The term “racial profiling” refers to the practice whereby law-enforcement, intelligence, or homeland-security personnel factor the racial (or ethnic) characteristics of any given suspect into their respective decision-making processes. This practice became particularly controversial toward the end of the 20th century, when civil rights leaders charged that profiling was rooted in racism and was targeting, disproportionately and unjustifiably, blacks and other nonwhite minorities. An NAACP report, for instance, stated that “racism informs every aspect of policing” in the United States.
Initially, charges of profiling centered most commonly around the frequency with which black drivers were being stopped by troopers on various American highways (“Driving While Black”). Critics further charged that even in pedestrian stops, police officers were routinely subjecting nonwhites to interrogation, detention, and arrest on the barest of pretexts -- while turning a blind eye to white lawbreakers. Jesse Jackson maintained that blacks were overrepresented in prison populations not because of their actual criminal activity, but because the justice system, by means of profiling and other discriminatory practices, held them to a different standard than whites.
In the aftermath of 9/11, a host of influential activists and organizations began to complain that people of Arab and Muslim heritage were likewise being unfairly profiled and subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, particularly by airport-security personnel. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee asserted that profiling had become so widespread in the United States, that Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians could rightfully be considered “among the secondary victims of the [9/11] attacks.” In a similar vein, an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman proudly trumpeted his organization's “concerted effort” to raise Arab Americans' awareness of, and sensitivity to, racial profiling.
Though it is widely assumed that the incidence of racial profiling is both widespread and well documented, empirical evidence for that assumption is weak. Studies purporting to have uncovered undeniable proof of systematic profiling typically note that police stop, search, and arrest black and Hispanic suspects at higher rates than white suspects -- citing this as evidence that the officers must be singling out civilians on the basis of race, not behavior.
But criminologists’ studies show that blacks in particular commit crimes of most types at far higher rates than do whites. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, African Americans, who make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, commit some 42 percent of all violent crimes nationwide -- including 40 percent of weapons violations, 59 percent of robberies, 42 percent of rapes, and 54 percent of murders. Blacks are also approximately three times more likely than whites to be involved in forgery, counterfeiting, embezzlement, and the receipt of stolen property. These are the facts that account for the disparity in stop, search, and arrest rates.
In law-enforcement practice, officers are trained to observe also a wide variety of nonracial, behavioral cues to help them determine whether or not they should follow, approach, question, or detain a particular suspect. While not everyone who acts suspiciously is breaking the law, most people who are breaking the law act suspiciously. Given that crime rates differ greatly across races, it is only logical to assume that officers responding primarily to behavioral cues or to crime reports will not stop, search, or arrest members of various racial groups in numbers proportionate to their presence in the overall population. Undoubtedly some individual officers have used race as a shortcut to finding lawbreakers, but there is no evidence that this lazy and unprofessional practice is systemic.
Still, the burden of proof in touchy encounters is increasingly on law-enforcement authorities. In New Jersey, for instance, anyone who claims he was stopped by the police because of his race can now bring a felony charge against the officer. Maryland now compels troopers to hand out instructions for filing racial profiling complaints to everyone they stop. And California has barred its highway patrol officers from conducting consent searches (where an officer asks a driver for permission to search his car, usually for drugs or weapons), a vital tool in drug and gun interdiction, on the theory that police officers cannot be trusted to use that power fairly.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore such topics as:
- how racial profiling may be defined and justified as a law-enforcement and counter-terrorism tool, and the major objections of those who oppose its use under any and all conditions; and
- the findings of vital studies that have punctured some popular myths about racial profiling.
Adapted, in part, from "A Profiling Pall in the War on Terror," by Heather MacDonald (May 6, 2003).