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How Prevalent Is Racial Profiling In Boston?

The fact that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate -- 12 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers -- cemented in my mind the idea that Boston might have a problem or three with racism. (And I'm a die-hard Red Sox fan.) So after Obama's comments Wednesday night about the Gates affair, I figured it would be easy to find evidence that racial profiling is rampant in Beantown--and probably, by extension, Cambridge.

But it turns out not to be so clear. In fact, there's good reason to think that white police officers don't treat blacks all that differently from whites -- as far as the data can tell us.

For whatever reason -- most likely related to data availability -- there have been a number of studies of racial profiling and traffic violations in Massachusetts:

- Nejat Anbarci and Jungmin Lee looked at the speed discounting behavior of police officers in Boston from 2002 and 2003. (Speed discounting is when an officer reports a lower speed than the actual speed of the driver.) They found that white officers were more likely to be lenient on black speeders than white speeders. Interestingly, Latino and black officers were more likely to be harsher on minority drivers.

- Michael Makowsky and Thomas Stratmann examined traffic citations issued during a two-month period in 2001 in Massachusetts and got similar results: Blacks were fined slightly less than whites (about 2% less in dollar value per-ticket).

- Kate Antonovics and Brian Knight looked at instances of officers searching drivers' cars. While they found that decisions did seem to be partially dependent on the race of both the cop and the driver, they write: "our results should not be taken as evidence that black motorists in the Boston area are subject to discrimination by white officers." That's largely because there weren't enough searches to make their statistical tests powerful enough.

What does all this prove about Gates and his arrest? Not that much. But it does mean Obama was probably right to say his initial comments were an overreaction.

-- Zubin Jelveh