Margin of Error is Key

After the Trayvon Martin tragedy there has been a lot of commentary on the plight, or lack thereof as some would have it, of African-Americans in the United States. The President remarked on the feeling of suspicion and misperception coming from parts of the larger community that creates a pervasive, baseline sense of oppression for Black America, including even professionals and presidents-to-be. And with Ray Kelly being considered for Homeland Security, there is a lot of discussion around racial profiling and "stop and frisk" practices.

All those things are debatable, clearly, but I just want to add one idea that doesn't receive enough attention: namely that the margin of error for most African Americans, and also for many poor whites, is much lower than that which exists for middle class whites and above.

So if young men from these differing groups engage in the same kind of screwing up that is common to their gender and age, e.g. selling or possessing pot or other drugs, or maybe destruction of property, the families of the "comfortable" whites have much more wherewithal to "make the problem go away" -- often through offers of financial restitution and the ability to hire really good lawyers; and also because the perpetrator is considered to be "a good kid." In this case, the young man is a bit chastened, and returns to civilian life a little older and wiser, but untainted. If, however, one ends up serving time, and thus obtaining a criminal record, the ill-effects are cascading, especially when seeking employment.

This is not to excuse anyone's behavior. But young men with just about the same amount of "character" or self control can suffer widely varying consequences when things go wrong. And it seems that racial profiling, however well intended, just exacerbates this problematic disparity.


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