Number of black drivers police stop defies odds

I'm sitting in my living room flipping a coin, trying to see if my old math teachers who taught me probability and statistics were right. Because, if I'm to believe Maryland State Police, my math profs didn't know their subject from a hole in the ground.

As I flip the coin, math profs say, I'm supposed to get heads or tails in almost equal numbers as I increase the number of tosses. That's the law of averages, the law of probability.


Maryland State Police have never studied this law. Back in May, The Sun published an Associated Press story by writer Michael Schneider that reported that, in the first nine months of 1995, the state police's Special Traffic Interdiction Force -- an anti-drug unit -- stopped 145 cars along Interstate 95 between Delaware and Baltimore County. Some 110 of those drivers were black. That's all a coincidence, state police say. An accident. Chance.

STIF is the acronym for the Special Traffic Interdiction Force. It's an appropriate one, because state police are trying to stiff the people of Maryland on this issue. As if we don't know something egregious is going on here. As if we don't know any math.


But we know division and percentages. And 110 of 145 cars stopped amounts to nearly 76 percent. And some of us know enough probability and statistics to know that if police are being fair, they would stop black drivers at such a rate only if 75 percent of the drivers traveling along that stretch of I-95 were black. But we all know that's absurd. It's so absurd, in fact, that the situation actually got the Maryland AC-To-Hell-With-You to stick its nose into a genuine civil liberties matter.

It's also ludicrous to conclude that blacks proportionately have more equipment violations or traffic violations than whites. Three years ago, before I started driving, I may have been sappy enough to believe that excuse. But I know whites drive with just as much a passion for lunacy as blacks. Tailgating, speeding and changing lanes without signaling are not the "black thing you wouldn't understand" we've read about on the popular T-shirt. They are a multiracial thing.

So, if state police are right, the laws of averages and probabilities must have drastically changed since I was in school. So I'm flipping the coin -- assuming, though it's not valid, that fifty percent of the drivers along that stretch of I-95 are black -- and come up with 56 tails and 44 heads in my first 100 tosses.

The percentage in my experiment still seems well below the 75 percent rate of STIF troopers stopping black drivers. There's nothing racial about it, state police say. Lord knows, I'd hate to make race an issue. The charge of racism has been overworked enough as it is, cropping up in situations where it has no validity. Cries of white racism have all too frequently taken on the tone of crying wolf.

But, as the boy learned in the famous story, sometimes the wolf will really appear. So I'm flipping the coin for another 100 tosses, trying to square the laws of averages and probability with the state police claim that 75 percent of the drivers they stop in a nine-month period can be black and that there is no racial basis for it.

Couldn't there be?, I'm thinking as I flip the coin. Six white troopers are in the STIF unit, the AP article says. I know nothing about them. I'd hate to pin the racist label on them. They're all probably hard-working troopers dedicated to protecting the citizens of Maryland, as all state police are.

But couldn't there be a racist stereotype or two lurking in their subconscious? One like, say, black car driver equals black drug dealer? Because if there was, that wouldn't make the STIF troopers evil racists, simply the byproducts of a society that conditioned them to be that way.

It's happened to us menfolk with that sexism thing. Many of us remember the riddle of the man and his son who are in a car accident. The man is killed, the son taken to surgery, where the surgeon says "I can't operate on this child. He's my son." Only sexist conditioning prevented us from identifying the surgeon as the boy's mother, our feelings about equal rights for women notwithstanding.


Has white racism made white Americans subject to such conditioning? Of course it has. How could they escape it? If men told women they had no sexist attitudes, that they've never had any and that we are insulted women would think that we did, why, the fairer sex would look at us as though we've just ingested large amounts of a controlled dangerous substance.

Not so with with the disease of racism. Whites claim they're cured of it, blacks claim they can't even get it. A Lebanese Arab asked me in London if American race relations were still bad.

"We've gone from really looney to just plain looney," I answered. Only now, everyone wants in on the looniness.

Seventy-five percent of drivers stopped in a nine-month period are black. That's outrageous. State police denying even a subtle, subconscious racism may be involved is a symptom of the looniness. Simple logic suggests otherwise.

As does my coin tossing. The final tally: 101 tails, 99 heads. Looks like these math guys may have had something after all.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.


Pub Date: 6/15/96