Why Racial Profiling Is a Bad Idea

The hardest thing about advocating reform of racial profiling practices, at a policy level, is convincing political leaders that it isn't just a "politically incorrect" or "racially insensitive" practice, but rather a destructive, ill-conceived, and ultimately ineffective law enforcement technique. This means looking hard at what racial profiling does, what it doesn't do, and what it says about our system of law enforcement. We need to be able to explain what, specifically, is wrong with racial profiling.

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Racial Profiling Doesn't Work

One of the great myths about racial profiling is that it would work if only law enforcement agencies could use it -- that by not using racial profiling, they're tying one hand behind their backs in the name of civil rights.
This simply isn't true:

  • An ACLU lawsuit uncovered police data indicating that while 73 percent of suspects pulled over on I-95 between 1995 and 1997 were Black, Black suspects were no more likely to actually have drugs or illegal weapons in their cars than white suspects.
  • According to the Public Health Service, approximately 70% of drug users are white, 15% are Black, and 8% are Latino. But the Department of Justice reports that among those imprisoned on drug charges, 26% are white, 45% are Black, and 21% are Latino.
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Racial Profiling Distracts Law Enforcement Agencies From More Useful Approaches

When suspects are detained based on suspicious behavior rather than race, police catch more suspects.
A 2005 report by the Missouri attorney general is a testimony to the ineffectiveness of racial profiling. White drivers, pulled over and searched on the basis of suspicious behavior, were found to have drugs or other illegal material 24% of the time. Black drivers, pulled over or searched in a manner that reflected a pattern of racial profiling, were found to have drugs or other illegal material 19% of the time.
The effectiveness of searches, in Missouri and everywhere else, is reduced -- not enhanced -- by racial profiling. When racial profiling is used, officers end up wasting their limited time on innocent suspects.

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Racial Profiling Prevents Police From Serving the Entire Community

Law enforcement agencies are responsible, or generally seen as responsible, for protecting law-abiding citizens from criminals.
When a law enforcement agency practices racial profiling, it sends the message that whites are assumed to be law-abiding citizens while Blacks and Latinos are assumed to be criminals. Racial profiling policies set up law enforcement agencies as enemies of entire communities -- communities that tend to be disproportionately affected by crime -- when law enforcement agencies should be in the business of crime victims and helping them find justice.

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Racial Profiling Prevents Communities From Working With Law Enforcement

Unlike racial profiling, community policing has consistently been shown to work. The better the relationship between residents and police, the more likely residents are to report crimes, come forward as witnesses, and otherwise cooperate in police investigations.
But racial profiling tends to alienate Black and Latino communities, reducing the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate crime in these communities. If the police have already established themselves as enemies of a low-income Black neighborhood, if there is no trust or rapport between police and residents, then community policing can't work. Racial profiling sabotages community policing efforts and offers nothing useful in return.

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Racial Profiling Is a Blatant Violation of the Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment states, very clearly, that no state may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Racial profiling is, by definition, based on a standard of unequal protection. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be searched by police and less likely to be treated as law-abiding citizens; whites are less likely to be searched by police and more likely to be treated as law-abiding citizens. This is incompatible with the concept of equal protection.

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Racial Profiling Can Easily Escalate into Racially-Motivated Violence

Racial profiling encourages police to use a lower standard of evidence for Blacks and Latinos than they would for whites -- and this lower standard of evidence can easily lead police, private security, and armed citizens to respond violently to Blacks and Latinos out of a perceived "self-defense" concern. The case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who was killed in a hail of 41 bullets by the NYPD for attempting to show officers his driver's license, is only one case among many. Reports of suspicious deaths involving unarmed Latino and Black suspects trickle out of our nation's major cities on a regular basis.

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Racial Profiling Is Morally Wrong

Racial profiling is Jim Crow applied as a law enforcement policy. It promotes the internal segregation of suspects within the minds of police officers, and it creates a second-class citizenship for Black and Latino Americans.
If one has reason to know or believe that a specific suspect is of a certain racial or ethnic background, then it makes sense to include that information in the profile. But that isn't what people generally mean when they talk about racial profiling. They mean discrimination prior to the introduction of data -- the very definition of racial prejudice.
When we allow or encourage law enforcement agencies to practice racial profiling, we are ourselves practicing vicarious racial discrimination. That is unacceptable.

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Your Citation
Head, Tom. "Why Racial Profiling Is a Bad Idea." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/downside-of-racial-profiling-721529. Head, Tom. (2021, July 29). Why Racial Profiling Is a Bad Idea. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/downside-of-racial-profiling-721529 Head, Tom. "Why Racial Profiling Is a Bad Idea." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/downside-of-racial-profiling-721529 (accessed March 21, 2023).