Definition of racial profiling
Racial profiling occurs when someone’s race is used by law enforcement officials (police, airport security, counter-terrorist agencies etc.) as a basis for criminal suspicion. The reason for suspicion is race rather than suspicious behavior, criminal clues, witness reports, evidence etc.
Profiling doesn’t cover “be-on-the-lookout” (BOLO) tactics. If someone has committed a crime, and a description of this person is forwarded to the police, the description can and even should include the suspect’s race like all other characteristics which can help his or her apprehension. This isn’t profiling. A crime has been committed, and there is evidence regarding the characteristics of the likely criminal.
Some of the problems caused by racial profiling
- It undermines national unity.
- It makes us less safebecause:
- it wastes law enforcement resources,
- criminals who do not “fit the profile” get overlooked, and
- it lowers respect for law enforcement.
- It lowers people’s self-esteem and self-respect.
- It can very rapidly turn into a vicious circle: profiling may lead to a disproportionate number of minorities convicted (see here), and this number of convictions enhances suspicions against minorities, which again increases the number of convictions.
- This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy can have wider ramifications. Racial profiling, as in the case of counter-terrorist activity (see below), can spill over in the wider society, contribute to xenophobia and cause hate crime.
Racial profiling is illegal
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (source)
The “probable cause” means that a search (frisking, stopping a car etc.) can only take place for a good reason. Being of a certain race can never be a good reason, since there are no races that are criminal a such. Most people of all races are law-abiding citizens. Being of a certain race doesn’t in itself make you more likely to commit a crime.
Racial profiling versus criminal profiling
Racial profiling should be distinguished from criminal profiling. Criminal profiles are a set of personal and behavioral characteristics associated with particular crimes. Police use such profiles, often with great success, to predict who may commit crimes in the future, or identify what type of person may have committed a particular crime for which no credible suspect has been identified or eye-witness description provided.
As such, this isn’t wrong. It may even help to solve crime, but only if it goes beyond (literally) superficial attributes such as race and includes types of observed behavior, known associates, internet use etc. (This is often called “data-mining“). When race does enter the equation, and especially when it’s the only element, then profiling can easily turn into racism. A criminal profile can state that a particular crime is associated with African-Americans, in the sense that African–Americans have in the past been more often convicted for such a crime than other groups (even if this is true, it may be the consequence of profiling, see above). As a consequence, people may start to think that someone’s race can predict a crime. Someone’s race turns this person into a potential criminal which is obviously ludicrous at best and insulting and demeaning at worst.
These last years, following 9-11, racial profiling has become a hot topic in counter-terrorism circles. People with Muslim sounding names or Muslim/Middle Eastern appearance have been disproportionally stopped at airport security points, have been added to no-fly-lists, and have been the target of surveillance.
However, experts say that this isn’t the most successful strategy. Focussing on behavior rather than ethnicity is much better .The latter even alienates the very people authorities need to help them catch terrorists. It’s well-known that not all terrorists fit the Muslim clichés, and that those who do often change their appearance before an attack.
This is from a study on policing in L.A.:
We found persistent and statistically significant racial disparities in policing that raise grave concerns that African-Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles are, as we put it in the report, “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested.” … We did look at the officers involved, and we found that the racial disparities in the likelihood of arrest were substantially lower when at least one of the stopping officers was the same race as the suspect. [Some] argued that the results are not valid because officers often don’t know the race of the suspect when they decide to pull over a car. That may or may not be true. But our study looked not just at motor vehicle stops, but at pedestrian stops as well, which also showed racial disparities. We also found that, once people were stopped, officers were more likely to frisk, search, or arrest African-Americans and Latinos than whites. Ian Ayres and Jonathan Borowsky (source)
It is implausible that higher frisk and search rates are justified by higher minority criminality, when these frisks and searches are substantially less likely to uncover weapons, drugs, or other types of contraband.