Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

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

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

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18 thoughts on “Racial Profiling: Immoral and Ineffective.”
  1. Great thought provoking post Eddie, of all the profiles law enforcements have as tools to capture law breakers, such as serial, murders, serial rapist, kidnappers , bank Robbers, or high profile crimes that plague communities. Racial profiles are simple composite of lower income level black/latinos based on poverty incentive and probability and not substantial data that includes greed and the exploitation of law enforcement poorly prepared readiness to take off the tainted lens.

    Case in point before I retired i supplemented my income years ago recovering from a divorce. i convinced a huge retailer how they were not getting the most of their surveillance security in place. I asked them to allow me one week to demonstrate my assertion. In the period of one week, there were numerous incident where whites attempted to take advantage of retailer monitoring blacks even some well dress and represented while, they pocketed expensive jeweler items or any thing concealable while diversion people of color provided to bias retailer. The senseless of the improbable reliability of racial profiling is exploited by known criminal and even those with no criminal aspiration just unwilling to pass up an opportunity, i.e. greed.

    The fact is when profiles form around color and flawed statistics, everyone becomes familiar with the baseless concept and exploits it. Ultimately, just as it’s possible for a lawyer whose practice is on the skids can be a drug dealers, or users, or the probability of corporate executives whom are unlikely users often remain untouched with the exception a stroke of luck, it will continue to be the illicit biases that support racial profiling, not any reliable principle or valid concept. This of course is if the intent and focus of law enforcement is for the respect and love for the rule of law or some other nefarious intent. Great Post … Congratulation on your first publication!

  2. ” 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.”

    Thank you for this well thought out piece, I hope that you have the opportunity to do more.

    I included the above in quotes to truly hit home the need for justice for all. Not the injustice for some. We are losing the “War” on many things that should keep us safe because of some very tainted filters. While many related it to some twisted sense of historical “reality”(Certain people because they just aren’t as humane as “we” are) to justify racial profiling. It has become at a great cost…nothing in a full body will stay contained forever. So now the drugs are so prevalent that law enforcement officers with integrity are now finding the “rabbit hole” is so much more deeper.

  3. Very well written, heavy on facts and reasoned analysis. That it is also intuitively true to us bleeding-heart liberals is probably beside the point. Anyone with any contact at all with the so-called “criminal justice system” knows that it is amazingly racist. I worked for the Superior Court of Santa Cruz, California, for a time, and I was surprised at just how racist the system is in what I thought to be quite a liberal, even progressive, county. I think it’s the nature of criminal law enforcement to be far more conservative than the surrounding public. Power-trippers are the ones who go to the police academy.

  4. Chance: Thanks for your feedback and the excellent example you posted. You show excatly how racial profiling works AGAINST effective policing. The fact is that a more effective means is profiling BEHAVIOR, not profiling based on physical characteristics. I know if I were a big time drug dealer, I would use couriers, or “mules” that didn’t fit the profile and I’m sure most of the Big Players in the drug game do exactly that. Another issue, which I didn’t really touch on here, is the so-called war on terrorism: I ran across quite a few examples in which terrorists used individuals that didn’t fit the “racial profile.”

  5. Saynt: Thanks for taking the time to read and understand. the issues I explore in this piece oftentimes elicits strong emotions all around. Part of it has to do with some measure of “cognitive dissonance,” I believe. We all want to believe that our social institutions are playing fair — that what we value and hold dear are working in “good faith.” Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

    And these issues have life and death consequences for those negatively impacted by criminal justice policies.

    AuntB: DEFINITELY! This is why I always remind people that racism would still exist even if there were no “racists.” Having worked in criminal justice reform for the last 10 years or so, I see firsthand how the system is oftentimes an insult to the notion of “justice.”

  6. Well said! It is time we realize how “skewed” so much of all of this really is. It also points out how often times those things that are not supported by accurate data, are often times the basis for so many of these actions, and beleived to be true when they simply aren’t!

  7. This was food for thought…and it was a full course meal on one of the many, many instruments that are being used to tear down and tear apart this society…

    Thank you Eddie!!!

  8. This truly was a great piece Eddie and congrats on being published. That’s a feat within itself. It baffles me how criminal profiling converted to racial profiling. Crime knows no racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious bounds. It’s an outright excuse to practice racism, promote fear, and obscure statistics. Of course if you only profile crime in black neighborhoods will “black” crime be high. Of course when you focus on illegal immigration within the Mexican population will there be a problem. Profiling a behavior, not a particular race, will bring about true and accurate results. This is not rocket science, nor do the people practicing it not know that they are wrong. The idea is that they can instill enough fear or that enough people won’t care to act on it. I’m glad you are not one of those Eddie. Thanks and congrats again!

  9. I am not a big fan of the “law” enforcement institutions – I’ve always thought of them as being little more than thugs with badges. The fact of the matter is this: cops don’t serve the function of reducing “crime” (a concept that only exists because “law” defines it into being – BTW) so much as serve the function of seeking out citizens to punish for “crime” – effectively surpressing dissent within the general population whilst clinging to a self-righteous justification for doing so.

    And as it so happens, the communities composed of minority groups are also the ones that are least able to afford the necessary political and “legal” protections against an aggressive police establishment(i.e. they tend to be poor) – hence they tend to be the ones most targeted by “law” enforcement officials looking to boost their arrest records or create overtime-paying work for themselves (“collars for cash” as it is known in my area).

    The only real solution to this problem is to (a) eliminate all forms of “law” that impedes the sovereignty of the individual and (b) strip the “law” enforcement establishment down to bare-bones essentials for operation – of course, society will do no such thing: it requires a means to surpress the public while convincing that same public that they are “protecting” them – a sort of “Ministry of Love” who’s purpose is to reinforce the status quo by deflecting blame for “crime” onto “criminals” rather than upon those who make the existence of “crime” possible in the first place (i.e. the political class).

  10. Denise: One of my pet peeves are people who champion causes that are often based on faulty premises. Unfortunately, this happens too much and exacts a price that is measured in lives.

    Christopher: I’ve heard the “collars fr cash” remarks. I’ve also witnessed correctional officers tell inmates they are “overtime money.” It’s insane and the system rarely ever resembles anything approximating “justice.” You bring up some interesting points. I think a part of a more sane approach to policing would be community-based. While I am not one of those who harkens back to the “good old days,” I do remember a time when the community was more invested in policing ITSELF. My belief is that the so-called war on drugs and other wrong-headed policies have resulted in further dis-empowering poorer communities, leaving them even more vulnerable

  11. DARN! I had left some responses earlier today but now they’re not here. LOL

    Denise: One of my pet peeves are rampant assumptions based on faulty or fallacious premises. In the world of social policy, these types of assumptions have real-world (often life and death) consequences. Thanks for taking the time to read it and responding.

    Christopher: You bring up a whole stack of great pints. I too have heard the “collars for cash” comments, and I have also witnessed correctional officers tell inmates they are “overtime money.”

    I think one step in the right direction would be to put more of our resources into COMMUNITIES — education, vocational training, drug counseling, etc. That’s just too obvious. Additionally, we should start making policing a COMMUNITY issue — bring back criminal justice as part of the responsibility of the communities. Community policing and community-based courts have shown that they actually DETER crime and make communities safer, more vibrant, more empowered.

  12. I’m not an American,so perhaps it’s not a great idea for me to respond here: but I have been racially profiled myself, more than once, in Russia, and I can vouch for the fact that it is an intensely unpleasant experience, even if the whole process was conducted with politeness.

  13. @ Eddie,

    Yes, the so-called “war on drugs” (along with related “wars” on “crime” and “terrorism” and other such nonsense) has been responsible for much of the trouble afflicting the poor and uneducated in this nation – the existence of these “wars” necessitates the construction of stronger police agencies to combat the threats (real or imagined) that face the established social order. But once the establishment has a large police arm it must use it or else admit that it’s superflous to the maintainance of healthy communities (which will result in this power being downsized or even disbanded): the more that this massive police arm is used, the more society justifies its existence and seeks to make it even stronger – and the cycle continues on and on until a full-fledged police state is born.

    I personally think that this nation has past the point of no return: the various “wars” society loves waging have given birth to a proto-gestapo that is “homeland security” that exercises power over all branches of intelligence and “law” enforcement that has never been seen in this country before and it’s just a matter of time before the executive branch expands its powers to the point where they can go after any dissenter who openly oppose the will of the establishment – it’s far too late to stop this beast by any political or socail means considered “legitimate,” all you can do now is arm yourself, have an escape plan worked out and brace for impact within the next 2-3 decades…

  14. Great article. Thanks for highlighting the stats from law enforcement. Let’s face it. Our criminal justice system is broken. Let’s kick the lobbyists out and start making changes. We can start locally by electing competent District Attorneys.

  15. [quote=PBugnacki.LCSW]”Let’s kick the lobbyists out and start making changes. We can start locally by electing competent District Attorneys.[/quote]

    And how do you suppose this come about? No member oif the political class can run for office without money and very few finance their own campaigns (why do that when special interests with happily finance you in return for “favors”) – the political class won’t willingly separate themselves from the special interests as such a thing would be againsts their own interests.

    The answer lays not in electing new politicals (as they won’t be significanly different from the old guard), but in replacing them altogether – something the political class will not allow without a fight (not a “reform” movement or new election cycle – an actual, factual, shedding-of-blood-and-treasure conflict).

  16. I’ve never been a victim of racial profiling. I’m 17 and White. 100% white. No officer has ever looked at me twice other than to check me out. I’ve seen them interrogate hispanics and african Americans near me. It can be scary. Yes, they were dressing “hetto like” in a bad neighborhood. More later. gtg

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