleged offenders. Men of color […] comprised 51.5 percent of these descriptions.”Certainly these statistics are particularly concerning, especially in lieu of a long history of racial profiling and discrimination on the part of police forces across the United States. Given such a history, the meeting Mr. Green chaired was particularly constructive and raised important questions. He forced DPS Chief Greg O’Dell to explain how his department issues public safety alerts, and to consider the intersection of public safety and diversity. The positive impact of holding this public dialogue with students cannot be overstated.
But while I applaud Mr. Green’s actions, parts of his argument troubles me: It has to do with its underlying assumptions, which are often expressed as factual assertions, but in truth are merely hypotheses.
After reminding the readers of “the history of race and racial profiling endemic to Ann Arbor and the United States” and citing the troubling statistics regarding DPS crime alerts, Mr. Green proceeds to ask “What factors explain this disproportionate reporting pattern?” Instead of answering, he follows the statement with a call to action: “it’s time to institute social and institutional change here at the University.” The implication is that something is wrong with how DPS issues crime alerts, perhaps even that it is over-reporting incidents involving racial minorities.
But this logic rests on a troublingly shaky assumption: it assumes that the racial bias lies with DPS and not elsewhere. What if, for example, the racial bias lies in the fact that employers still discriminate against minorities when it comes to hiring, and that blacks specifically disproportionately live in poverty? When poor and unemployed, one is more likely to commit crimes. This is only a hypothesis, but can it be discredited prima facie? In short, is it clearly the University of Michigan that needs change, or is change warranted elsewhere?
Indeed, when there exist two plausible explanations for the same empirical observation, it is important to validate one and refute the other. We cannot simply assume that one is right and one is wrong, and then advocate public policies based on assumptions. The consequences might not be pretty.
Mr. Green also cites the unpleasant and caustic nature of reader comments to the Michigan Daily article which originally covered the meeting he chaired, including personal attacks of a professor who spoke at the event and argued that no value was added by including racial descriptions in the DPS crime alerts. It is clear that these comments prompted, at least in part, Mr. Green to write his piece. Further, implicit in his argument is the assumption that they are representative of broader sentiments at the University of Michigan.
But I know from my past experience as a columnist for The Michigan Daily that reader comments tend to always be extreme, for it is generally those who fiercely disagree with some portion of the article who will take the time to submit an online response. These individuals vary non-randomly from the general population, and their views should not be taken as representative of The Michigan Daily’s readership, the University of Michigan student body, or Ann Arbor residents as a whole. If we wish to develop a more nuanced understanding of race, we should be careful before assuming that a few online comments are representative of any meaningful population at large, or at least a large enough population whose views merit a published response.
It would also seem to be of little use to engage those who hold the most extreme views in an admittedly noble effort at constructive dialogue. Dialogue works when those you are trying to communicate with are willing to listen, but anyone who dismisses your point of view as moronic or idiotic is unlikely to be persuaded by even the most logically robust and emotionally salient argument. What’s more, further retaliation is likely to result, which only serves to further frustrate both sides while the rest are left to the sidelines, alienated and unengaged.
Finally, I wish to address Mr. Green’s question: why are we so obsessed with race? It is certainly true that many Caucasians act differently towards racial minorities than towards fellow whites. But this does not mean that racial minorities cannot do profiling of their own. For example, cases of black-on-black discrimination and of black-on-white racial profiling also occur. While historically inter-group discrimination has been causally directed in one direction, increasingly it goes both ways, and intra-group discrimination has existed since the dawn of time. Further, we should not assume that race is the dominant identity for everyone, the one which is always associated with discrimination and that is so salient that it even engenders an “obsession.”
So, why are we so obsessed with race? Perhaps it’s because we make the questionable assumption that everyone else is, too.