It’s just good police
work.” So comes the insistence by many—usually whites—that concentrating law
enforcement efforts on blacks and Latinos is a perfectly legitimate idea. To
listen to some folks tell it, the fact that people of color commit a
disproportionate amount of crime (a claim that is true for some but not all
offenses) is enough to warrant heightened suspicion of such persons. As for the
humiliation experienced by those innocents unfairly singled out, stopped, and
searched? Well, they should understand that such mistreatment is the price
they’ll have to pay, as long as others who look like them are heavily
represented in various categories of criminal mischief.
Of course, the
attempt to rationalize racism and discriminatory treatment has a long pedigree.
Segregationists offer up many “rational” arguments for separation and even
slave-owners found high- minded justifications for their control over persons of
African descent. In the modern day, excuses for unequal treatment may be more
nuanced and couched in calm, dispassionate, even academic jargon; but they
remain fundamentally no more legitimate than the claims of racists past. From
overt white supremacists to respected social scientists and political
commentators, the soft-pedaling of racist law enforcement is a growing cottage
industry: one rooted in deceptive statistics, slippery logic, and telling
indifference to the victims of such practices.
convincingly in David Harris’s new book Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial
Profiling Cannot Work (New Press, 2002), racial profiling is neither
ethically acceptable nor logical as a law enforcement tool. But try telling that
to the practice’s apologists.
racial separatist Jared Taylor of American Renaissance—a relatively highbrow
white supremacist organization—black crime rates are so disproportionate
relative to those of whites that it is perfectly acceptable for police to
profile African Americans in the hopes of uncovering criminal activity. His
group’s report “The Color of Crime”— which has been touted by mainstream
conservatives like Walter Williams—purports to demonstrate just how dangerous
blacks are, what with murder, robbery, and assault rates that are considerably
higher than the rates for whites. That these higher crime rates are the result
of economic conditions disproportionately faced by people of color Taylor does
not dispute in the report. But he insists that the reasons for the disparities
hardly matter. All that need be known is that one group is statistically more
dangerous than the other and avoiding those persons or stopping them for
searches is not evidence of racism, but rather the result of rational
calculations by citizens and police.
simple numerical terms, whites commit three times more violent crimes each year
than blacks, and whites are five to six times more likely to be attacked by
another white person than by a black person, to Taylor, this is irrelevant. As
he has explained about these white criminals: “They may be boobs, but they’re
MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute has written that racial
profiling is a “myth.” Police, according to MacDonald—whose treatment of the
subject was trumpeted in a column by George Will last year—merely play the odds,
knowing “from experience” that blacks are likely to be the ones carrying drugs.
Michael Levin, a
professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, argues it is rational
for whites to fear young black men since one in four are either in prison, on
probation, or on parole on any given day. According to Levin, the assumption
that one in four black males encountered are therefore likely to be dangerous is
logical and hardly indicates racism. Levin has also said that blacks should be
treated as adults earlier by the justice system because they mature faster and
trials should be shorter for blacks because they have a “shorter time horizon.”
commentator Dinesh D’Souza says that “rational discrimination against young
black men can be fully eradicated only by getting rid of destructive conduct by
the group that forms the basis for statistically valid group distinctions. It is
difficult to compel people to admire groups many of whose members do not act
Even when the
profiling turns deadly, conservatives show little concern. Writing about Amadou
Diallo, recipient of 19 bullets (out of 41 fired) from the NYPD Street Crimes
Unit, columnist Mona Charen explained that he died for the sins of his black
brethren, whose criminal proclivities gave the officers good reason to suspect
that he was up to no good.
Putting aside the
obvious racial hostility that forms the core of many if not all of these
statements, racial profiling cannot be justified on the basis of general crime
rate data showing that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of certain
crimes, relative to their numbers in the population. Before making this point
clear, it is worth clarifying what is meant by racial profiling.
means one of two things. First, the over-application of an incident-specific
criminal description in a way that results in the stopping, searching, and
harassment of people based solely or mostly on skin color alone. An example
would be the decision by police in one upstate New York college town a few years
ago to question every black male in the local university after an elderly white
woman claimed to have been raped by a black man (turns out he was white).
So while there is
nothing wrong with stopping black men who are 6’2", 200 pounds, driving Ford
Escorts, if the perp in a particular local crime is known to be 6’2", 200
pounds, and driving a Ford Escort, but when that description is used to randomly
stop black men, even who aren’t 6’2", aren’t close to 200 pounds, and who are
driving totally different cars, then that becomes a problem.
The second and
more common form of racial profiling is the disproportionate stopping,
searching, frisking, and harassment of people of color in the hopes of
uncovering a crime, even when there is no crime already in evidence for which a
particular description might be available. In other words: stopping black folks
or Latinos and searching for drugs.
This is why
general crime rates are irrelevant to the profiling issue. Police generally
don’t randomly stop and search people in the hopes of turning up last night’s
convenience store hold-up man. They tend to have more specific information to go
on in those cases. As such, the fact that blacks commit a higher share of some
crimes (robbery, murder, assault) than their population numbers is of no
consequence to the issue of whether profiling them is legitimate. The “crime”
for which people of color are being profiled mostly is drug possession. In that
case, people of color are not a disproportionate number of violators and police
do not find such contraband disproportionately on people of color.
evidence indicates that whites are equally or more likely to use (and thus
possess at any given time) illegal narcotics. This is especially true for young
adults and teenagers, in which categories whites are disproportionate among
youth and young adults are more likely than white youth to have been approached
by someone offering to give them or sell them drugs during the past month, they
are less likely to have actually used drugs in the last 30 days. Among adults,
data from California is instructive: although whites over the age of 30 are only
36 percent of the state’s population, they comprise 60 percent of all heavy drug
users in the state.
and Latinos often control large drug sale networks, roughly eight in ten drug
busts are not for dealing, but for possession. Drug busts for narcotics
trafficking rarely stem from random searches of persons or vehicles—the kind of
practice rightly labeled profiling—but rather, tend to take place after a
carefully devised sting operation and intelligence gathering, leading to focused
law enforcement efforts. As such, the usage numbers are the more pertinent when
discussing the kinds of police stops and searches covered by the pejorative
label of “profiling.”
A Department of
Justice study released in 2001 notes that although blacks are twice as likely as
whites to have their cars stopped and searched, police are actually twice as
likely to find evidence of illegal activity in cars driven by whites.
In New Jersey,
for 2000, although blacks and Latinos were 78 percent of persons stopped and
searched on the southern portion of the Jersey Turnpike, police were twice as
likely to discover evidence of illegal activity in cars driven by whites,
relative to blacks, and whites were five times more likely to be in possession
of drugs, guns, or other illegal items relative to Latinos.
Carolina, black drivers are two-thirds more likely than whites to be stopped and
searched by the State Highway Patrol, but contraband is discovered in cars
driven by whites 27 percent more often.
In New York City,
even after controlling for the higher crime rates by blacks and Latinos and
local demographics (after all, people of color will be the ones stopped and
searched most often in communities where they make up most of the residents),
police are still two to three times more likely to search them than whites. Yet,
police hunches about who is in possession of drugs, guns, other illegal
contraband, or who is wanted for commission of a violent crime turn out to be
horribly inaccurate. Despite being stopped and searched more often, blacks and
Latinos are less likely to be arrested because they are less likely to be found
with evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
So much for
MacDonald’s “rational” police officers, operating from their personal
experiences. Despite police claims that they only stop and search people of
color more often because such folks engage in suspicious behavior more often, if
the “hit rates” for such persons are no higher than, and even lower than the
rates for whites, this calls into question the validity of the suspicious action
criteria. If blacks seem suspicious more often, but are actually hiding
something less often, then by definition the actions deemed suspicious should be
reexamined, as they are not proving to be logical at all, let alone the result
of good police work. Indeed, they appear to be proxies for racial stops and
Nor can the
disproportionate stopping of black vehicles be justified by differential driving
behavior. Every study done on the subject has been clear: there are no
significant differences between people of color and whites when it comes to the
commission of moving or other violations. Police acknowledge that virtually
every driver violates any number of minor laws every time they take to the road.
But these violations are not enforced equally and that is the problem.
In one New Jersey
study, for example, despite no observed differences in driving behavior, African
Americans were 73 percent of all drivers stopped on the Jersey Turnpike, despite
being less than 14 percent of the drivers on the road: a rate that is 27 times
greater than what would be expected by random chance. Similar results were found
in a study of stops in Maryland. On a particular stretch of Interstate 95 in
Florida, known for being a drug trafficking route, blacks and Latinos comprise
only 5 percent of drivers, but 70 percent of those stopped by members of the
Highway Patrol. These stops were hardly justified, as only nine drivers, out of
1,100 stopped during the study, were ever ticketed for any violation, let alone
arrested for possession of illegal contraband.
As for Levin’s
claim that whites should properly consider one in four black males encountered
to be a threat to their personal safety, because of their involvement with the
criminal justice system, it should be remembered that most of these have been
arrested for non-violent offenses like drug possession. Blacks comprise 35
percent of all possession arrests and 75 percent of those sent to prison for a
drug offense, despite being only 14 percent of users.
When it comes to
truly dangerous violent crime, only a miniscule share of African Americans will
commit such offenses in a given year and less than half of these will choose a
With about 1.5
million violent crimes committed by blacks each year (about 90 percent of these
by males) and 70 percent of the crimes committed by just 7 percent of the
offenders—a commonly accepted figure by criminologists—this means that less than
2 percent of blacks over age 12 (the cutoff for collecting crime data) and less
than 3.5 percent of black males over 12 could even theoretically be considered
dangerous. Less than 1.5 percent of black males will attack a white person in a
given year, hardly lending credence to Levin’s claim about the rationality of
The fact remains that the
typical offender in violent crime categories is white. So even if black rates
are disproportionate to their population percentages, any “profile” that tends
to involve a black or Latino face is likely to be wrong more than half the time.
Whites commit roughly 60 percent of violent crimes, for example. So if 6 in 10
violent criminals are white, how logical could it be to deploy a profile—either
for purposes of law enforcement or merely personal purposes of avoiding certain
people—that is only going to be correct 40 percent of the time? So too with
drugs, where any profile that involves a person of color will be wrong three out
of four times?
apologists for profiling are typically selective in terms of the kinds of
profiling they support. Although whites are a disproportionate percentage of all
drunk drivers, for example, and although drunk driving contributes to the deaths
of more than 10,000 people each year, none of the defenders of anti-black or
brown profiling suggests that drunk driving roadblocks be set up in white
suburbs where the “hit rates” for catching violators would be highest.
white college students are considerably more likely to binge drink (often
underage) and use narcotics than college students of color, no one suggests that
police or campus cops should regularly stage raids on white fraternity houses or
dorm rooms occupied by whites, even though the raw data would suggest such
actions might be statistically justified.
Whites are also
nearly twice as likely to engage in child sexual molestation, relative to
blacks. Yet how would the Heather MacDonalds and Dinesh D’Souzas of the world
react to an announcement that adoption agencies were going to begin screening
out white couples seeking to adopt, or subjecting them to extra scrutiny, as a
result of such factual information?
seeking to now justify intensified profiling of Arabs or Muslims since September
11 were hardly clamoring for the same treatment of white males in the wake of
Oklahoma City. Even now, in the wake of anthrax incidents that the FBI says have
almost certainly been domestic, possibly white supremacist in origin, no one is
calling for heightened suspicion of whites as a result.
The absurdity of
anti-Arab profiling is particularly obvious in the case of trying to catch
members of al-Qaeda. The group, after all, operates in 64 countries, many of
them non-Arab, and from which group members would not look anything like the
image of a terrorist currently locked in the minds of so many. Likewise, Richard
Reid, the would-be shoe bomber recently captured was able to get on the plane he
sought to bring down precisely because he had a “proper English name,” likely
spoke with a proper English accent, and thus, didn’t fit the description.
The bottom line
is that racial profiling doesn’t happen because data justifies the practice, but
rather because those with power are able to get away with it, and find it
functional to do so as a mechanism of social control over those who are less
powerful. By typifying certain “others” as dangerous or undesirable, those
seeking to maintain divisions between people whose economic and social interests
are actually quite similar can successfully maintain those cleavages.
here, mind you: just the system working as intended, keeping people afraid of
one another and committed to the maintenance of the system, by convincing us
that certain folks are a danger to our well-being, which then must be
safeguarded by a growing prison-industrial complex and draconian legal
sanctions; or in the case of terrorist “profiles,” by the imposition of
unconstitutional detentions, beefed-up military and intelligence spending, and
the creation of a paranoiac wartime footing.
Until and unless
the stereotypes that underlie racial profiling are attacked and exposed as a
fraud, the practice will likely continue: not because it makes good sense, but
because racist assumptions about danger—reinforced by media and politicians
looking for votes—lead us to think that it does. Z
Tim Wise is
a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracist activist. Footnotes for this
article can be obtained at [email protected]