January 30, 2015



In recent years, complex technological innovations have enabled profiling in law enforcement that “pre-identifies us and is in tension with some of jurisprudential models we grow up with,” observed Patricia Williams in remarks at SIPA on January 28.

“We are at a moment where technology, surveillance, and profiling have come together so that really we look at what you are likely to do” rather than what you have done, said Williams, a renowned author and the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.

Williams’s talk, “The Death of Contingency: Risk, Race, and Rue,”— the first in the new Dean’s Seminar Series on Race and Policy—encouraged listeners to focus attention on understanding the consequences of this change, a fundamental reordering of jurisprudence in New York City and places like it.

Williams also took issue with attempts to apply the scientific method for what she called proportional policing.

“To me, the real issue is, A, the disproportion rather than the proportion of policing and, B, what is defined as a crime or not given exactly the same facts,” she said. “Approximately 80 percent of African-American men between 16 and 24 have experienced unsolicited stops by the New York City police department in New York City. Only 6 percent of those stops led to arrests and only 6 percent of those arrests led to convictions.”

By comparison, Williams said that 10 percent of white young men in the same age group had experienced similar stops.

This discrepancy “is a pattern of discrimination as a matter of policy,” she said. “This is not about the police, it is about the higher-ups.”

Williams also compared her own experience watching the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, while in France to to watching coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks while visiting the Midwest. One of the Paris attackers, she said, was inaccurately described by a news reporter as being African-American—a gaffe she saw as emblematic of a much deeper problem with the way race can often be reduced to an inaccurate portrait of the person or people being described.

“The malleable stereotyping of [Paris attacker Amedy] Coulibaly reflects, I think, an uneasy vision of ‘blacks’ as well as ‘Africans’ as non-citizens of any state, as non-citizens of any nation, and as always the same no matter where they are,” said Williams.

Williams placed special emphasis on the role of new technology in monitoring people in the United States and around the world — transforming them, she said, into analytic norms with predictive lines determining the arc of life. Unfortunately, she added, people are left little room to change that arc.

“Algorithms for tracking technology are based heavily on American demographic taxonomy,” Williams said.

This technology has been promulgated internationally by American police and other officials who travel the world, bringing with them American techniques of algorithmic analysis. These methods are necessarily broad and can greatly impact the way people are monitored.

The Dean’s Seminar Series on Race and Policy aims to bring leaders in thought and policy to the Columbia community in order to broaden the discussion of race and policy both nationally and globally. Future speakers include Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP (April 1) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University (April 21).

— Andrew Watkins MPA ’15