Racial Profiling in the United States

Alice Hauser, Guest Writer

Following the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, the people of the United States of America found themselves with the unique opportunity to create a nation founded on principles in which they believed. These principles of freedom, equality, liberty, and “certain unalienable rights” for all citizens guaranteed under the law are core values in our society. Despite this, our nation’s history is riddled with injustice, and the struggle by various groups for rights as basic as access to equal facilities, the right to vote, and the right to equal treatment under the law. In 1775, there were more than half a million African Americans, most of them enslaved, living in the 13 colonies. This was roughly equivalent to a fifth of the population of 2.5 million people at the time, making one black person for every five white people. This diversity, even at a time of setting new rules, was not enough to warrant an end to the enslavement of black people in our country, despite the fact that several of the Founding Fathers were against slavery, with Thomas Jefferson advocating abolitionist legislation. This apparent lapse in our nation’s ethos is the contradiction on which our nation was built. Indeed, “whatever Jefferson meant by “all men are created equal,” he apparently was not talking about people from Africa, because on another day he wrote, “The blacks … are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.’” While perhaps explained, at least in part, by the utility of keeping slaves, this baffling paradox demonstrates how we, as Americans, say one thing, but act another when it suits us. Moreover, this mindset formed at our country’s beginnings has laid the groundwork for continued discrimination into the present day, even as our understanding of race and equality has evolved.

Discrimination, not just against African Americans, but also against other races, is still very much present in our modern day society. Today, one of the most blatant forms of discrimination against non-white races is found in the practice of racial profiling, commonly defined as “a practice that targets people for suspicion of crime based on their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” The fact that discrimination still exists today in a country where justice and equality are of such great importance to its citizens begs the question of why? Why do we, as a nation, still judge people by the color of their skin? We are not a nation of stupid people, nor are we inherently evil, which suggests either a massive oversight on the part of the American people and government, or some purpose behind what appears to be prejudice, or perhaps a combination of the two. Nevertheless, discrimination is very much present today, and finds an ally in the practice of racial profiling, which allows it to continue. Despite the benefits to be gained from the practice of racial profiling, the harm it causes necessitates that it be used sparingly, if at all, especially as it grows more and more outdated.

To some, racial profiling seems to be necessitated by the socioeconomic disparities between races. After all, while in an ideal world, the color of one’s skin, one’s gender, or other such characteristics assigned by birth would not affect a person’s personality, economic situation, or the opportunities to which they have access, the fact remains that in today’s world, just as gender roles are still likely to play a part in determining who takes care of the children, race still plays a role in a person’s socioeconomic status. The poverty rate among blacks is more than two times greater than the 11.4 percent poor rate for whites. This higher likelihood of blacks to live in poorer communities creates a higher rate of crime in black neighborhoods than it does in white neighborhoods. Because of this, there is a greater police presence in black neighborhoods, which, while potentially creating tension with the community, is simply intended to prevent crime. However, as Ta-Nehisi Coates remarks, “black poverty proves itself to be fundamentally distinct from white poverty.” Black poverty is not only more isolating and concentrated, but is also associated with a greater stigma of shame and violence. This increased police presence in poor black neighborhoods is neither seen in nor associated with poor white neighborhoods, eliminating the “poverty” line of reasoning. So, again, we must ask ourselves why? If not for socioeconomic disparities, then why do we continue to judge people by the color of their skin?

The United States’ history of institutional racism and discrimination suggests that the targeting of certain groups by law enforcement is racially motivated. Perhaps the most benign-seeming example of this is that police are three times more likely to search the stopped cars of black drivers than they are to search the stopped cars of white drivers. While not originally shocking, there is a much less compelling argument for stopping cars, which could have traveled from any given neighborhood, than there is for a greater police presence simply because there are higher crime rates in black neighborhoods. However, this “stretching” of a well-intended concentration of law enforcement is just the beginning; it speaks of a racial bias within our country that is difficult to pinpoint as it hides behind vague, false, or loosely related statistics to justify its existence. Indeed, when it comes to light that getting pulled over is the precursor to about 11 percent of fatal police shootings, this “harmless search” becomes a great deal less harmless, especially for the black people who are disproportionately targeted. Furthermore, despite the fact that white Americans use drugs at equivalent rates and are as likely, if not more likely, to sell drugs than black Americans, police arrest black Americans at twice the rate they arrest white Americans for drug crimes. Furthermore, a 2012 study reveals that, on average, blacks receive almost 10% longer sentences than comparable whites arrested for the same crimes. Investigation by the University of Michigan Law School revealed that this was partly due to the fact that prosecutors are, in general, almost twice as likely to file charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences against African Americans. This disparity in treatment of different groups is not explained by data, nor is it justified by any legitimate differences between white and blacks.

However, these disparities in treatment of certain groups extend far beyond mere arrests. Instead, the differences in treatment of African Americans and whites have reached the point where African Americans have lost any voice within the justice system. This loss of voice has taken the form of reduced voting rights and diminished ability to serve on juries. In North Carolina, for example, black juror candidates are struck from the pool at twice the rate of white juror candidates. The inherent racism in such discrimination is plain and carries consequences that serve to further this vicious cycle. In Alabama, 34 percent of the black male population is permanently disenfranchised, in part due to felony convictions from a discriminatory criminal justice system. Thus, the disproportionate felony convictions of black people in the South not only speaks of discrimination within the criminal justice system, but also prevents them from having a voice in politics, furthering their marginalization. On a national level, the rate of disenfranchisement for all Americans resulting from a felony conviction is 2.5 percent, while for black Americans, it is 7.7 percent. This loss of political voice, whether justified or not, loses all meaning given that black people, in the South, are convicted by white juries from which black people are disproportionately struck. It is of note that there is a deeply rooted history of discrimination against African Americans in the South yet somehow we feel that we can turn a blind eye to statistics that clearly indicate a gross miscarriage of justice. Indeed, as Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, reminds us, it would be unconscionable for Germany to use the death penalty against its citizens, especially if those executed were disproportionately Jewish; however, we turn a blind eye to such happenings within our own country, where “in the very states where there are buried in the ground the bodies of people who were lynched,” we allow the state to sponsor such executions. Upon closer examination, it seems that racial profiling is only one of the many forms of discrimination within our country and is indicative of a larger problem of deep prejudice and demonstrated racial bias against people of other races within our criminal justice system.

Now this is not to say that there is no utility to be found in racial profiling. Like James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary […] but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” In today’s imperfect world, there are some instances in which using information about real correlations can be both useful and acceptable ways of focusing law enforcement’s resources. This tangible utility of racial profiling has been used throughout our nation’s history, especially in times of conflict, where the nation’s security and the safety of its people are at risk to justify otherwise unacceptable actions. Indeed, it seems that when the country is in danger, practices we could otherwise afford are placed on the back burner, and safety is put first. This prioritization of public safety is seen in the extensive granting of powers to the Executive branch in times of national conflict. The practice of separation of powers is diminished, so that our country can, at least in theory, function more efficiently during wartime. As Francis Biddle, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attorney general during World War II commented, “The Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime president.” Indeed, “National survival […] always takes precedence.” This, to some extent, explains the disregard for civil rights following attacks on the United States. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an Executive Order was passed authorizing the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. Similarly, following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the United States began a “war on terror” involving discrimination against and imprisonment of many Muslims, both noncitizens and citizens. This involved stripping many Muslims of the most basic and fundamental rights granted to them by the Constitution, by classifying them as “enemy combatants,” a practice to which most Americans turned a blind eye. These actions were not designed to be racist or discriminatory, but rather to promote public safety, at the expense of certain targeted groups. This phenomenon is not only seen in our country, but also in Israel, a country where tensions are high given its volatile relationship with Palestine, and threats to national security are higher still. In Israel, “the powers that be have mandated that security and the comfort of the majority must triumph […] these are simply the procedures ensuring everyone’s safety.” This speaks of a prioritization of national security, not just within the U.S., but also in other countries, and suggests that there might be some value in racial profiling practices extending beyond the institutional racism it allows.

This apparent utility in racial profiling begs the question, what if the data were accurate? Indeed, much of the outrage at racial profiling stems from the use of faulty data or discriminatory motivation informing law enforcement decisions. If this racial bias could be removed, would the practice be worth it? After all, the idea of using accurate data to inform police as to where their efforts would be best directed does not seem so absurd. However, racial profiling is a process that builds on itself, creating cycles that become increasingly difficult for targeted communities to break out of. For example, many of the increased crime, and thus arrest rates in black neighborhoods come from racial profiling itself. When arrest rates are disproportionately high, incarceration rates naturally follow. With high incarceration rates come poverty, and distrust of police. And with poverty and distrust of police, there comes a subsequent disregard for law that leads to higher rates of arrest. Thus, the detrimental effects of disproportionate targeting of one group of people are exponentially unfair! Moreover, this phenomenon does not just apply to black Americans. In the case of targeting Muslims to combat terrorism, the likelihood of a Muslim who is randomly searched being a terrorist is exceedingly unlikely, given that 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims. Therefore, the systematic mistreatment of Muslims is not only unfounded statistically, but also more likely to garner deep-rooted resentment between groups, a phenomenon that can only lead to increased racial tensions, violence, and quite possibly increased crime.

Thus, while there are immediate advantages to using accurate data to inform police decisions, the long term effects of such a tactic not only have questionable moral implications, they are also simply impractical. There can be no rest for the people of targeted groups until the discrimination and institutional racism they face on a daily basis has been eradicated. In situations where the immediate safety of the American people is at risk, while we must work towards that ideal world in which race is no longer a factor in a person’s potential for success or criminality, we ultimately must do what we have to in order to protect the public interest. That said, as national security issues increasingly become those charged by race and religion, they can no longer be used as justification for racial profiling, for to continue the practice that exacerbated such crises in the first place would be both impractical and immoral. More and more, we must, as a society, move away from the outdated practices of profiling of any sort, allowing them to be used only in moments of immediate danger, where all other options have been exhausted.

It is clear that our country has yet to strike the right balance, either by using faulty data or by generalizing too far to too great extremes; however, we must be patient with ourselves, and with society as it develops, moving slowly but surely towards justice. As Thomas Jefferson said, “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” In this, he captured a fundamental characteristic of society- it’s slow development. As Martin Luther King stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Though this development is slow, it has certainly been made through the years. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and the increased championing of the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution, it is made clear that we, as a country, value civil rights. It seems excessive to take the entire history of civil rights violations in our country, and dump them onto racial profiling. Society’s morals develop over time, and as they do, our country has sought to make progress accordingly. Given this, we must not give in to the temptation to abolish all profiling practices. It may be more difficult to try to fix a broken system than it is to destroy it and start anew, but in destroying it, we would endanger the progress that has already been made, and lose all the benefits we currently reap from profiling.

Essentially, given the extensive history of institutional racism and discrimination within the United States, it is no wonder that many view racial profiling as simply another injustice in a long line of injustices, an extension of the tyranny of the majority. Yet we must not forget the good intentions behind the practice of profiling, and the benefits that we can reap from it, at least for the present. We must certainly endeavor to move further and further away from profiling, but with limited resources available to our police officers, we must be reasonable in our expectations, especially when national security is at stake. This said, we must no longer turn a blind eye to the blatant discrimination present in our criminal justice system. We must check our biases, and, instead of making excuses as to why racist practices still exist, we should look inwards, and reflect on our tendency for hypocrisy, for until we are able to recognize the institutional racism that exists still today, we will remain powerless to combat it.



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