What Is Racial Profiling?

The Racial Profiling Debate: Are There Pros and Cons?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The debate over racial profiling never leaves the news, but many people lack a clear understanding of what it is, let alone its purported pros and cons. In a nutshell, racial profiling factors into how authorities target individuals suspected of various crimes, including terrorism, illegal immigration or drug trafficking. But should any member of a racial group be profiled by law enforcement just because statistics indicate that the group is more likely to commit certain crimes?

Opponents of racial profiling say no, arguing not only that it's unfair but also ineffective in tackling crime. Although the practice garnered much support after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the case against racial profiling outlines how it has routinely fallen short, even proving to be a hindrance in legal investigations.

What Is Racial Profiling?

Before delving into the argument against racial profiling, it's necessary to identify just what the practice is. In a 2002 speech at Santa Clara University Law School, then California Chief Deputy Attorney General Peter Siggins defined racial profiling as a practice that "refers to government activity directed at a suspect or group of suspects because of their race, whether intentional or because of the disproportionate numbers of contacts based upon other pre-textual reasons." 

In other words, sometimes authorities question a person based solely on race because they believe a particular group is more likely to commit certain crimes.

Other times, racial profiling may occur indirectly. Say certain goods are being smuggled into the United States. Each smuggler law enforcement apprehends has ties to a certain country. Thus, being an immigrant from that country is likely to be included in the profile authorities craft of what to look for when trying to spot the smugglers.

But is just being from that country enough to give authorities reason to suspect someone of smuggling? Racial profiling opponents argue that such a reason is discriminatory and too broad in scope.

The Origins of Racial Profiling

Criminologists credit Howard Teten, former FBI chief of research, with popularizing "profiling," according to Time magazine. In the 1950s, Teten profiled by attempting to pinpoint a criminal's personality traits through evidence left at crime scenes, including how the perpetrator committed the crime. By the early 1980s, Teten's techniques had trickled down to local police departments. However, many of these law enforcement agencies lacked sufficient training in psychology to profile successfully. Moreover, while Teten profiled mostly in homicide investigations, local police departments were using profiling in mundane crimes such as robberies, Time reports.

Enter the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Then, the Illinois State Police began targeting drug runners in the Chicago area. Most of the first couriers the state police apprehended were young, Latino males who failed to give satisfactory answers when asked where they were headed, Time reports. So, the state police developed a profile of the young, Hispanic, confused male as drug runner.

Before long, the Drug Enforcement Agency developed a strategy similar to the Illinois State Police's, leading to the seizure of 989,643 kilograms of illegal narcotics by 1999. While this feat was undeniably impressive, it doesn't reveal how many innocent Latino men were stopped, searched and apprehended by police during the "war on drugs."

Room for Improvement

Amnesty International argues that the use of racial profiling to stop drug couriers on highways proved ineffective. The human rights organization cites a 1999 survey by the Department of Justice to make its point. The survey found that, while officers disproportionately focused on drivers of color, they found drugs on 17 percent of whites searched but on just 8 percent of blacks. A similar survey in New Jersey found that while, once again, drivers of color were searched more, state troopers found drugs on 25 percent of whites searched compared to on 13 percent of blacks and on 5 percent of Latinos searched.

Amnesty International also references a study of the U.S. Customs Service's practices by Lamberth Consulting to make the case against racial profiling. The study found that, when Customs agents stopped using racial profiling to identify drug smugglers and focused on suspects' behavior, they raised their rate of productive searches by more than 300 percent.

Racial Profiling Interferes With Criminal Investigations

Racial profiling has undermined some high-profile criminal investigations. Take the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995. In that case, officers initially investigated the bombings with Arab males in mind as suspects. As it turned out, white American men committed the crime. "Similarly, during the Washington D.C. area sniper investigation, the African American man and boy ultimately accused of the crime reportedly were able to pass through multiple road blocks with the alleged murder weapon in their possession, in part, because police profilers theorized the crime had been committed by a white male acting alone," Amnesty points out.

Other cases in which racial profiling proved futile were the arrests of John Walker Lindh, who is white; Richard Reid, a British citizen of West Indian and European ancestry; Jose Padilla, a Latino; and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian; on terrorism-related charges. None of these men fit the profile of "Arab terrorist" and indicate that the authorities should focus on one's behavior rather than on one's race or national origin in targeting terrorism suspects.

"Senior international security experts have suggested, for example, that such an approach would have increased the chances that suspected shoe-bomber Richard Reid would have been stopped before he successfully boarded an airplane he intended to attack," Amnesty International asserts.

Alternatives to Racial Profiling

During his address to Santa Clara University Law School, Siggins described methods other than racial profiling law enforcement could use to pinpoint terrorists and other criminals.

Authorities, he argued, should combine what they know about other terrorists in the U.S. with information obtained through investigations of these individuals to avoid casting too wide of a net. For example, authorities could ask:

"Have the subjects passed bad checks? Do they (have) multiple forms of identification with different names? Do they live in groups with no visible means of support? Does a subject use credit cards with different names on them?" Siggins suggests. "Ethnicity alone is not enough. If ethnic profiling of Middle Eastern men is enough to warrant disparate treatment, we accept that all or most Middle Eastern men have a proclivity for terrorism, just as during World War II, all resident Japanese had a proclivity for espionage."

In fact, in the case of World War II, 10 people were convicted of spying for Japan during the course of the conflict, according to Amnesty International. None of these individuals were of Japanese, or Asian, descent. Yet, the U.S. forced more than 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to evacuate from their homes and be relocated in internment camps. In this situation, the fallout from racial profiling proved tragic.

What to Do if Police Stop You

Law enforcement may have good cause to stop you. Perhaps your tags are expired, your taillight is out or you committed a traffic violation. If you suspect something else, such as racial profiling, is to blame for being stopped, visit the American Civil Liberties Union's Web site. The ACLU advises individuals stopped by police not to get combative with the authorities or threaten them. However, you don't have to "consent to any search of yourself, your car or your house" without a search warrant from police, with some exceptions.

If police claim to have a search warrant, make sure to read it, the ACLU cautions. Write down everything you remember about your interaction with police as soon as possible. These notes will help if you report a violation of your rights to the police department's internal affairs division or civilian board.