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An interesting roundtable tonight.

The W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies at Williams College will sponsor a Judicial Roundtable featuring U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall of the Central District of California, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams of the District of Maryland, and A.J. Kramer, federal public defender for the District of Columbia. The roundtable titled “Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System” will take place on Monday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. in Griffin Hall, room 3, on the Williams College campus.

Big picture, there are two views on racial disparities: first, that the disparities are caused by racism (either explicit or implicit) and, second, that the disparities have nothing to do with race per se. The second view argues that the reason that there are, say, a higher percentage of African-Americans than Asian-Americans in prison has little to do with the racial biases of policemen, prosecutors, juries or judges and everything to do with different rates of criminality.

Without even googling the three presenters, I would predict that only one of these two views will be presented/defended. Am I wrong? (Un-PC background reading for those interested.)

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#1 Comment By ronit On October 20, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

It’s like Groundhog Day.

#2 Comment By Will Slack ’11 On October 20, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

first, that the disparities are caused by racism (either explicit or implicit) and, second, that the disparities have nothing to do with race per se.

Dave, that’s a false comparison. You can say that the disparities do or not involve racism, and you can say that the disparities do or do not involve race.

You cannot say that the disparities either involve racism or do not involve race. That dog won’t hunt.

A few things:

First, race is definitely involved. I don’t care how often we say that anyone can do anything – a simple high school history course is going to tell a female/minority that the past presidents weren’t like them. “Head of State,” with Chris Rock, was the closest a black guy got to being President until THIS YEAR.

Second, you are correct that many factors that may be involved also correlate more with certain minority populations, such as % of single parent households.

Third, think about the 5 most famous of these you know of: black women, black men, white women, and white men. Compare those lists.

Fourth, watch the movie “Slam” with Saul Williams.

Race is a factor – I don’t know enough to say anything definitively about racism one way or the other.

#3 Comment By frank uible On October 20, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

Wittgenstein might say, “First let’s define racism”.

#4 Comment By David Kane On October 20, 2008 @ 7:26 pm


We may be having a semantic disagreement about the meaning of the phrase “Race is a factor.” Let me try an analogy.

Every one of the 64 starting cornerbacks in the NFL this year is African American. Is race a factor? Well, if by “factor” you mean something that allows you to predict, something that is correlated with actual outcomes, then of course it is. If we are betting on the racial distribution of starting cornerbacks next year, it would be crazy to think that, say, 50% of them would be white. Race is a factor in correlation and prediction.

But is race a “causal” factor in the cornerback population. I don’t think so. I think that cornerbacks are selected for their skill in a largely efficient market. If, say, an Asian-American had the same talents as a starting NFL cornerback, he could get the job just as easily. No one in the NFL would discriminate against him.

Extend this analogy to, say, the prison population. Is “race a factor” in correlation and prediction here? Yes! The incarceration rates are much higher African-Americans than Asian-Americans, and they will be next year as well. But is race a causal factor?

Imagine that we took a random person who committed a crime and changed his race from African-American to Asian-American. Or, better yet, did the experiment by randomly selecting 500 out of 1,000 criminals. Would the arrest rates, prosecution rates, and conviction rates be any higher for one group or the other? I don’t think so.

Now, I could be about both these. There are those that think that professional football is racist, that there are non-African-American players who are better than at least some of the 64 starting NFL cornerbacks but that these players never get a chance because NFL coaches think that only blacks can play cornerback. I find that implausible, but I have been wrong before.

Similarly, our panelists will probably argue that racism by individual policeman, prosecutors, jurors and judges has a major impact on incarceration rates. I find that implausible too.

My only point is that, I predict, we have three panelists who all believe in the first explanation. Where is the panelist who believes in the second view?

#5 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On October 20, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

False dichotomy.

#6 Comment By wslack On October 20, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

Similarly, our panelists will probably argue that racism by individual policeman, prosecutors, jurors and judges has a major impact on incarceration rates. I find that implausible too.

Quite an assumption.

We can agree that a random black child born somewhere in the US today is statistically more likely to end up in prison, assuming the data I saw a few years ago hasn’t shifted.

The question you are posing is if being black is a factor in the final decision by the legal system to throw someone in jail.

The question we need to answer is if being black is a factor in that endpoint happening at all, including stereotypes applied to that child as he/she grows and the people that child identifies with.

The goal of all of this should be to reduce crime rates overall.

#7 Comment By rory On October 20, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

what a horrible, horrible post.

i’m tired of being baited, david. really tired of it.

race is NEVER a causal factor–or, at least, statistics can never show that because the counterfactual is impossible. the idea that you think asian americans and african americans–holding all else constant–would be arrested, convicted, and receive similar sentences is laughable in non-idiotic society (I can’t think of a better way to put it. Like I said, I’m tired of your bait).

If someone OTHER than David wants to continue this conversation (have me produce evidence or theory behind it), I will do so. But I’m exhausted of having the same stupid back and forth with the same stupid analogies (the cornerback one) with david.

stop, please. it would have been better if you had googled the presenters and made your (also remarkably tiring and stupid) argument about having a “debate” between the “two sides” at every presentation.

#8 Comment By Ronit On October 20, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

An interesting lecture tonight:

Charles Lovett, the Phillip and Dorothy Schein Professor of Chemistry and director of the Bronfman Science Center at Williams College, will deliver the fall Sigma Xi Research Lectures. The lectures will be given on Thursday and Friday, Oct. 23 and 24, at 4:15 p.m. in The Science Center’s Wege Auditorium. The lectures are free and open to the public.

The Thursday lecture is titled “DNA repair in mutations, disease, and aging” and on Friday, Lovett will discuss “Learning about DNA repair from bacteria.”

“All organisms have evolved elaborate mechanisms to repair damage to their genomes from environmental factors and normal metabolic activities,” explains Lovett. “Preserving the integrity of our genetic material through DNA repair is essential as it is estimated that about one million DNA lesions occur in each of our cells every day.”

Big picture, there are two views on DNA mutations: first, that they are caused by random molecular variations, environmental damage, or radiation; second, that they are caused by Jesus testing our faith.

Without even googling Chip Lovett, I would predict that only one of these two views will be presented/defended tonight. Am I wrong? (Un-PC background reading for those interested).

#9 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On October 20, 2008 @ 9:26 pm


Are you suggesting we could start lowering the budget by… you know, the policy for selecting Chem profs is really questionable (I mean, the man worked in a post office and is known to associate with anthrax producers and other terrorists)… down with Lovett, down with Evolution and Science and all that none-sense! Balance that budget by cutting the un-natural Sciences! Cut, Cut…

(Apologies to Chip.)

#10 Comment By JG On October 20, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

Thank you Ronit.

#11 Comment By JeffZ On October 20, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

Will, I take issue with you on one point — David Palmer was the closest we’ve come to a black President. Indeed, I’ve seen (seriously) some analysis suggesting that 24 helped make people more willing to accept the Obama candidacy …

#12 Comment By wslack On October 21, 2008 @ 12:09 am

Jeff, I agree. I didn’t watch those seasons of 24, but I’ve read articles to that effect as well.

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