It is early in the morning, and the well-dressed young African-American man driving his Ford Explorer on I-75 sees the blue lights of the Georgia State Patrol car behind him. The officer pulls behind the sport utility vehicle and the young man's heart begins to sink.
He is on his way to Atlanta for a job interview. The stop, ostensibly for speeding, should not take long, he reasons, as the highway patrol officer walks cautiously toward the Explorer. But instead of simply asking for a driver's license and writing a speeding ticket, the trooper calls for backup. Another trooper soon arrives, his blue lights flashing as well.
The young man is told to leave his vehicle, as the troopers announce their intention to search it. "Hey, where did you get the money for something like this?" one trooper asks mockingly while he starts the process of going through every inch of the Explorer. Soon, an officer pulls off an inside door panel. More dismantling of the vehicle follows. They say they are looking for drugs, but in the end find nothing. After ticketing the driver for speeding, the two officers casually drive off. Sitting in his now-trashed SUV, the young man weeps in his anger and humiliation.
Unmotivated searches like this are daily occurrences on our nation's highways, and blacks and white liberals have been decrying the situation for several years. Many conservatives, on the other hand, dismiss such complaints as the exaggerations of hypersensitive minorities. Or they say that if traffic cops do in fact pull over and search the vehicles of African Americans disproportionately, then such "racial profiling" is an unfortunate but necessary component of modern crime fighting.
The incident described above should give pause to those who think that racial profiling is simply a bogus issue cooked up by black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to use as another publicity tool. One of us teaches in an MBA program that enrolls a fairly large number of African Americans, and the story comes from one of our students. Indeed, during class discussions, all of the black men and many of the black women told stories of having their late-model cars pulled over and searched for drugs.
While incidents of racial profiling are widely deplored today, there is little said about the actual root cause of the phenomenon. The standard explanations for racial profiling focus on institutional racism, but that idea runs contrary to the sea change in social attitudes that has taken place over the last four decades. On the contrary, the practice of racial profiling grows from a trio of very tangible sources, all attributable to the War on Drugs, that $37 billion annual effort on the part of local, state, and federal lawmakers and cops to stop the sale and use of "illicit" substances. The sources include the difficulty in policing victimless crimes in general and the resulting need for intrusive police techniques; the greater relevancy of this difficulty given the intensification of the drug war since the 1980s; and the additional incentive that asset forfeiture laws give police forces to seize money and property from suspects. Since the notion of scaling back, let alone stopping, the drug war is too controversial for most politicians to handle, it's hardly surprising that its role in racial profiling should go largely unacknowledged.
The Practice of Racial Profiling
Although there is no single, universally accepted definition of "racial profiling," we're using the term to designate the practice of stopping and inspecting people who are passing through public places -- such as drivers on public highways or pedestrians in airports or urban areas -- where the reason for the stop is a statistical profile of the detainee's race or ethnicity.
The practice of racial profiling has been a prominent topic for the past several years. In his February address to Congress, President George W. Bush reported that he'd asked Attorney General John Ashcroft "to develop specific recommendations to end racial profiling. It's wrong, and we will end it in America." The nomination of former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency was challenged on the basis of her alleged complicity in racial profiling practices in the Garden State. Whitman had pioneered her own unique form of "minority outreach" when she was photographed frisking a black crime suspect in 1996. Copies of the photo were circulated to senators prior to her confirmation vote. (By the same token, in February 1999, Whitman fired State Police Superintendent Carl A. Williams after he gave a newspaper interview in which he justified racial profiling and linked minority groups to drug trafficking.) More recently, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting member of Congress, has tried to introduce legislation that would withhold federal highway dollars from states that have not explicitly banned racial profiling.
Although some observers claim that racial profiling doesn't exist, there is an abundance of stories and statistics that document the practice. One case where law enforcement officers were particularly bold in their declaration of intent involved U.S. Forest Service officers in California's Mendocino National Forest last year. In an attempt to stop marijuana growing, forest rangers were told to question all Hispanics whose cars were stopped, regardless of whether pot was actually found in their vehicles. Tim Crews, the publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, a biweekly newspaper, published a memo he'd gotten from a federal law enforcement officer. The memo told park rangers "to develop probable cause for stop...if a vehicle stop is conducted and no marijuana is located and the vehicle has Hispanics inside, at a minimum we would like all individuals FI'd [field interrogated]." A spokeswoman for Mendocino National Forest called the directive an "unfortunate use of words."
The statistics are equally telling. Consider Crises of the Anti-Drug Effort, 1999, a report by Chad Thevenot of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a group that monitors abuses of the American legal system. Thevenot writes: "76 percent of the motorists stopped along a 50-mile stretch of I-95 by Maryland's Special Traffic Interdiction Force (STIF) were black, according to an Associated Press computer analysis of car searches from January through September 1995....Blacks constitute 25 percent of Maryland's population, and 20 percent of Marylanders with driver's licenses." As this story was being written, New Jersey was holding hearings on racial profiling, and one state police investigator testified that 94 percent of the motorists stopped in one town were minorities.
Minorities are not only more likely to be stopped than whites, but they are also often pressured to allow searches of their vehicles, and they are more likely to allow such searches. In March, The New York Times reported that a 1997 investigation by New Jersey police of their own practices found that "turnpike drivers who agreed to have their cars searched by the state police were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic."
Some commentators, such as John Derbyshire in National Review, have defended racial profiling as nothing more than sensible police technique, where police employ the laws of probability to make the best use of their scarce resources in attacking crime. As Derbyshire put it in his February 19 story, "In Defense of Racial Profiling," the police engage in the practice for reasons of simple efficiency: "A policeman who concentrates a disproportionate amount of his limited time and resources on young black men is going to uncover far more crimes -- and therefore be far more successful in his career -- than one who biases his attention toward, say, middle-aged Asian women."
George Will, in an April 19 Washington Post column, contends that the use of race as a criterion in traffic stops is fine, as long as it is just "one factor among others in estimating criminal suspiciousness." Similarly, Jackson Toby, a professor of sociology at Rutgers, argued in a 1999 Wall Street Journal op-ed that, "If drug traffickers are disproportionately black or Hispanic, the police don't need to be racist to stop many minority motorists; they simply have to be efficient in targeting potential drug traffickers."
Clayton Searle, president of The International Narcotics Interdiction Association, writes in a report, Profiling in Law Enforcement, "Those who purport to be shocked that ethnic groups are overrepresented in the population arrested for drug courier activities must have been in a coma for the last twenty years. The fact is that ethnic groups control the majority of the drug trade in the United States. They also tend to hire as their underlings and couriers others of their same group." (Searle's report is available at www.inia.org/whats-new.htm#Profiling.)