Proxy War

Liberals denounce racial profiling. Conservatives denounce affirmative action. What’s the difference?

In Brent Staples’ memoir Parallel Time, he recounts a game he used to play while a student at the University of Chicago. Staples, who is black, would pace the streets surrounding the campus after dark. When he spied a white couple strolling toward him arm in arm, he would walk directly at them, at a normal pace. The couple would first tighten their grip on each other. Then, as Staples continued to head toward them, they would panic, release their grip, and scurry apart. Staples would breeze between them, without losing a step, without looking back. He called it “scattering the pigeons.”

The “pigeons” feared Staples because of his blackness–they were using his race as a proxy for potential criminality. Using superficial traits to infer deeper characteristics in people is common and need not be racist. Generalizing from what is easily and quickly knowable to something that is hard to know for sure is what economists think of as minimizing information costs. If the clouds turn dark and ominous and it starts to thunder while you’re out for a stroll, you can find a phone and call the weather service, or you can ignore them on the grounds that predictions about the weather are often wrong, or you can take cover under the assumption that it’s probably going to rain. But using race as a proxy is sensitive, for good and obvious reasons.

If skin color as a proxy for criminal intentions were a precise tool–that is, if every young black man strolling the sidewalks were a mugger–it would be hard to criticize. And if the implied generalization had no validity–if a young black male was no more likely to be a mugger than anyone else approaching on the sidewalk–it would be easy to label as racist. But, like most such generalizations, it is valid but not perfect. A young black man is more likely to be a mugger than a young white man–but the assumption that any particular young black man is a mugger will usually be wrong. So is using race as a proxy racist?

This is what the current “racial profiling” controversy is about. Racial profiling is when police use race as a reason to search someone’s car or to frisk a pedestrian. Almost all black men have tales of being stopped by a cop for no reason other than their skin color. It’s derisively known as “DWB”: the crime of driving while black. Earlier this year the governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, fired the state police superintendent for telling a journalist that blacks were more likely to commit crimes than whites. But she has since admitted that state police systematically stop cars simply because the driver is black. And racial profiling has many defenders who say it is sensible, hard-nosed policing of the sort that has led to a dramatic drop in the nation’s crime rate.

O ne generalization that can be made about racial profiling–a valid but not perfect generalization, of course–is that conservatives tend to support it, while liberals tend to regard it as racist. In another controversy, the one over affirmative action, the opposite generalization holds: Liberals tend to support it, while conservatives tend to regard it as reverse racism.

And yet affirmative action and racial profiling are essentially the same. Affirmative action amounts to the use of race as a proxy for other, harder-to-discern qualities: racial victimization, poverty, cultural deprivation. Few critics of affirmative action are against compensating victims of specific and proven acts of racial discrimination. And the critics often positively endorse programs giving a special break to people who’ve overcome economic or cultural disadvantage. What they object to is generalizing these conditions from a person’s race. Defenders of affirmative action say, in essence, that as policy-making generalizations go, this one is overwhelmingly valid–and that more justice will be lost than gained by insisting on scientific precision.

Defenders of affirmative action and defenders of racial profiling even resort to the same dodge in defending their cause against colorblind absolutists. They say they, too, think it’s wrong for a person to be promoted and/or arrested just because of his or her race. But, they say, it’s OK for race to be one factor among many.

Here is Gov. Whitman, quoted in the New York Times Magazine last month, explaining the difference between profiling (good) and racial profiling (bad):

Profiling means a police officer using cumulative knowledge and training to identify certain indicators of possible criminal activity. Race may be one of those factors, but it cannot stand alone. Racial profiling is when race is the only other factor. There’s no other probable cause.

This precisely echoes Justice Lewis Powell’s famous explanation of permissible affirmative action in the 1978 Bakke case:

Ethnic diversity is only one element in a range of factors a university properly may consider in attaining the goal of a heterogeneous student body. … In [a constitutional] admissions program, race or ethnic background may be deemed a “plus” in a particular applicant file, yet it does not insulate the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.

The factor fudge satisfies some critics, but it doesn’t solve the racial proxy dilemma. Stopping and frisking a driver or admitting a student to Yale is a yes-or-no decision. As legal scholar Randall Kennedy wrote in his book Race, Crime, and the Law, “Even if race is only one of several factors behind a decision, tolerating it at all means tolerating it as potentially the decisive factor.” When it’s the decisive factor, it might as well have been the only factor. If it’s never decisive, it’s not really a factor at all.


he main difference between affirmative action and racial profiling is that one singles out blacks for something desirable and the other singles them out for something undesirable. Reasonable people can differ about whether using race as a proxy is OK. Obviously it depends on how valid the generalization is in any given case, and how costly or impractical it would be to get alternative information. When you fear a man approaching you may be a mugger, you may not be able to find out in the next five seconds whether he happens to be a University of Chicago intellectual headed for the New York Times editorial board. On the other hand, race is not just any proxy, and probably should be used more sparingly–especially by the government–than the narrow logic of probabilities would justify.

Racial proxies are a tough call. But it’s safe to say that anyone who is outraged by racial profiling but tolerates affirmative action, or vice versa, has got it wrong.