Racial profiling is the process by which the authorities will create a profile of a likely suspect based on his or hers ethnic background and race. This idea is based on the belief, stereotype and, in some cases, statistics that certain minority groups are more likely to participate in unlawful behaviour (Laney, 2006, p1). The controversy which surrounds this is based in the discussion of whether anyone should be legally pursued on the basis of their ethnicity and race. The narrower end of the wedge here is a definition which sees police officers stopping people for questioning based on their race but in truth, the far broader view of racial profiling examines how an individual fits in to a profile according to the race as well as other factors such as age, appearance and their neighbourhood, for example (Kops, 2006, p9). However, the other side of the argument is that these stereotypes are born out of factual evidence and that statistics indicate that African Americans are more likely to be criminally active than white Americans, for example. Therefore, racial profiling does appear to have its place within the criminal justice system albeit controversially as it is still fundamentally unfair to assume the worst about a person based on evidence that is solely racial in substance. Therefore, it is clear that racial profiling is very much a double-edged sword and that as such, it will always be the subject of much controversy and discussion.
A prime example is the recurring questioning of African American drivers: many claim that they are pulled over with very little reason and then subjected to humiliating checks. One example of this is Sergeant Gerald and his son, Gregory, who were driving home for a family celebration; the sergeant claims that he was pulled over whilst driving twice for extremely minor things (the latter of which he disputed) and then subjected to a drugs search with very little evidence to sustain the police officer’s right to do so and after two hours was let go without any charges at all (Kops, 2006, p7). This all occurred because Sergeant Gerald is African American and in racial profiling, this race of people are more likely to be involved with drugs and are consequently pulled over for checks a higher proportion of the time than white Americans are. However, this narrower idea of racial profiling is apparently much less common than the broader view (Kops, 2006, p9) and as such, this indicates that the incidences of the narrower view, such as that experienced by Sergeant Gerald and his son, are indicative of a wider problem concerning racism within the authorities as racial profiling is designed to be less racist and more based in statistical fact.
A recent debate surrounding race has been struck up in the state of Alabama where recent immigration laws have been passed which allow for illegal immigrants to have their rights removed, in an attempt to eliminate and deter them from entering into America (Constable, 2011). This has particularly affected the Hispanic community and most notably in areas such as the seaside resort of Foley where hundreds of Hispanic workers have found work in restaurants, farms and the seafood industries (Constable, 2011). As a result of these laws, the Alabama officials as well as the mass media have homed in on how this will affect the Hispanic community there as a stereotype of this race is their frequent illegalities with regard to immigration, thanks in part to the border issues which link Mexico to the United States. The Washington Post presented the story almost solely from the point of view of Alabama’s Hispanic community, stating: “Many such families have legal and illegal members which present them with wrenching choices” and concludes that many are “reluctantly putting family unity and safety before individual opportunities” (Constable, 2011). The law has been passed to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the state but it has also been passed as an attempt to diminish the crime rates too which the Hispanic community are heavily associated with. Under the new laws, it makes it illegal for illegal immigrants to pay a utility bill, register a car, rent an apartment and also penalises those who allow them to do any of the above too (Constable, 2011). In short, the state of Alabama have used racial profiling to discover who and what is causing their crime rates to increase and have taken steps to preventing this from further happening.
Of course the negative side of racial profiling is often felt when the public begin to make assumptions based on their own prejudices or those presented in the mass media. For example, the Muslim American community were hit extremely hard following the tragic events of September 11th 2001. An interesting statistic is that before 9/11, 80% of Americans felt that racial profiling was wrong and following the tragedy, some 60% are now in favour of it and in particular “at least as long as it was directed at Arabs and Muslims” (Fine & Sirin, 2008, p2). The fascinating aspect of this is that it demonstrates how close minded some Americans can be as clearly, that 60% view the events of 9/11 as being a collective attack from the Muslim and Arab worlds, and fail to see that it was actually Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden who were at fault. Many fail to see the difference between Muslims and Muslim fanatics, despite America itself being renowned for Christian extremists more so than any other country in the world. The events of 9/11 are extremely unfortunate but it is not acceptable to blame the entire Muslim community for it as it was a tiny minority who acted in this way and by no means the majority who endorsed it. In this instance, it is clear that racial profiling can lead to negative effects such as these. Islam is actually a religion which preaches the importance of peace and whilst Muslim Americans’ culture may not neatly fit into mainstream American culture in some respects (for example, their view of women), it is unfair to claim that this is the case for every Muslim American living today.
A prime example of racial profiling as holding negative connotations is the case of Illinois vs. Wardlow (2000). In this case, William Wardlow was seen fleeing away from the police for no apparent reason and so the police caught up with him, stopped him, checked him and found a gun about his person. Wardlow was arrested and sentenced to time in prison as a result. However, the issue raised, and which Wardlow attempted to use to overturn his conviction, was whether the police had a right to stop and check him without due provocation to do so and based solely on Wardlow’s African American background. In this instance, the police used racial profiling to deduce that something may have been amiss and were correct – a fact which the court used to enforce Wardlow’s sentence, despite the apparent infringement of his rights.
This view can, of course, be applied to a significant number of ethnic minorities and the overriding argument against racial profiling must be that statistics cannot be applied to absolutely everybody within that race. It is unfair to claim that every African American caught going five miles per hour over the speed limit needs to be pulled over and subjected to vigorous and humiliating searches for drugs and/or any other illegal activity. Just as it is unfair to claim that every Muslim American hates western culture and wishes to bring an end to the ‘infidels’ – actually, the vast majority of Muslim Americans probably relish life in America as a western culture as it is supposedly the land of free choice as opposed to the quite oppressive regimes which tend to characterise the Arab world. For the vast majority of Muslim Americans, if they hated western culture that much, they would probably just move somewhere else. The same can be said for the Hispanic culture: yes, many of them are illegal immigrants which is a bad thing but if they are paying taxes and bills, working and generally contributing to the economic health of America then do they deserve to be hunted down and treated like criminals en masse when actually it is just a minority who are committing crimes? Racial profiling is a commonly used tool by the criminal justice system and whilst it does raise questions of fairness, it is also verified by repeatedly reported statistics which demonstrate how these stereotypes and expectations of minorities are raised. As such, it will remain a controversial matter.
Constable, P. (2011, October 9). A tough new Alabama law targets illegal immigrants and sends families fleeing. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-tough-new-alabama-law-targets-illegal-immigrants-and-sends-families-fleeing/2011/10/07/gIQAtZuPWL_story.html
Fine, M. & Sirin, S.R. (2008). Muslim American Youth: understanding hyphenated identities through multiple methods. New York: New York University Press.
Illinois vs. Wardlow. 528 U.S. 119. (2000).
Kops, D. (2006). Racial Profiling. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.
Laney, G.P. (2006). Racial Profiling: Issues and Federal Legislative Proposals and Options. In Muffler, S.J. (Ed.), Racial Profiling: issues, data and analyses. New York: Nova Sciences Publishers, Inc.