Friday, August 10, 2007

Fork in the Road

Consider the following statement: "In North Carolina a disproportionate share of the prosecutions for racial motivation prosecutions have been of Black people." [From Jerome McCristal Culp, Jr., The Michael Jackson Pill: Equality, Race, and Culture, 92 Mich. L. Rev. 2613, 2623 (1994)]. The reference is to "penalty enhancements" for having a racial motivation when committing a crime. This article is from 1994, so the fact is not necessarily accurate anymore, but it's useful for a thought experiment.

Now, imagine two separate deployments of this fact.

1) "Sure, we've added laws that protect against discrimination and racially-motivated crimes. But they are not actually enforced to protect minorities. In fact, in North Carolina, a large proportion of the racial motivation prosecutions have been filed against Black people!"

2) "You love to lecture us on how much racism there is against Black. But the truth is, White people have made loads of progress, while nobody talks about Black racism against Whites, which is now probably the bigger problem. Indeed, in North Carolina, where you'd expect there to be lots of anti-Black racism, its actually Blacks who are being charged with a disproportionate share of racially motivated crimes."

The same evidence can be used to support two opposite conclusions. The surplus of prosecutions against Black people for racially motivated crimes in North Carolina can be enlisted either to show that the laws aren't being enforced fairly or that Black racism against Whites is a bigger problem. It all depends on the assumptions you make. This is why throwing facts around without context is a fool's game in these sorts of debates. Facts only have meaning within the social contexts they swim in. How you perceive those waters will greatly influence how you perceive the facts.

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