Picasso as a Criminologist: The
Abstract Art of Racial Profiling
Michael J. Lynch and Amie M. Schuck
Pablo Picasso was a renowned twentieth century abstract artist recognized for his abstract human portraits. The subjects that comprise his portraits were based on factual observations of real humans. For example, his abstracts could have two eyes, a nose, ears, a mouth, and hair, or all the individual elements that comprise a human face when organized appropriately. For Picasso, however, the two eyes might be placed on one side of the face, the ears grossly uneven, the mouth enlarged and wildly tilted, and the nose elongated and placed to one side of the head. When we observe the painting, the image looks human because it contains all the elements of the human face. At the same time, the painting's resemblance to humans is far enough removed from reality as to be unreal or to be an almost grotesque representation of reality.
It is our contention that current practices of racial profiling are similar to one of Picasso's portraits: both are unrealistic abstractions based on real observations and data. To be sure, racial profiles are often constructed from real observations and data about crimes and criminals. The statistical methods used to build criminal profiles, however, are often misleading and inappropriate. Furthermore, the choice of data sources may also be improper. And sometimes these errors are combined. To the casual observer, nothing appears amiss. Even if inappropriate methods or improper data are employed, the casual or untrained observer sees a more simple fact: statistical models for building profiles were applied to data and appeared to yield a useful outcome predicting the race of an offender. But appearance and reality can be two different things.