What Causes Racial Profiling?

By Sarah Galbenski

Racial profiling image

Image Credit: Flickr

Rufus Scales, 26 and black, was driving his younger brother Devin to his hair-cutting class in this genteel, leafy city when they heard the siren's whoop and saw the blue light in the rearview mirror of their black pickup. Two police officers pulled them over for minor infractions that included expired plates and failing to hang a flag from a load of scrap metal in the pickup's bed. But what happened next was nothing like a routine traffic stop. Uncertain whether to get out of the car, Rufus Scales said, he reached to restrain his brother from opening the door. A black officer stunned him with a Taser, he said, and a white officer yanked him from the driver's seat. Temporarily paralyzed by the shock, he said, he fell face down, and the officer dragged him across the asphalt. (LaFraniere and Lehren)

In America today, this is a narrative that we have to come to know all too well. A young black man, either guilty of simply "driving while black" or a minor infraction, is pulled over by the police, usually in an affluent, predominately white neighborhood. Upon being pulled over, the driver is treated by the officers in a cruel manner that is not commensurate with his crime. This prevalent narrative is an example of racial profiling, which is "a form of differential treatment based on an individual's racial or ethnic social identity" (Williams 401). Although racial profiling affects many sectors of American society, particularly education and employment, for the purposes of this paper, I will be focusing on racial profiling as it pertains to law enforcement proceedings. According to Brian N. Williams, associate professor of Public Administration and Policy at The University of Georgia, "Biased policing exists when an individual's race is used as an illegitimate factor for initiating police actions against the individual" (401). So, if police officers understand that it is biased and unlawful to initiate police action against an individual because of his or her race, what causes them to continue to racially profile individuals? I contend that while racial profiling can be caused by officers feeling pressured to produce crime-reducing statistics and by those in power valuing efficacy over constitutionality, it is primarily caused by officers' implicit biases. Furthermore, it is not simply caused in reaction to an "abundance" of black crime.

Williams reports that there are "a growing number of research studies that highlight the disproportionate number of traffic and pedestrian stops and searches of minorities" (402). A likely contributing factor to this racial inequity is the fact that high crime "impact zones" tend to be comprised of mostly minority residents, and, based on interviews with the New York Police Department, Andres Garcia reported that, "Trained as they are in high crime areas, and taught that they are there to bring down crime, officers feel pressured to produce numbers and statistics, and therefore engage in stop-and-frisk practices at a disproportionate rate in these impact zones," zones which are overwhelmingly inhabited by minorities. The pressure to produce is even higher for recent recruits, fresh out of the Police Academy, who are aiming to prove themselves as bona fide members of the force. Unfortunately for the minority residents of impact zones, these eager new recruits tend to have first assignments in their neighborhoods. Since officers, especially new ones, are expected to produce crime-reducing statistics in minority populated impact zones, they often resort to racial profiling as an effective means to achieve their quota.

Although racial profiling may be considered an "effective" means to identify stop-and-frisk targets and fight crime, it is in no way constitutional. In fact, "In August 2013, Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that the New York Police Department practice of stop-and-frisk, in which individuals are stopped for questioning and frisked for weapons, is unconstitutional because it violates the civil rights of the blacks and Latinos who are disproportionately targets of the program" (Garcia 37). Despite the unconstitutionality of the practice of stop-and-frisk due to its promotion of racial profiling, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued for the efficacy of stop-and-frisk and said that its practice would continue until the end of his term because he "wouldn't want to be responsible for a lot of people dying" (Garcia 38). When people in positions of power, such as Mayor Bloomberg, value efficacy over constitutionality when it comes to practices like stop-and-frisk, more occurrences of racial profiling are caused and perpetuated.

While pressure to produce crime-reducing statistics and more value placed on the efficacy than on the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk practices certainly cause racial profiling to occur, I argue that implicit biases encourage racial profiling to run rampant. Implicit biases are defined as "the stereotypes and prejudices that reside and operate in our mind outside of our conscious awareness" ("Suspect Race"). Although we may not possess awareness nor approval of our possession of these stereotypes, they are nonetheless present in our unconscious mind. As Malcolm Gladwell states in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, "We don't deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes…The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from experiences we've had, the people we've met, the lessons we've learned, the books we've read, the movies we've seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion" (39). In order to help us gain an understanding of our unconscious's opinions, social psychologists Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek created a series of Implicit Association Tests (IATs) designed to prove that "we make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of words that are unfamiliar to us" (Gladwell 37). The most famous of the IATs, the Race IAT, asks participants to sort both positive and negative words, such as "fabulous" and "evil" and images of white faces and black faces into their respective categories. After the participants sort words and faces separately, they are asked to associate positive words with white faces and sort them into the same category. Conversely, negative words and black faces are related during this first part of the test. For the second part of the test, the categories switch; white is now associated with negative words, and black is now associated with positive words. The results of this test state that "more than 80 percent of all those who have taken the test end up having pro-white associations, meaning that it takes them measurably longer to complete answers when they are required to put good words into the "black" category than when they are required to link bad things with black people" (Gladwell 39).

In order to scientifically explain this difference in response time, scholars have found that "there's some evidence that the amygdala, a center in the brain for emotions, flashes a threat warning when it perceives people who look 'different'" (Kristof). However, despite this biological explanation, it is more likely that our biases are derived culturally. This is hypothesized because in actuality, "many African-Americans themselves have an unconscious pro-white bias" (Kristof). White people look "different" from black people, yet many black people do not experience these threat warnings when encountering an image of a white face, as evidenced by their quicker response time when associating white faces with positive words. Even though many people, including undoubtedly many African-Americans, explicitly repudiate the stereotype that associates minorities (particularly blacks) with crime, according to Jack Glaser, Berkeley social psychologist and author of Suspect Race: Causes and Consequences of Racial Profiling, this stereotype is still pervasive in our culture and media, and therefore still influences all of our unconscious biases, African-Americans' included. Applying this concept of implicit biases to policing, Glaser asserts, "When we're making decisions under uncertainty, we tend to use cognitive shortcuts. What might feel like a legitimate hunch to a police officer could actually be the influence of a racial stereotype." Furthermore, these stereotypes evoke a sense of fear in police officers, and when they are put into perceived life-threatening situations, they resort to simplistic, overzealous responses.

Yet another view that has prevailed in American society for decades is that an "abundance" of black crime justly causes racial profiling, reactionary policing, and sometimes even "necessary" forms of police brutality. However, "far from being a novel bit of truth-telling, the argument that black crime is the cause of reactionary policing is among the aged and easily refuted clichés of American racial history" (Cobb). Jelani Cobb, the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, finds it ironic that this view is mostly held by American conservatives because "the idea that the treatment of an individual hinges upon his or her demographic category flies in the face of the doctrine of individual rights central to modern conservatism." Yet this revered doctrine of individual rights still pertains to the white population of our country, for although "the white-on-white mayhem is profound" as white people are six times more likely to be murdered by a white person than a black person, "no one speaks of it in racial terms" (Dyson 149). In our country, white is the default race. And, as the Race IAT demonstrates, it is far easier for the majority of our population to implicitly (and racially) associate whites with good terms and blacks with evil ones. When a black person commits a crime against their brethren, it is immediately racially labeled. Conversely, when a white person commits the same crime against one of their own, they are not lumped in with the rest of their race but are instead treated as singular beings:

That's because the phrase white-on-white crime doesn't serve a larger ideological purpose. White-on-white crime does not jibe with the exclusive focus on a black-on-black narrative that conservatives and liberals too, have bought into. The success of that narrative depends on a few things. You had to construct the ghetto as a space of savagery that was unique to black folk…Then you had to say that any right-thinking folk wouldn't kill each other. (Dyson 149)

The cultural narrative strikes again, construing blacks as savages, portraying whites as upright citizens, and unconsciously influencing us all. Furthermore, do blacks really commit more crimes or are they simply arrested for them at higher rates? In the case of drug crimes, "blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug possession. This is despite the evidence that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate" In fact, "from 1995 to 2005, African Americans comprised approximately 13% of drug users but 36% of drug arrests and 46% of those convicted for drug offenses" (Nellis). The absurdity of the excuse that "horrific black crime" triggers racial profiling is quite evident. Whites use drugs at the same rate. And, "white folk consistently lead all other groups in assault, larceny, illegal weapons possession, arson, and vandalism" (Dyson 149). Once again, it has been proven that indoctrinated cultural biases influence the police's perceptions on black crime. They are not solely combatting a "radical disproportion" of black crime.

In the case of Rufus Scales, it is highly probable that before the police officers even identified his minor infractions, they unconsciously associated his blackness with crime. It is important to note that they possessed this implicit bias through no fault of their own. Since this stereotype is perpetuated by our culture, both black and white officers have no choice but to be inundated with examples of this black crime association in the media and society at large. However, their hamartia, their fatal flaw, occurred when they failed to recognize that they were under the influence of a racial stereotype and proceeded to abuse Scales out of fear. Although it is important to admit that we all fall prey to implicit biases, it is absolutely paramount to recognize when our biases cloud our vision and proactively choose to act out of rationality and respect, not out of fear. Whether or not Scales was in an impact zone or under the jurisdiction of a mayor who believed in efficacy over constitutionality, he will always be subject to officers operating by implicit biases. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance that officers are trained to understand implicit biases in hopes of reducing the number of occurrences of racial profiling. And, on a larger scale, it is crucial that we understand our own implicit biases so that we can be able to recognize the singularity of every human being instead of associating them with a stereotype.