“But white people get harassed by cops too”

Which of the following arguments has recently been made in TV commentaries, newspapers and blogs:

1.  Even non-smokers can get lung cancer, so smoking does not put one at risk for  lung  cancer.

2.   Even thin people can have high blood pressure, so being obese does not  put one at risk for high  blood pressure.

3.  Even  white people can be arbitrarily harassed and arrested by police, so being black does not put one at risk for arbitrary harassment and arrest by police.

1 and 2 are bad arguments and  though I suspect I’ve heard the first from some tobacco defenders, it’s not going to fool most people, one hopes.  #3, which has been showing up recently, even on supposedly liberal blogs, strikes too many people as  a good argument.

So what’s wrong with it?  The premise is about there being some instances of a feature,  F, in a population of non-G’s.  The conclusion is about the probability that a G will have F.   We can show the reasoning is fallacious by producing arguments of the same form with true premises and false conclusions.  We can point out that nothing in probability theory supports it; the premise is irrelevant to the truth of the conclusion.  I’m not sure it has, however, its own name.  Does anyone know of one?  If not, perhaps we should think of one.  We see the same form in enough contexts; e.g.,

Men can get raped, so women are not especially at risk….

Men can suffer from domestic violence, so women are not especially at  risk…

What is going on when these arguments are put forward?  We could spill a lot of ink on the topic, but the comment “They just don’t get it,” might be as good as any.  Relatedly, the programs on TV I at least have watched have displayed an unnerving ability to find white people who seem just  not to get it with Henry Louis Gates’ recent arrest.   That might be one sign of the problem the USA still  has with race.

My favorite comment in all the reporting:  “Now we know that if you want to rob a house, the first thing you do is get a taxi to go there and wait for you.”

29 thoughts on ““But white people get harassed by cops too”

  1. The whole story about the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest hadn’t hit our news, but I got across some very blatant racist remarks about it on the net. Let me just point to a previous post on here:
    Jennifer Eberhardt\’s research.
    God have mercy upon us, indeed (not sure if that quote is in this particular fragment, but it is in the full thing).

  2. Yes, definitely a popular and pernicious bad argument form– thanks for pointing it out! Will have to put it into my critical thinking classes with some of these examples. And thanks too for blogging on Gates. I had just been thinking we needed to get something up. Readers may also be interested in this thought-provoking post about the role of class issues in the incident: http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/comments/why_class_does_matter_in_the_gates_arrest_debate/.

  3. Now it hit the news, fresh from the radio, the news is about Obama though and how he regrets calling the thing stupid and invites both prof and cop for a beer in the white house.

  4. H, that’s for the reminder! Jennifer Eberhardt’s research is very worth knowing about.

    Jender, thanks for the link. I too felt we needed to do something, but most of what I could think of saying probably went far beyond the evidence.

    I have some qualms about the Pandagon piece. I hope that it is ironically going in for mind-reading and chastising Gates for forgetting the need to be servile, but I’m not sure.

    Like surely many women, I know it can be safer to go into a “what do I know, poor little women that I am” mode. And there are contexts where I do that just because I don’t want to deal with the upset and upheaval that I can cause by directly challenging some male colleagues. But if I happen to be in the assertive professor mode after a traffic accident and consequently get threatened by a policeman, I certainly don’t think I – or any of us – should be blamed.

    In fact that happened to me. A bus pulled into my car and the policeman started to write me a ticket. I thought well, he just didn’t understand. Ha!

    Just for the record, recently a taxi driver in Oxford told me that the police always support the city workers, which I expect was what was going on in the accident in the states.

  5. I was in a hospital bed at the emergency room after having crashed my motorbike with 120 km’s an hour on the high way and cops came to my bed and informed me I would get fined for damaging the road.
    At that moment I thought, meh, fine me, I am very very very happy that I am alive after I thought I would die, hearing all those elongated sounds of cars breaking and sort of bouncing from the left lane to the right (Dutch 4 lane highway).
    I never got the fine. But heck, this is nothing remotely as bad as what Gates suffered in the “safety” of his own home, for pete’s sake.

  6. jj, I had a hard time seeing what you were talking about with the “need to be servile” bit.

    Though a middle-aged white male by now, I could never manage to get rid of the lessons learned when I was younger and living in a diverse neighborhood, meaning I had friends who were not white, which meant guilt by association for cops. That means I still get that deep-seated fear of getting beaten up whenever I see them, and that gets squared if it happens to be at night with few or no people around — I don’t own a car, so I’m often walking home at night.

    I really don’t give a second thought to verbal harassment or being repeatedly searched in front of coworkers. I get annoyed at strip searches, but I know how much worse it could get. Funny thing is that none of that happens to me anymore, but that isn’t making a difference in my reaction when seeing a cop.

    I suspect something similar to this might be going on with the author of that post. Maybe it’s not an ironic spoof of the “need to be servile”, but a lasting effect of her upbringing. I can relate to her take because I’m always alarmed when I see other middle-aged white guys I know talk back to cops, and amazed when they get away with it. On an intellectual level I *know* I probably could do the same, but on an emotional level it’s very different, and the latter tends to take over in tense situations — probably made tense in the first place for emotional reasons, as it was no big deal for my colleagues. Maybe I should get my privileged white male card revoked for relying on emotion so much.

    Bottom line is I can see how her take on this situation might not be irony at all but a “what was he thinking” reaction coming from her upbringing — “Bed-Stuy” probably triggered a lot of associations for me. But I can l also related to your take on it, because I’m now fully aware of how irrational my own reaction is.

    So thanks for bringing that particular disconnect to light, jj, I wasn’t really away aware of it before your comment, so I guess I grew because of it.

    On second thoughts, at my age “growing” tends to be a kinda positive way to say “getting old”, so I’m not that sure I should be thanking you for squashing my denial efforts.

  7. Thanks, Fred! I think I agree. She is being serious and I guess I’m reluctant to blame Gates for being uppity, as it might be said. I think I understand her point, that he shouldn’t lose hold of his “shuffling po’ boy” charade, because it can save his life.

    My concern is with assuming (a) that we have access to these learned routines all the time and (b) he should be chided for losing his.

    Your post might be saying that the life of black men is sufficineetly threatened that the lessons are very deep and never go away.

  8. Thanks Carl, I agree with a number of points your make, including the one(s) about Fish. It’s interesting to see a privileged white man aware of how racism can work itself out.

    The Shem Walker case is horrifying.

  9. jj, my aim was just to suggest another take on what you were saying, maybe to clarify unstated assumptions on both parts. Only the original author can say whether I’m overstepping and projecting too much, so please take my drivel as tentative at best.

    As I’ve said, I’m white, so I just can’t speak for American Black males.

    I’d love to hear more diverse discourse around here, and I deeply think it’s a proper forum because kyriarchy goes beyond race and gender yet brings both together, and you seem to be people who could maybe bridge that gap on one of many levels.

  10. Folks — I agree with the general premise that in the U.S., black people are arrested more often than whites, and for more spurious reasons. And yes, racism thrives — here and elsewhere. But it seems that in the Gates case, Gates was arrested not for breaking into his house, but for disturbing the peace or being “out of control” outside the house. Once inside his home, he began arguing with the officer, and then stepped back outside his front door, into the “public” arena, to continue arguing, loudly. Now it can be argued that he wasn’t a danger or even an annoyance to anyone, including the police (and I’m sure he wasn’t) — but in the U.S. being nasty to to a police officer in public seems to be grounds upon which to arrest someone, not to mention “being a public threat,” or “disturbing the peace.” A friend of mine (a white male) was once arrested for “disturbing the peace” by carrying a megaphone in public; I myself, a caucasian woman, was recently given a ticket for “failing to respond to a police siren,” despite the fact that I hadn’t even heard the siren. So I suggest that in the Gates case, we withhold judgment until more of the facts are revealed: it may be that the case is not so much about the overt racism of the officer, but about the extremist policies of the police, and about some of the more subtle traces of our racist past which are hard to measure or legislate: for example, Gates’ rightly internalized sense of injustice, or Crowley’s culturally conditioned inability to “read” Gates’ response as an expression of frustration (which it surely was) rather than as an ouburst of violence. –R., in the U.S.

  11. I don’t think the officer who arrested Gates was racist. As R. said above me, it probably had more to do with the police’s policy toward people arguing with them in public. I believe that most authority figures react that way. If you argue with a referee, you either get warned or thrown out of the game; if a child is disorderly with his parents, that child would get sent to his room or grounded.

    What annoys me is when gates played the race card. People say racism is alive and thriving in America, but the only people I see who are bringing it up are blacks. Now, I am not a racist, but most white people are too afraid to bring up race for fear of being called a racist. So I get annoyed when blacks complain of racism, yet they are the ones who bring it up most of the time. It is different if someone says something racist, then I would understand.

    For example: In the Gates case, if the officer had said something racist, I would understand Gates complaint. But the officer didn’t say anything racist, Gates brought it up out of thin air. I understand Gates frustration; if police came into my home and arrested me i would be furious. And for good reason. And if Gates had complained because of what the police did (coming in his home and subsequently arresting him without a very good reason) I would sympathize. But he didn’t. He called the officer a racist, when clearly the 911 call was a legitimate reason for the police to go to the home.

    As for what kind of criminal would be stupid enough to rob a house at 2:30 pm, check out the Darwin Awards. There are some pretty stupid people.

  12. John, your comment seems to assume that racism is nothing more than using racist language. But, to pick a relevant example, being more ready to label a Black man’s actions belligerent or disrespectful than a White man’s is racist, even if it doesn’t involve any racist comments or language.

    We should also be careful to distinguish racist people from racist actions. One way to make this distinction is to separate the intentions people have for doing what they do from the consequences of what they do. US drug policy is a good example here. Stricter punishments for and more rigorous policing of users of crack cocaine, compared to users of powdered cocaine, might not be motivated by racist intentions — I’ve heard that crack cocaine is more dangerous than powdered, though I can’t confirm that at the moment. But it has racist consequences, because it means Black cocaine users (who, if I recall correctly, are more likely to use crack than powdered cocaine) are subject to harsher penalties, on average, than White cocaine users.

    With these sorts of distinctions in place, we could claim, for example, that Crowley’s intentions were not racist — that Crowley himself is not a racist person — but that they are part of a pattern of police actions that have racist consequences. Hence we can say that his actions were wrong or inappropriate without saying that he himself is a racist.

  13. “People say racism is alive and thriving in America, but the only people I see who are bringing it up are blacks.”

    John is being a prankster. At first I thought: Obviously, blacks could be expected to be the first and most vocal responders to…anti-black bias. Who else would “bring it up most of the time”?

    Then I realized: Since this is absurdly obvious, John must be playing a sly joke–in the spirit of Sacha Baron Cohen or Monty Python–to test whether thinly-veiled expressions of racial resentment and ignorance would be straightforwardly treated as such in this very civil forum.

    Fortunately, the bit about Gates playing “the race card,” “out of thin air”–when sick, tired, and in the privacy of his own home–gave the prank away.

    Almost got me, John.

  14. Bravo, KM. You’ve seen the connection between “But the officer didn’t say anything racist, Gates brought it up out of thin air,” and Baron Cohen’s “Kill the jew.”
    So John’s seeing if we agree that it is totally absurd for Gates to present an obvious explanation for why, as an old frail man with a cane, he’s being arrested for being a public menace.
    Good we missed his trap. Otherwise we’d look, well, maybe something like racist.

  15. So you say that it is Perfectly fine for a man to accuse another of being racist even though no accused has shone no evidence of racism?

  16. John, you said:

    In the Gates case, if the officer had said something racist, I would understand Gates complaint. But the officer didn’t say anything racist, Gates brought it up out of thin ai.

    You seem now to be changing the issue.

  17. I am sorry if you misunderstood me, jj. My comment above is my main complaint, that Gates accused the officer (officers?) of being racist for no apparent reason except that they responded to a 911 call from a neighbor.

    If anyone is obsessed with race, it was Gates not the officer.

  18. You switched from saying the policeman said nothing racist to maintaining he did nothing racist. They are very different.

    Calling him racist, or raising the possibility that he’s racist, is based on an inference from his actions to his motives. The supporting premises need to be about background patterns of behavior and so on.

    I think it’s clear we deeply disagree. Either you don’t know about the background patterns or you don’t think they are important or telling. We can leave it there.

  19. I’m trying to say Gates was the racist. The officer didn’t say anything racist and the officer didn’t act racist.

  20. John, this blog is not an appropriate forum for the right wing people like Savage. His hate speech got him refused permission to enter the UK, and he is no more welcome here, at leat in my opinion.

    I think you are deeply mistaken. Men and women can both be sexist against women; blacks and whites can both be racist against blacks. I expect Gates realizes this; as far as we know, his assessment of racism was based on the person’s actions, not their skin. At least, I’m not in the least surprised to see black police officers involved in mistreating a black person, and it would be amazing if Gates were. What merits the tag is actions, not skin color.

    And yes I have said of particular women that they were sexist.

    I’m concerned that you thought Savage was fit for this blog, and I think honestly you’ve come to the end of your turn here.

  21. @ R. #12, but isn’t the granting of discretionary authority to police officers also a problem, in its own right and a problem for racism?

    Feministing has an interesting post about this http://bit.ly/14Mvxo to quote:

    “The bottom line here is that an officer used the authority of law to restrict the liberty of a man who was expressing displeasure with him. If you think that is right, then you fundamentally disagree with the basic principle of a free society.
    That is not hyperbole. If you are willing to grant any individual with a gun and a badge the authority to arrest people because they don’t like them, then you and I share no common principle on liberty and the right of people to be free from oppression. None.”

    I agree that this is a problem for liberty generally, but it is also a problem for racism in particular.

    It is important to notice that there is no objective criteria for “loud and tumultuous behaviour.” when behaviour crosses that line is a matter of perception.

    One of the features of racism is that the same actions performed by a black man are often perceived as “aggressive,” “violent,” and “threatening” whereas they would not be perceived as such if performed by a white man. (There are studies of this, which is called “implicit bias” in the literature. Implicit bias has been discussed on this blog quite a bit). Another implicit bias about black people is that they are “loud.”

    The cops could have been misperceiving the behaviour. This would mean that the cops are not *intentionally* being racist, but they are being racist nonetheless. I do, however, think that there are different implications for accountability in the two kinds of racist behaviour. I think that intentional racism might deserve punishment in a way that unintentional racism does not. I think a better response to unintentional racism is education, or a Young-like social connection model of responsibility (see Young, Iris Marion (2006). “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” Social Philosophy and Policy. 23(1): 102-130).

  22. Here is another interesting link that goes with my last point in # 24 (but I did not want to seem like spam from too many links): http://bit.ly/12ybX5

    It is from a case in Canada that held there is no difference between conscious and unconscious racism. I think this misses an important distinction: although both are “wrong” they are not equally blameworthy.

  23. @ John #13 John wrote, “Now, I am not a racist, but most white people are too afraid to bring up race for fear of being called a racist. So I get annoyed when blacks complain of racism, yet they are the ones who bring it up most of the time. It is different if someone says something racist, then I would understand.”

    Really whites are affraid of bringing up race? See here: http://bit.ly/s4ITF Pat Buchanan is white, but seems comfortable bringing up race. So were a lot of Republicans in the Sotomayor hearings…

  24. Bakka, these are really important points. I think we don’t really understand very well the extent to which we can change our own biases. That’s got to make a very important difference to culpability.

    At the same time, one might expect a doctor whose implicit bias leads her to give less good treatment to a person of color to realize there’s a difference in how she is treating people and to stop it.

  25. jj, sure, I think you are right about, “I think we don’t really understand very well the extent to which we can change our own biases. That’s got to make a very important difference to culpability.” But we can’t be culpable when these biases are implicit, can we? Surely when they first become explicit we are not culpable. At that point, I think we have a non-culpable responsibility. If we fail to take up that non-culpable responsibility, maybe thereafter we become culpable. What do you think?

  26. Bakka, I think this is really hard to figure out. That’s one reason why I left my response incomplete. Also, I need to look at the Young work more – I’m really glad you brought her up.

    Still, here’s what might have been in my mind: many of us have very serious obligations to equal treatment of members of a group: students getting graded, patients being treated, clients getting represented, and so on. I’m inclined to think we’re culpable for failures to treat them unequally if we can detect them. Would the implicit biases lead us to fail to detect them? Maybe in some cases – e.g., grading. I’m not sure about all, though.

    And I don’t know what to say about the doctor who thinks people of color don’t feel as much pain. How can a medically trained person think that makes sense?

    Maybe one thing that is operating here is something like our obligations to not be ignorant of some things. Parents have a number of these. A parent has an obligation to find out some things and act accordingly. In a doctor these might create a culpability that unconsciousness of one’s bias might otherwise excuse.

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