Racial Profiling

Racial Profiling


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.

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 slightly more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, commit some 37.5 percent of all violent crimes nationwide — including 53.1 percent of homicides, 54.3 percent of robberies, 28.7 percent of rapes, and 33.5 percent of aggravated assaults. Blacks are also — on a per capita basis — much more likely than whites to be involved in forgery, counterfeiting, embezzlement, and the receipt of stolen property. These are the factors that account for “profiling” and the racial disparity in stop, search, and arrest rates.

Similarly, the vast majority of America’s felons are men under the age of 30. If, because of this, police are more likely to stop, question, and search young male suspects than, say, elderly females, such practice does not indicate that law-enforcement officers harbor an animus toward males or young people, any more than their cognizance of race-specific crime rates is indicative of bigotry. Former Los Angeles police chief Bernard Parks, who is black, put it this way: “It’s not the fault of the police when they stop minority males or put them in jail. It’s the fault of the minority males for committing the crime. In my mind it is not a great revelation that officers are looking for criminal activity, they’re going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports.”

It should be noted, moreover, that racial profiling does not affect only black suspects. Indeed, the very term “profiling” first drew public notice by way of the FBI’s behavioral science unit, which developed the most famous of all criminal profiles — that of serial killers as predominantly white, male loners. Similarly, white drivers in certain black ghettos spark police suspicions simply because the officers know, from experience, that white drug-traffickers often deliver their shipments to dealers in those neighborhoods. As one former narcotics officer from the mostly-nonwhite 30th Precinct in Washington Heights, New York recounts:

“It was a busy place with loads of illegal drug activity — dealing on the street and in residential buildings outfitted and barricaded as drug spots. We made arrests, thousands of arrests, and here is one of the ways the white cops and Hispanic cops and black cops did it. We looked for white people. That’s all you really had to do. Cruise Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue or Riverside Drive in an unmarked car, spot the white guy driving the vehicle with the Jersey plate slow and deliberate, watch him park and shuffle to the sale location, watch him walk back to the vehicle with the pep in his step shortly thereafter, and bingo. Most times you had a collar.”

Additional Resources:

What Looks Like Profiling Might Just Be Good Policing
By Heather MacDonald
January 19, 2003

The Myth of Racial Profiling
By Heather Mac Donald
Spring 2001

Profiling Myth Smashed
By Heather MacDonald
March 27, 2002

The Racial Profiling Myth Debunked
By Heather MacDonald
Spring 2002

In Defense of Racial Profiling: Where Is Our Common Sense?
By John Derbyshire
February 19, 2001

Racial Profiling Sometimes Serves Purpose
By Walter E. Williams
April 21, 2004

Is Racial Profiling Racist?
By Walter E. Williams
August 19, 2009

Profiling vs. Racism
By Walter E. Williams
March 26, 2012

Speed Kills Racial Profiling Study
By Ann Coulter
September 4, 2014

NU Profiling Study Really Proves Nothing
By Heather MacDonald
May 19, 2004

Junk Science and Racial Profiling
By Heather MacDonald
April 11, 2001

The Myth of Driving While Black
By Michael Tremoglie
February 5, 2004

Profiling and Stop-&-Frisk Patterns

Fighting Crime Where the Criminals Are
By Heather MacDonald
June 25, 2010

Saving Minority Lives
By Heather MacDonald
March 25, 2010

Face Facts on Frisks
By Heather MacDonald
May 19, 2009

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