How do you measure unusual?

Not so long ago, all eight of the members of Congress being investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics were black. Now, two powerful black members of the Congressional Black Caucus are on the griddle. There are two entirely appropriate responses.

One of them is to wonder if there is something racial going on. Yes, that is reasonable. Dismissals of this line of reasoning as mere “crying racism” are, in this case, hasty. Bloggers blithely listing white people who have fallen into the OCE’s line of sight as disproof of the racism charge are missing the point. The issue—so often missed in discussions of race but usually by those crying wolf, not their detractors—is proportion. All eight? Two leading black legislators in two weeks? One is not a race-baiter to ask questions.

Is the CBC Uniquely Unethical? by John McWhorter

How would you assess if this was genuinely unusual?  Ideally you’d have to have some sort of deep analysis of every recent case brought before the ethics committee to see if this bunch were any more political than is typical. A statistical argument might be persuasive. Say you saw that 99% of the time (in recent history) the OCE persecuted all white or mostly white congressmen.  I don’t know the answer but I do know that statistical arguments like these are often used in employment discrimination cases. To do some back of the envelope calculations, I count 36 African Americans in the United States Congress. Call that 8.27%. Also, assume that the OCE investigates 8 independent, randomly selected  congressmen to investigate at a time. The odds of 8 black members being selected at random are  0.00000022% which is really small. But we don’t know how many congressmen the OCE investigates a year. It seems like the answer is more than 30 (Dozens in Congress under ethics inquiry) and more like 50. If so, that increases the odds of seeing an unusual event, but not enough to make it large.

That doesn’t settle in the least that that racism is the motivation. To play the devil’s advocate, we might think that Republicans were afraid to investigate minority congressmen for fear of looking racist and so their missdeeds built up until the Democrats had firm control under Pelosi so that she didn’t need every one of their votes either. It could also be something non racial, like urban districts are more likely to see corruption charges, or long serving congressmen have more time to accumulate offenses (does the black caucus have usual tenure? I don’t know). Or maybe they are from more corrupt states and so more likely to be corrupt. We know that corruption in home countries influences parking violation of diplomats in NYC (Cultures of Corruption: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets) and similar results in soccer (which I cannot find right now). People from corrupt states could well bring that corruption to D.I’m not wedded to these examples, there are plenty of other things the group have in common besides being black and any of them could be the cause of their common persecution.