You Can't Judge a Crook by His Color

Racial profiling may be justified, but it's still wrong


| January-February 2000


In Kansas City, a Drug Enforcement Administration officer stops and questions a young man who has just stepped off a flight from Los Angeles. The officer has focused on this man because intelligence reports indicate that black gangs in L.A. are flooding the Kansas City area with illegal drugs. Young, toughly dressed, and appearing nervous, he paid for his ticket in cash, checked no luggage, brought two carry-on bags, and made a beeline for a taxi when he arrived. Oh, and one other thing: The young man is black. When asked why he decided to question this man, the officer declares that he considered race, along with other factors, because doing so helps him allocate limited time and resources efficiently.

Should we applaud the officer’s conduct? Permit it? Prohibit it? This is not a hypothetical example. Encounters like this take place every day, all over the country, as police battle street crime, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration. And this particular case study happens to be the real-life scenario presented in a federal lawsuit of the early ’90s, United States v. Weaver, in which the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the officer’s action.

“Large groups of our citizens,” the court declared, “should not be regarded by law enforcement officers as presumptively criminal based upon their race.” The court went on to say, however, that “facts are not to be ignored simply because they may be unpleasant.” According to the court, the circumstances were such that the young man’s race, considered in conjunction with other signals, was a legitimate factor in the decision to approach and ultimately detain him. “We wish it were otherwise,” the court maintained, “but we take the facts as they are presented to us, not as we would like them to be.” Other courts have agreed that the Constitution does not prohibit police from considering race, as long as they do so for bona fide purposes of law enforcement (not racial harassment) and as long as it is only one of several factors.

These decisions have been welcome news to the many law enforcement officials who consider what has come to be known as racial profiling an essential weapon in the war on crime. They maintain that, in areas where young African American males commit a disproportionate number of the street crimes, the cops are justified in scrutinizing that sector of the population more closely than others—just as they are generally justified in scrutinizing men more closely than they do women.

As Bernard Parks, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, explained to Jeffrey Goldberg of The New York Times Magazine: “We have an issue of violent crime against jewelry salespeople. . . . The predominant suspects are Colombians. We don’t find Mexican Americans, or blacks, or other immigrants. It’s a collection of several hundred Colombians who commit this crime. If you see six in a car in front of the Jewelry Mart, and they’re waiting and watching people with briefcases, should we play the percentages and follow them? It’s common sense.”

Cops like Parks say that racial profiling is a sensible, statistically based tool. Profiling lowers the cost of obtaining and processing crime information, which in turn lowers the overall cost of doing the business of policing. And the fact that a number of cops who support racial profiling are black, including Parks, buttresses claims that the practice isn’t motivated by bigotry. Indeed, these police officers note that racial profiling is race-neutral in that it can be applied to persons of all races, depending on the circumstances. In predominantly black neighborhoods in which white people stick out (as potential drug customers or racist hooligans, for example), whiteness can become part of a profile. In the southwestern United States, where Latinos often traffic in illegal immigrants, apparent Latin American ancestry can become part of a profile.