profiling" has become one of the shibboleths of our time. Anyone
who wants a public career in the United States must place himself
on record as being against it. Thus, ex-
John Ashcroft, on the eve of his confirmation hearings: "It's wrong,
inappropriate, shouldn't be done." During the vice-presidential debate
last October, moderator Bernard Shaw invited the candidates to imagine
themselves black victims of racial profiling. Both made the required
ritual protestations of outrage. Lieberman: "I have a few African-American
friends who have gone through this horror, and you know, it makes
me want to kind of hit the wall, because it is such an assault on
their humanity and their citizenship." Cheney: "It's the sense of
frustration and rage that would go with knowing that the only reason
you were stopped
was because of the color of your skin
In the strange, rather depressing, pattern these things always follow
nowadays, the American public has speedily swung into line behind
the Pied Pipers: Gallup reports that 81 percent of the public disapproves
of racial profiling.
All of which represents an extraordinary level of awareness of,
and hostility to, and even passion against ("hit the wall
a practice that, up to about five years ago, practically nobody
had heard of. It is, in fact, instructive to begin by looking at
the history of this shibboleth.
To people who follow politics, the term "racial profiling" probably
first registered when Al Gore debated Bill Bradley at New York's
Apollo Theatre in February 2000. Here is Bradley, speaking of the
1999 shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City
think it reflects
racial profiling that seeps
into the mind of someone so that he sees a wallet in the hand of
a white man as a wallet, but a wallet in the hand of a black man
as a gun. And we we have to change that. I would issue an
executive order that would eliminate racial profiling at the federal
Nobody was unkind enough to ask Sen. Bradley how an executive order
would change what a policeman sees in a dark lobby in a dangerous
neighborhood at night. Nor was anyone so tactless as to ask him
about the case of LaTanya Haggerty, shot dead in June 1999 by a
Chicago policewoman who mistook her cell phone for a handgun. The
policewoman was, like Ms. Haggerty, black.
Al Gore, in that debate at the Apollo, did successfully, and famously,
ambush Bradley by remarking that: "You know, racial profiling practically
began in New Jersey, Senator Bradley." In true Clinton-Gore fashion,
this is not true, but it is sort of true. "Racial profiling"
the thing has been around for as long as police work, and
is practiced everywhere. "Racial profiling" the term did
indeed have its origins on the New Jersey Turnpike in the early
1990s. The reason for the prominence of this rather unappealing
stretch of expressway in the history of the phenomenon is simple:
The turnpike is the main conduit for the shipment of illegal drugs
and other contraband to the great criminal marts of the Northeast.
The career of the term "racial profiling" seems to have begun
in 1994, but did not really take off until April 1998, when two
white New Jersey state troopers pulled over a van for speeding.
As they approached the van from behind, it suddenly reversed towards
them. The troopers fired eleven shots from their handguns, wounding
three of the van's four occupants, who were all black or Hispanic.
The troopers, James Kenna and John Hogan, subsequently became poster
boys for the "racial profiling" lobbies, facing the same indignities,
though so far with less serious consequences, as were endured by
the Los Angeles policemen in the Rodney King case: endless investigations,
double jeopardy, and so on.
a negative stereotype can be correct, and even useful.
And a shibboleth was born. News-media databases list only a scattering
of instances of the term "racial profiling" from 1994 to 1998. In
that latter year, the number hit double digits, and thereafter rose
quickly into the hundreds and thousands. Now we all know about it,
and we are, of course, all against it.
Well, not quite all. American courts including (see below)
the U.S. Supreme Court are not against it. Jurisprudence
on the matter is pretty clear: So long as race is only one factor
in a generalized approach to the questioning of suspects, it may
be considered. And of course, pace Candidate Cheney, it always
is only one factor. I have been unable to locate any statistics
on the point, but I feel sure that elderly black women are stopped
by the police much less often than are young white men.
Even in the political sphere, where truth-telling and independent
thinking on matters of race have long been liabilities, there are
those who refuse to mouth the required pieties. Alan Keyes, when
asked by Larry King if he would be angry with a police officer who
pulled him over for being black, replied: "I was raised that everything
I did represented my family, my race, and my country. I would be
angry with the people giving me a bad reputation."
GOODBYE TO COMMON SENSE Practically all law-enforcement professionals
believe in the need for racial profiling. In an article on the topic
for The New York Times Magazine in June 1999, Jeffrey Goldberg
interviewed Bernard Parks, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Parks, who is black, asked rhetorically of racial profiling: "Should
we play the percentages?
It's common sense." Note that date,
though. This was pretty much the latest time at which it was possible
for a public official to speak truthfully about racial profiling.
Law-enforcement professionals were learning the importance of keeping
their thoughts to themselves. Four months before the Goldberg piece
saw print, New Jersey state-police superintendent Carl Williams,
in an interview, said that certain crimes were associated with certain
ethnic groups, and that it was naïve to think that race was not
an issue in policing both statements, of course, perfectly
true. Supt. Williams was fired the same day by Gov. Christie Todd
Like other race issues in the U.S., racial profiling is a "tadpole,"
with an enormous black head and a long but comparatively inconsequential
brown, yellow, and red tail. While Hispanic, "Asian-American," and
other lesser groups have taken up the "racial profiling" chant with
gusto, the crux of the matter is the resentment that black Americans
feel toward the attentions of white policemen. By far the largest
number of Americans angry about racial profiling are law-abiding
black people who feel that they are stopped and questioned because
the police regard all black people with undue suspicion.
They feel that they are the victims of a negative stereotype.
They are. Unfortunately, a negative stereotype can be correct, and
even useful. I was surprised to find, when researching this article,
that within the academic field of social psychology there is a large
literature on stereotypes, and that much of it an entire
school of thought holds that stereotypes are essential life
tools. On the scientific evidence, the primary function of stereotypes
is what researchers call "the reality function." That is, stereotypes
are useful tools for dealing with the world. Confronted with a snake
or a fawn, our immediate behavior is determined by generalized beliefs
stereotypes about snakes and fawns. Stereotypes are,
in fact, merely one aspect of the mind's ability to make generalizations,
without which science and mathematics, not to mention, as the snake/fawn
example shows, much of everyday life, would be impossible.
At some level, everybody knows this stuff, even the guardians of
the "racial profiling" flame. Jesse Jackson famously, in 1993, confessed
that: "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life
than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking
about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel
relieved." Here is Sandra Seegars of the Washington, D.C., Taxicab
Late at night, if I saw young black men dressed in a slovenly way,
I wouldn't pick them up
. And during the day, I'd think twice
Pressed to define "slovenly," Ms. Seegars elaborated thus: "A young
black guy with his hat on backwards, shirttail hanging down longer
than his coat, baggy pants down below his underwear, and unlaced
tennis shoes." Now there's a stereotype for you! Ms. Seegars
is, of course, black.
Law-enforcement officials are simply employing the same stereotypes
as you, me, Jesse, and Sandra, but taking the opposite course of
action. What we seek to avoid, they pursue. They do this for reasons
of simple efficiency. A policeman who concentrates a disproportionate
amount of his limited time and resources on young black men is going
to uncover far more crimes and therefore be far more successful
in his career than one who biases his attention toward, say,
middle-aged Asian women. It is, as Chief Parks said, common sense.
Similarly with the tail of the tadpole racial-profiling issues
that do not involve black people. China is known to have obtained
a top-secret warhead design. Among those with clearance to work
on that design are people from various kinds of national and racial
background. Which ones should investigators concentrate on? The
Swedes? The answer surely is: They should first check out anyone
who has family or friends in China, who has made trips to China,
or who has met with Chinese officials. This would include me, for
example my father-in-law is an official of the Chinese Communist
Party. Would I then have been "racially profiled"?
It is not very surprising to learn that the main fruit of the "racial
profiling" hysteria has been a decline in the efficiency of police
work. In Philadelphia, a federal court order now re quires police
to fill out both sides of an 8½-by-11 sheet on every citizen contact.
Law-enforcement agencies nationwide are engaged in similar statistics-gathering
exercises, under pressure from federal lawmakers like U.S. Rep.
John Conyers, who has announced that he will introduce a bill to
force police agencies to keep detailed information about traffic
stops. ("The struggle goes on," declared Rep. Conyers. The struggle
that is going on, it sometimes seems, is a struggle to prevent our
police forces from accomplishing any useful work at all.)
The mountain of statistics that is being brought forth by all this
panic does not, on the evidence so far, seem likely to shed much
light on what is happening. The numbers have a way of leading off
into infinite regresses of uncertainty. The city of San Jose, Calif.,
for example, discovered that, yes, the percentage of blacks being
stopped was higher than their representation in the city's population.
Ah, but patrol cars were computer-assigned to high-crime districts,
which are mainly inhabited by minorities. So that over-representation
might actually be an under-representation! But then, minorities
have fewer cars
THE CORE ARGUMENTS
Notwithstanding the extreme difficulty of finding out what is actually
happening, we can at least seek some moral and philosophical grounds
on which to take a stand either for or against racial profiling.
I am going to take it as a given that most readers of this article
will be of a conservative inclination, and shall offer only those
arguments likely to appeal to persons so inclined. If you seek arguments
of other kinds, they are not hard to find just pick up your
newspaper or turn on your TV.
Of arguments against racial profiling, probably the ones
most persuasive to a conservative are the ones from libertarianism.
Many of the stop-and-search cases that brought this matter into
the headlines were part of the so-called war on drugs. The police
procedures behind them were ratified by court decisions of the 1980s,
themselves mostly responding to the rising tide of illegal narcotics.
In U.S. vs. Montoya De Hernandez (1985) for example,
Chief Justice Rehnquist validated the detention of a suspected "balloon
swallowing" drug courier until the material had passed through her
system, by noting previous invasions upheld by the Court:
class mail may be opened without a warrant on less than probable
. Automotive travellers may be stopped
border without individualized suspicion even if the stop is based
largely on ethnicity
(My italics.) The Chief Justice further noted that these incursions
are in response to "the veritable national crisis in law enforcement
caused by smuggling of illegal narcotics."
Many on the political Right feel that the war on drugs is at best
misguided, at worst a moral and constitutional disaster. Yet it
is naïve to imagine that the "racial profiling" hubbub would go
away, or even much diminish, if all state and federal drug laws
were repealed tomorrow. Black and Hispanic Americans would still
be committing crimes at rates higher than citizens of other races.
The differential criminality of various ethnic groups is not only,
or even mainly, located in drug crimes. In 1997, for example, blacks,
who are 13 percent of the U.S. population, comprised 35 percent
of those arrested for embezzlement. (It is not generally appreciated
that black Americans commit higher levels not only of "street crime,"
but also of white-collar crime.)
Even without the drug war, diligent police officers would still,
therefore, be correct to regard black and Hispanic citizens
other factors duly considered as more likely to be breaking
the law. The Chinese government would still be trying to recruit
spies exclusively from among Chinese-born Americans. (The Chinese
Communist Party is, in this respect, the keenest "racial profiler"
of all.) The Amadou Diallo case the police were looking for
a rapist would still have happened.
The best non-libertarian argument against racial profiling is the
one from equality before the law. This has been most cogently presented
by Prof. Randall Kennedy of Harvard. Kennedy concedes most of the
points I have made. Yes, he says:
Statistics abundantly confirm that African Americans and
particularly young black men commit a dramatically disproportionate
share of street crime in the United States. This is a sociological
fact, not a figment of the media's (or the police's) racist imagination.
In recent years, for example, victims of crime report blacks as
the perpetrators in around 25 per cent of the violent crimes suffered,
although blacks constitute only about twelve percent of the nation's
And yes, says Prof. Kennedy, outlawing racial profiling will reduce
the efficiency of police work. Nonetheless, for constitutional and
moral reasons we should outlaw the practice. If this places extra
burdens on law enforcement, well, "racial equality, like all good
things in life, costs something; it does not come for free."
There are two problems with this. The first is that Kennedy has
minimized the black-white difference in criminality, and therefore
that "cost." I don't know where his 25 percent comes from, or what
"recent years" means, but I do know that in Department of Justice
figures for 1997, victims report 60 percent of robberies as having
been committed by black persons. In that same year, a black American
was eight times more likely than a non-black to commit homicide
and "non-black" here includes Hispanics, not broken out separately
in these figures. A racial-profiling ban, under which police officers
were required to stop and question suspects in precise proportion
to their demographic representation (in what? the precinct population?
the state population? the national population?), would lead to massive
inefficiencies in police work. Which is to say, massive declines
in the apprehension of criminals.
The other problem is with the special status that Prof. Kennedy
accords to race. Kennedy: "Racial distinctions are and should be
different from other lines of social stratification." Thus, if it
can be shown, as it surely can, that state troopers stop young people
more than old people, relative to young people's numerical representation
on the road being patrolled, that is of no consequence. If they
stop black people more than white people, on the same criterion,
that is of large consequence. This, in spite of the fact that the
categories "age" and "race" are both rather fuzzy (define "young")
and are both useful predictors of criminality. In spite of the fact,
too, that the principle of equality before the law does not, and
up to now has never been thought to, guarantee equal outcomes for
any law-enforcement process, only that a citizen who has come under
reasonable suspicion will be treated fairly.
It is on this special status accorded to race that, I believe, we
have gone most seriously astray. I am willing, in fact, to say much
more than this: In the matter of race, I think the Anglo-Saxon world
has taken leave of its senses. The campaign to ban racial profiling
is, as I see it, a part of that large, broad-fronted assault on
common sense that our over-educated, over-lawyered society has been
enduring for some forty years now, and whose roots are in a fanatical
egalitarianism, a grim determination not to face up to the realities
of group differences, a theological attachment to the doctrine that
the sole and sufficient explanation for all such differences is
"racism" which is to say, the malice and cruelty of white
people and a nursed and petted guilt towards the behavior
of our ancestors.
At present, Americans are drifting away from the concept of belonging
to a single nation. I do not think this drift will be arrested until
we can shed the idea that deference to the sensitivities of racial
minorities however overwrought those sensitivities may be,
however over-stimulated by unscrupulous mountebanks, however disconnected
from reality trumps every other consideration, including
even the maintenance of social order. To shed that idea, we must
confront our national hysteria about race, which causes large numbers
of otherwise sane people to believe that the hearts of their fellow
citizens are filled with malice towards them. So long as we continue
to pander to that poisonous, preposterous belief, we shall only
wander off deeper into a wilderness of division, mistrust, and institutionalized
rancor that wilderness, the most freshly painted signpost
to which bears the legend RACIAL PROFILING.