Racial Profiling and the FBI

NPR ran a story this morning concerning policy changes within federal law enforcement agencies pertaining to racial profiling. These new policies stipulate no federal law enforcement agency may use race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation in order to justify suspicion or open a case.


One of the comments caught my attention this morning. The statement dealt with complaints by the Muslim community against the FBI for “demographic mapping.” Not much detail was provided but I could make an educated guess about their concern. I lecture, teach, mentor, and provide oversight on projects dealing with demographic mapping. I, myself, perform demographic mapping frequently for a variety of topics and themes. Some of themes of interest to me include secondary and higher education, household income, poverty, employment, unemployment, and underemployment. I often consult with both public and private entities regarding the use of Census data and other demographic type data, as well as other data accumulated and processed by state and federal agencies. And, I have a hard time believing this but I’ve been doing demographic mapping in various forms for a little over 20 years. I state this only to help set the stage for proceeding comments, not to pat my own back.

Demographic mapping is not inherently evil. Mapping societal traits and characteristics is an important part of a functioning society seeking to address issues and concerns of citizens. School districts, voting districts, political districts, law enforcement districts, fire and emergency response districts are all developed from demographic data.

Demographic mapping is fundamental to site location for business and industry. Yes, we may have heard stories of Bob Evans, or Applebees, or Target using mapping to decide where to locate a new store location. However, demographic mapping is critical to economic development. Manufacturing and industry need critical information about a region’s educational attainment, age and gender characteristics, plus employment and job skill data. These are crucial inputs into the decision-making process all companies engage in when seeking to expand facilities, grow, or relocate. I have worked on numerous projects for both private, non-profit, and public utilities where demographic data was needed to enhance, expand, or to simply gain knowledge about a service region.

Several years ago, I was brought in to help in the analysis of broadband coverage throughout Kentucky. I worked extensively with both public and private internet service providers to identify Kentucky regions with broadband and without, and to classify the type of broadband, as well as consider some of the demographic characteristics of Kentucky’s broadband and potential broadband market. That work drove considerable research and investment in broadband in Kentucky, Tennessee, and help foster broadband growth in the Southeast U.S. I know my maps went to the Kentucky legislature and as far as our U.S. Congress.

Demographic mapping is a tool, nothing more. But, like I tell my students, a hammer is a tool. How many roofs are replaced each year using hammers? How many hammers are used in home construction? Bunches, I am sure. Yet, in a fit of anger a hammer makes an excellent weapon. Now, was maiming or killing someone the original intent of a hammer? Hmmm. Knowing humans, the answer is probably yes; then, we decided War Hammers could also be used to build things and make reasonably sturdy homes. And, then technology developed better swords, and then arrows and longbows sort of made hammers ineffectual in battle.

But, you see my point, hopefully. Tools depend on how they are used.

Redlining in Chicago

Redlining in Chicago. Notice “best,” “desirable,” and “hazardous.”

Clearly, demographics and mapping can be grossly misused. Perhaps the most egregious use of demographic mapping is called “redlining.” Redlining is the use of demographic data to ban or restrict some service based on racial profiling. For example, before, during, and after racial segregation, redlining was used to prevent home sales to Blacks in neighborhoods across the United States. Redlining is illegal, yet still crops up as some real estate agents will steer some racial groups towards some neighborhoods and away from other neighborhoods. Real estate agents may not admit this, but I firmly believe this behavior still is in practice today. To be clear, I am not saying all real estate agents are racists, only some {sarcasm], so relax. Hey, if Larry Wilmore can lay down a few jokes, so can I.

Another grossly negligent use of demographics comes in the form of gerrymandering. My definition of gerrymandering is “the cowardly practice of politically-motivated individuals and parties to create homogenous districts, minimizing variance and cultural diversity, in order to achieve some sort of racial and political purity in order to stay in office for perpetuity, or to ensure one’s chosen party maintains a superior position in spite of weak socioeconomic ideas and platforms.” If you don’t like that definition, I suppose you can use the one from Wikipedia.

That the FBI uses demographic mapping is not inherently good or bad. How the FBI uses demographic mapping is more important. What services are they providing to the communities being mapped? I guarantee the Arab-Muslim community is not the only community being mapped. How do I know this? Follow major international crime. The Russian community is mapped, no doubt, because the Russian mafia is both powerful and scary. Hispanic neighborhoods are mapped due gangs, especially MS-13 and Los Zetas, again, both powerful and scary. (“25 Notoriously Dangerous Gangs“)  You don’t have to believe me when I say the FBI needs to be doing as much mapping as they can afford. Just read about the three organizations I’ve named above. If doing your own research and discovering the evidence yourself doesn’t convince you the FBI needs mapping, nothing I can say will convince you.

[Gerrymandering] is “the cowardly practice of politically-motivated individuals and parties to create homogenous districts, minimizing variance and cultural diversity, in order to achieve some sort of racial and political purity in order to stay in office for perpetuity, or to ensure one’s chosen party maintains in a superior position in spite of weak socioeconomic ideas and platforms.”

To be clear, I am not advocating we should say, “OK, whatever the FBI wants, the FBI gets.” Anyone who knows me or follows this blog or follows me on Twitter knows I am not in any way in favor of building the United Police States of America. The reality is, if the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 passes, well, then, we have just committed to legislation whereby all of our rights have just been subordinated by national security concerns. Law enforcement, the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, NSA, et al., will now have the right to have many legal hurdles waived simply by claiming “national security prerogative.” Maybe that is a post for another day. But, the link I provided above goes right to the legislation. The bill is in English and readable by anyone with an 8th grade education, and should be read by everyone with an 8th grade education or greater. Very ominous bit of legislation, courtesy of Congressional Warmongers.

See, the problem is not demographics nor mapping. The lack of understanding and the public misuse of data is the problem. The lack of education on behalf of the public is the problem, not the collection or mapping of the data. Think of what would happen if Congress simply decided to abolish the CIA, the NSA, and our Department of State. How would the United States know about anything, really? Not just terrorism, not just about the insanely ignorant, misogynistic, religiously radical groups who find solace in blowing themselves to bits and innocent women, children, and families along with them, but how would we know anything about global economics, changing geopolitics, and concerns facing our globe? The reality is, we would become fairly blind due to our self-imposed information black-out, the proverbial “burying our head in the sand, up to our waist.”

Not a good idea, really. The world is not as evolved as Lawrence Krauss or Richard Dawkins would like to think. We have to push the world to be a better place, and not allow mayhem and chaos to prevail.

To prevent anarchy and the potential for chaos to increase, we have to organize and collect data.

Members of the GOP would really like to eliminate the U.S. Bureau of the Census and all of the data the Bureau gathers. To me, this is essentially the analog of never going to see the doctor. Never. The only health data you would collect on yourself is that which you could obtain in your bathroom, namely height and weight and if you can still see your sex organs, your gender, the color of your urine and the consistency of your poop. And that’s it! That is all conservative members of the GOP and intellectually-stunted members Tea Party want to collect. I don’t like being too disparaging but there are political leaders, platforms, and ideology which if they were to take root, and some are very close, are truly insidiously destructive (like the anti-intellectual movement among GOP).

I hate to use this analogy but it sort of works. The GOP essentially want to blind the America public to, well, the American public. The GOP doesn’t want American to know about America, who we are, where we live, how we get to work, how we earn money, how educated we are; the list goes on. All of this data is necessary for driving economic development, and for assessing how we are doing, in general, and for assessing what regions are doing well, thriving, and what regions need help.

In 2012, the GOP tried to kill collection of demographic data and economic data for the U.S. (BusinessWeek, NYT)

In 2013, the GOP tried to kill the collection of economic data. (WashPost)

For a political party which prides itself on being a friend to business this is a terrible idea which works against business, and pretty much everyone, every common person, from the homeless, to the poor, the Middle Class, for that matter. Most businesses hate the movement within the GOP to abolish the U.S. Census, and see this movement as essentially anti-business and anti-economic development.

In closing, demographic data is a valuable tool providing significant insight into places where questions and concerns arise. Demographic data should not be used to single out in particular racial, religious, political group, or any group based on sexual orientation or gender for the express purpose of harassment under the guise of “national security prerogative.” Demographic data should be used to educate, inform, and to ensure parity or services and opportunities,


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