Driving While Black

As President Obama meets with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley at the White House today for a beer, James Warren parses the results of that racial profiling bill Obama pushed through the Illinois state legislature (which he mentioned when he first commented on Gates's arrest, last Wednesday). The bill called for a study on race and traffic stops/searches.

Here's Warren on the results:

When the President, the Professor and the Cop sit down to have a beer at the White House tonight, here's an idea for drink coasters: copies of the 2008 Annual Report of Illinois Traffic Stops. It may not be the most riveting reading, but it demonstrates just how murky and open to interpretation matters of race and law enforcement can be, even when systematically analyzed by academics seeking to clear things up.

When he waded into the confrontation between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, President Obama cited his work on racial profiling as an Illinois state senator. But lost in the cable-fueled frenzy of subsequent debate has been any concrete discussion of the actual outcome of Obama's efforts--a 2003 law mandating that the state Department of Transportation catalogue all traffic stops in an attempt to identify and assess racial bias. He was the bill's chief sponsor, and did impressive work crafting consensus among civil libertarians, police, and groups across the political spectrum.

After five years of data collection--initially overseen by Northwestern University and now by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Research in Law and Justice - there are plenty of statistics for study. But how to interpret those statistics is less than clear. It's sort of like trying to discern what exactly happened at the Gates home in Cambridge...

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