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Wall Street Journal


Is Racial Profiling a Myth?

April 20, 2001

By Heather Mac Donald

In the just-out Spring issue of City Journal, Heather Mac Donald examines studies purporting to demonstrate the pervasiveness of “racial profiling” by police, and concludes that it is a myth. She cites a raft of statistics demonstrating that if blacks and Hispanics have more run-ins with police, it is because they have higher rates of lawbreaking, and not just violent crime:

Do minorities commit more of the kinds of traffic violations that police target? This is a taboo question among the racial profiling crowd; to ask it is to reveal one’s racism. No one has studied it. But some evidence suggests that it may be the case. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that blacks were 10 percent of drivers nationally, 13 percent of drivers in fatal accidents, and 16 percent of drivers in injury accidents. (Lower rates of seat-belt use may contribute to these numbers.) Random national surveys of drivers on weekend nights in 1973, 1986, and 1996 found that blacks were more likely to fail breathalyzer tests than whites. In Illinois, blacks have a higher motorist fatality rate than whites. Blacks in one New Jersey study were 23 percent of all drivers arrested at the scene of an accident for driving drunk, though only 13.5 percent of highway users. In San Diego, blacks have more accidents than their population figures would predict. Hispanics get in a disproportionate number of accidents nationally.

Mac Donald notes that Attorney General John Ashcroft has encouraged initiatives to gather data on race and police traffic stops and searches. “He should instead withhold his support, unless local proponents can prove that they will capture the complex realities of law enforcement,” she writes. Hamstringing the police will have the most damaging effect on law-abiding minorities in drug-plagued neighborhoods, she argues.

Mac Donald’s painstakingly researched article is a valuable contribution to the debate, and we’ll second George Will’s praise for her as “the indispensable journalist.” But the “complex realities” of this issue are even more complex than Mac Donald acknowledges. If, as she suggests, police are generally colorblind, why do we frequently hear complaints from prominent (and completely law-abiding) blacks that they have been the victims of profiling? Are cops racist after all, or are these blacks oversensitive?

Maybe neither. Mac Donald writes that “the ultimate question in the profiling controversy is whether the disproportionate involvement of blacks and Hispanics with law enforcement reflects police racism or the consequences of disproportionate minority crime.” But that’s not right. The evil of racial profiling lies in its effect, not its intent (though bad intent can produce bad effect). Precisely because of higher minority crime rates, innocent blacks and members of other minorities are likely to be subjected disproportionately to the inconvenience, humiliation and in some cases danger of encounters with cops--even if policemen are always well-intentioned and rational.

To understand why, ponder this story Robert Pollock, who rode along with a Cincinnati cop earlier this week, tells in today’s Wall Street Journal:

A call comes in over the radio. The suspect, alleged to have just threatened a neighborhood woman with a gun, is described as a young black man wearing a black-and-red leather jacket. Off we go. And after 15 minutes driving we spot a man fitting that description. Officer Bell calls for backup and pulls over next to the suspect, emerging slowly behind the hood of the car and asking him to place his hands over his head. The man complies and is not handcuffed. After a quick frisk and identity check it turns out this isn’t who we want. Officer Bell explains the reason for the stop and apologizes for the inconvenience. The suspect, gracious but smiling nervously, is free to go. An uncomfortable situation. But was he “racially profiled”? Only to the extent that the caller described her assailant as a black man fitting his description. We stopped no blacks responding to a subsequent drunk-and-disorderly call about about a white man in a leather jacket and khaki pants in a tony white neighborhood nearby.

Officer Bell’s actions seem unassailable. Yet how can we not sympathize with the innocent man who was stopped and frisked (and who would have been handcuffed or worse if he had, unwisely but understandably, responded with indignation rather than compliance)? If blacks are more likely than whites to commit crimes, innocent blacks are more likely than innocent whites to have encounters like this with police. Because blacks are a relatively small minority, the disparity can be quite severe. Consider these figures Mac Donald quotes from a report by New Jersey’s former attorney general, Peter Verniero:

Between 1994 and 1998, claims the report, 53 percent of consent searches on the southern end of the New Jersey Turnpike involved a black person, 21 percent involved whites, and overall, 77 percent involved minorities. But these figures are meaningless, because Verniero does not include racial information about search requests that were denied, and his report mixes stops, searches, and arrests from different time periods.

But most important: Verniero finds culpable racial imbalance in the search figures without suggesting a proper benchmark. He simply assumes that 53 percent black consent searches is too high. Compared with what? If blacks in fact carry drugs at a higher rate than do whites, then this search rate merely reflects good law enforcement.

For the sake of argument, assume Mac Donald is right, and the New Jersey police are innocent of any invidious racial discrimination. Assume further that whatever methods they use to determine whom to search are equally accurate with respect to blacks and whites, so that equal proportions of blacks and whites who consent to searches--say, 80%--are guilty. This would mean that 20% of the 21% of motorists in question who are white, and 20% of the 53% who are black, are innocent.

These assumptions leave us with the following numbers: 10.6% of all motorists who consent to be searched are innocent blacks, and 4.2% are innocent whites. The raw number of innocent black motorists who are subjected to this type of encounter with law enforcement thus is 2.5 times as high as the number of innocent whites. If we adjust for the racial proportion of the overall U.S. population (75.1% white, 12.3% black, according to 2000 census figures), an innocent black is 15 times as likely as an innocent white to be involved in a consent search on the southern part of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Granted, these are back-of-the-envelope calculations, and some of our assumptions, though neutral, may be wrong. But the overall point is clear: Law-enforcement efforts that sweep in a disproportionate share of blacks--even if the only reason they do is that blacks have higher levels of crime--are likely to sweep in a disproportionate share of innocent blacks. Is that a price worth paying for effective law enforcement? Maybe, but this is one of those rare cases in which your race would seem genuinely pertinent to your view of the trade-off.

It’s a terrible conundrum, and we have no answer for it. Mac Donald does a public service by showing that the idea of widespread bigotry among police is probably a myth. But even if she wins that argument, the debate over racial profiling is likely to be with us for a long time to come.

Original Source:



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