Racial Profiling: Immoral and Ineffective.

Intensely passionate and insatiably curious, my life experiences have led me to strive to help others move their lives in a positive direction, exploring opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them. I work as an activist for a non-profit, mission-oriented organization. Currently, I am a director of a community-based program focused on criminal justice reform. I like to say that I sit at the crossroads of the dialectic between knowledge and action because it sounds good. In my spare time I like to pick lint from my navel. One of my fave quotes is by Raymond Williams, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

The opinions expressed here are mine and are not the opinions of my employer(s).

By: Edward-Yemíl Rosario (Eddie)

The major reason to oppose racial profiling (aside from constitutional and moral grounds) is that it simply doesn’t work. Empirical studies show that when police use race or ethnic appearance as a factor in law enforcement, their effectiveness in apprehending criminals decreases. Even worse, it has often led to “accidental” deaths, such as the fatal shootings of African American and Latino men in New York City and elsewhere. What follows is a look at the fallacies of racial profiling.

“…Police deployment these days is determined almost strictly by rates of relative violence/crime in each police district. The rate of violence is not some subjective quotient created by a racist cop, but is determined by counting citizens reporting that they were shot, stabbed, beat up and otherwise assaulted, this is combined with citizen reports of burglary, robbery, theft, etc. You see, your racist conspiracy theory is illogical when you know that police resources are deployed based on crime as reported by citizens and not some racist plot to destroy minorities. That is logical.”

The above quote was taken from a response to my first post on racial profiling (click here) submitted by someone I chose call “Bubba” — mostly because his is what I perceive as a typical a “Bubba” response. No amount of evidence would disabuse him from his untenable position. I illustrated that the enforcement process is far from “logical” or based purely on statistics. I showed how police deployment is not solely determined by “rates of violence.” I demonstrated where even judges state that the criminal justice process — from arrest to sentencing — is racially tainted. I showed where the individual who first used criminal profiling is on record as saying that using race to target crime is ineffective, but Bubba insisted and still insists that 1) he’s the logical and one, and 2) I have “chip on my shoulder.” Yeah, you know how us Latino(a)s get all too emotional and lose whatever little reasoning we possess.

If his attitude isn’t a sense of entitlement, I don’t know what is… unfortunately; his response is not that different from police authorities and conservative academic scholars.

In my original post, I demonstrated through the use of empirical studies that racial profiling is morally repugnant and racist. Today I will show that it is also ineffective.

Racial conservatives [1] — both black and white — maintain that racial profiling isn’t racist. They argue that racial profiling is justified since we all know that criminogenic people of color commit all of the crime! As Heather MacDonald of the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute puts it, “Judging by arrest rates, minorities are overly represented among drug traffickers”(MacDonald, 2001) . Black conservative, Randall Kennedy agrees. He goes so far as to say that arrest rates present a “sad reality” and justifies racial profiling on those grounds (Kennedy, 1999). Well, if this is true, scientific examinations of racial profiling should yield results that back up the claims of racial conservatives.

The problem is… they don’t…

First let me point out that Bubba’s assertion that “Police deployment these days is determined almost strictly by rates of relative violence/crime in each police district,” is incorrect. That is not how police deployment is arrived at. Furthermore, the idea that “The rate of violence… is determined by counting citizens reporting that they were shot, stabbed, beat up and otherwise assaulted, this is combined with citizen reports of burglary, robbery, theft, etc.,” is unmitigated bullshit. It shows this person is at best ignorant of police procedures across the nation. But I am getting ahead of myself…

Bear with me while I make an important point. Imagine for a moment that a society awakens to the hard reality of child abuse and makes stopping such abuse a national priority. Legislators pass new laws criminalizing child abuse in new ways, increases sentences for the crime dramatically, and limit and even eliminate parole for all child abuse offenses. Prosecutors do their part by vigorously prosecuting all cases and asking for the maximum sentences, and police and other state agencies increase their enforcement efforts against child abuse. If we looked at prisons ten years later, we would surely find a higher percentage of inmates imprisoned for child abuse. But this would not necessarily mean that child abuse itself is more prevalent than it was ten years before. Rather, these numbers would be a reflection of the priorities and actions of the criminal justice system.

The above scenario, of course, is almost exactly what has happened in our society with drugs. Politicians at every level, including at least four presidents, identified drug enforcement at as the top law enforcement priority. The U.S. congress and other legislative bodies increased sentences, sometimes astronomically. New laws eliminated judicial discretion and implemented strict sentencing guidelines. Some of these new laws specifically targeted crack cocaine, a drug more commonly sold in African American neighborhoods. Law enforcement focused almost entirely on the most visible aspect of the drug trade — retail selling and use on the streets — almost exclusively in communities of color. Though drug use and sale is about equal across all ethnicity’s, these enforcement policies resulted in the skewed, heavily minority prison populations’ racial conservatives use as justification for racial profiling.

I once knew someone who liked to say that “math is a cruel bitch” and arrest rates and crime statistics are facts, but the way we interpret these facts and the conclusions we draw from them are not. In moving from fact to interpretation to conclusion, racial conservatives supporting racial profiling miss something critically important.

Objective statistics do confirm that African Americans, Latin Americans, and other minorities are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. In 1990, for example, one in four black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight were under criminal justice control (Mauer, 1990). By 1995, the number had grown to one in three, with even higher percentages in some cities. In Baltimore, for example, the percentage was 60 (Mauer & Huling, 1995).

The important question here is whether the rate of African American or Latino  arrests or incarceration reflects actual offending behavior. At first glance, this might seem clear or obvious, but note that the vast majority of crimes go unreported. For example, almost three-quarters of all sexual assaults, more than a third of all robberies, and more than 40 percent of all aggravated assaults go unreported (U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999). This makes arrest figures an unreliable indicator of who commits crimes overall. Drugs and weapons possession offenses differ because they are consensual. That means all parties involved in such crimes do not want the authorities to know the crime is taking place. Not the retailer, seller, nor the consumer — they all want the crime to happen. When it comes to enforcement against consensual crimes involving drugs, the police have to actively seek out such crimes (Kitsuse & Cicourel, 1963).

The great bulk of drug activity, including the transport of larger quantities of drugs by couriers, goes unreported, unseen, and undetected. Police officers may have general knowledge of drug activity, its locations, or people involved, but this tells them little concerning any specific patterns of offending behavior. These crimes are least likely to be fully known and reported, so police use other tactics to find them.

Whew! Still with me?

It follows then, that arrest and incarceration rates do not measure crime but the activity of police and other institutions responsible for criminal justice efforts. While this data tell us useful things, it doesn’t support inappropriate conclusions. Arrest statistics tell us that police disproportionately arrest African American males for drug crimes. This reflects decisions made by someone in the police department to concentrate enforcement activities on these individuals (Stuntz, 1998). Drawing any further conclusions based on these statistics, or using them to justify racial profiling, as do racial conservatives, is just plain wrong and, in my estimation, racially motivated.

Now to the meat of my argument…

If, as I have shown, arrest and incarceration rates do not tell us about the effectiveness of catching criminals, there are other statistics that do. And the story these statistics tell is a very different one than racial conservatives would have us believe.

Until very recently, there was no data that gave us any insight into hit rates — the rates at which police actually find contraband or other evidence of crime when they perform stops and searches. Therefore, when confronted with remarks made by the likes of our friend, Bubba, we had little to say in response. In other words, we had to take the word of law enforcement agencies and racial conservatives that racial profiling was justified. However, evidence from a broad range of contexts now allow for a statistical analysis of racial profiling. And the results of this analysis will come as a surprise to many: racial profiling, aside from being immoral, is neither an efficient nor an effective tool for fighting crime — bitches. [2]

Driving While Black

Statistics from stops and searches by Maryland State Police during 1995 and 1996 provided some of the first comprehensive data on hit rates. In terms of stops, the data, which came from the police themselves, showed that the state police stopped and searched African Americans disproportionately.  Although they made only 17 percent of all drivers, blacks made up more than 70 percent of all those searched. The data were compiled from more than eleven hundred searches. Given the official conservative rationale that what they had been doing was merely sound policing — not racism — the hit rates should clearly have borne out the wisdom of the state police approach. Wrong! The hit rates showed something different: the hit rate at which police found drugs, guns, or other evidence of crime in these searches were almost exactly the same for blacks and whites.

Troopers found evidence on African Americans they searched 28.4 percent of the time; they found evidence on whites 28.8 percent of the time (Lamberth, 1998). The researcher found no statistical significance in the difference between the numbers for blacks and whites, given the number of stops and searches included in the data. If, in fact there was any difference between blacks and whites, the data showed clearly that racial profiling was not uncovering it. What the data did show was a flaw in the basic assumption underlying racial profiling.

But I — and many of my darker-skinned brethren — coulda told you that!

Recent statistics from New Jersey provide even more information on hit rates. After a controversial state attorney general report, the New Jersey State Police began to record data for all its traffic stops and searches. Data from 2000 concerning the southern end of the turnpike, the area where complaints on profiling first originated, show that blacks and Latino/as remain 70 percent of those searched. And the hit rates absolutely contradict the idea that racial profiling is just good law enforcement. Troopers found evidence in the searches of whites 25 percent of the time; they found evidence in searches of blacks 13 percent of the time, and in searches of Latino/as just 5 percent of the time (New Jersey State Police, 2001). Whites were almost twice as likely to be found with contraband as blacks and five times as likely as Latino/as — clearly indicating that racial conservatives and people like Bubba are fuckin’ full of shit.

Data from North Carolina tells a similar story. In 1999, North Carolina became the first state to pass legislation making it mandatory for some police agencies to report basic data on all traffic stops and searches. A researcher, conducting an analysis required by law, found that African American male drivers were 68 percent more likely than white male drivers to be searched by the good ole boys (Bubbas) of the North Carolina Highway Patrol. They found contraband on blacks in 26 percent of the searches; for whites, the hit rate was 33 percent (Zingraff, 2000).

Walking While Black

Even more telling were hit rates from the New York Attorney general’s study of stops and frisks in New York City, issued in 1999. The context of this study is somewhat different because the data concern stops and searches of pedestrians. However the practice, using race to focus police suspicion — is the same. In addition, the data here is plentiful: 175,000 recorded encounters between officers and citizens over a period of fifteen months. The study tracked hit rates by analyzing the percentage of stops and frisks that ended in an arrest. The data are even more damning than the numbers from the Maryland and New Jersey studies. The attorney general found that police arrested 12.6 percent of the whites they stopped, only 11.5 percent of the Latino/as, and only 10.5 percent of the blacks (Spitzer, 1999). This is exactly the opposite of what a Bubba would predict. When New York City police officers utilized racial profiling intensively, they found what they wanted less often on blacks and Latino/as than they did on whites.

I have a sneaking suspicion that those who champion racial profiling don’t do so because they think it’s “sound policing” — a practice based on cold hard numbers. I believe they support such practices because they want to justify racist practices. They are comfortable with such practices because, for the most part, it doesn’t affect them. They are not the ones being taken handcuffed from their homes, or being humiliated while driving or even walking down the street. They think it’s okay to commit such acts on certain Americans because they just don’t give a good goddamn — until it happens to them…

There’s a price we all pay for racial profiling, the least of which it makes all of us less safe, as police are more determined to bust low-level black drug dealers in the streets while the big drug game is taking place somewhere in a sleepy suburban enclave or high roller penthouse loft. Racial profiling alienates and criminalizes communities of color – communities that might otherwise provide valuable information to law enforcement; it distracts police from using more reliable methods and it plays right into the hands of some criminals, who specifically choose accomplices that don’t fit the profile. But most importantly, racial profiling serves to reinforce an apartheid-like environment that has resulted in making us the largest incarcerated nation in the world.


Note: Much of what I have summarized in this post can be found discussed at greater length here:

Harris, D. A. (2002). Profile in injustice: Why racial profiling cannot work. New Press: New York.


Kennedy, R. (1999). Race, crime, and the law. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kitsuse, J., & Cicourel, A. (1963). A note on the use of official statistics. Social Problems, 11, 131-139.

Lamberth, J. (1998, August 16). Driving while black; A statistician proves that prejudice still rules the road Washington Post p. C01.

MacDonald, H. (2001). The myth of racial profiling. City Journal, 11(2).

Mauer, M. (1990). Young black men and the criminal justice system: A growing national problem. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.

Mauer, M., & Huling, T. (1995). Young black Americans and the criminal justice system: Five years later. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.

Moorestown Station consent to search seizures for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, (2001).

Spitzer, E. (1999). The New York City Police Department “stop and frisk” practices: A report to the people of New York. New York: Attorney General of the State of New York.

Stuntz, W. (1998). Race, class, and drugs. Columbia Law Review, 98, 1795, 1803.

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1999). National Crime Victimization Survey, Criminal victimization in the United States, 1999, statistical tables, table 91. Retrieved. from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/.

Zingraff, M. T. (2000). Evaluating North Carolina State highway patrol data: Citations, warnings, and searches in 1998: North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

[1] Racial conservatives is a term I use to describe the demographic (both lay and academic) that presupposes that racism no longer exists. Defining racism solely through the lens of individualism (better understood as prejudice), racial conservatives are blind to the systemic nature of racism. I conceptualize racism in structural and institutional as well as individual terms. My definition of racism describes a centuries-old system of racial domination designed by white Americans that excludes African Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society. Racism requires not only a widely accepted racist ideology but also the systematic power to exclude people of color from opportunities and major economic rewards system of oppression of African Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans. For a more in-depth discussion of these issues please see my post on racism (click here).

[2] I draw heavily here from the research and analysis conducted by David Harris and summarized in his book, Profiles of Injustice