Posted on November 17, 2008

Race Stats Confine Black Youths

Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star, November 17, 2008

Statistics are troubling. They carry a weight of certainty that is not always deserved.

Crime statistics are particularly misleading. The numbers, and what they purportedly reveal, are only as good as the data fed into a computer. Often that data is incomplete or deceptive. A single incident between suspect and police, for example, can result in a slew of charges—catch-all overcharging is routine—many of which are subsequently dropped because there was no reasonable substance to them and zero likelihood of conviction. But the record will still show X number of charges levelled, skewing annual totals in that particular column.

Finessing statistics is a skill, especially when the purpose is exploitation of numbers by special interest groups. And such groups will pounce on indices that suit their agenda or appear to legitimize their biases, their bigotry, under cover of broad societal concerns.

Value-neutral statistics are a rarity. But “hard” data feels objective and authentic, resistant to challenges. Immeasurable harm can be caused by collecting—and interpreting—statistics for the purpose of devising public policy, even when the intentions are benevolent.

Race-based statistics cannot possibly be reliably benign or helpfully instructive. While the purpose of gathering such information may be educational or altruistic, the objective is a correction of adverse trends in certain identifiable groups; the unintended consequences will also be predictably poisonous.

Collecting race-based data “in all key domains”—a worrisome phrase, which sounds deliberately bereft of clarity—is one of the recommendations contained in the youth violence report released Friday, co-authored by Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling. It was commissioned after the 2007 shooting death of student Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute—where, by disheartening coincidence, another teenage student was stabbed in the stomach just last week.

Though some civic leaders who enthusiastically supported the report’s other recommendations were noticeably cool to this controversial component, it did appear to draw qualified approval from Premier Dalton McGuinty, if properly applied in countering the root causes of youth violence.

“I just think that none of us any longer enjoy the luxury of bringing an ideological approach to dealing with race-based data,” he told reporters.

In a fair world, maybe. But it’s not a fair world for black youths disproportionately vulnerable to family breakdown, intolerably high dropout rates, spirit-crushing low expectations and increasingly overt hostility from the wider community, where the shortcomings of some are projected onto the whole. This is racial profiling run amok, emboldening those who just never liked or trusted black people very much.

Already, this faction believes its suspicions have been borne out by violent crime escalating in the city of Toronto. They ridicule “soft” sentences and a revolving door youth justice system—criticism that might be justified, but skin colour is not the determinative common denominator.

They’re not bad because they’re black. They’re at-risk and susceptible to the lure of criminality—the minority who go that route—because so many start out with overwhelming disadvantages that rarely ease up, many raised in neighbourhoods where violence is the default resolution to conflict, and convinced early that their choices are severely limited. These are realities that have been studied to death.

I see no value in further stigmatizing troubled youth by distinction of race: blacks suspended, expelled, failing, disciplined, in conflict with school authorities or the law. Whatever the underlying reasons, the cumulative effect will be to render skin colour a disability, a pejorative typecasting, invested with perceived validity by statistical documentation.

The whole concept is patronizing and humiliating, ripe for resentment. And, whatever warning symbols are slapped on the data—Do Not Exploit—that is precisely what will occur in a segment of the population that needs no more boosting for jaundiced views.

Kill the proposal, STAT.