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Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski Headshot

Everything Wrong With Racial Profiling

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"...God is light and in him there is no darkness at all ... if we walk in the light ... we have fellowship with one another..."
--1 John 1:2

"The central problem is that ... the general public and most academics are entirely comfortable using the kind of generalizations, stereotypes, and profiles based on group traits that underlie racial profiling. The public supports the use of statistical discrimination across the policing and law enforcement spectrum in the United States ... [as] a matter of plain common sense. ... Truth is, statistical discrimination permeates policing and punishment in the United States today. From the use of the I.R.S. Discriminant Index Function to predict potential tax evasion, to the drug-courier and racial profiles to identify suspects to search at airports and on the highways, to risk-assessment instruments to tag violent sexual predators, prediction instruments increasingly determine individual outcomes in policing, enforcement, sentencing, and correctional practices..."
--Bernard E. Harcourt, "Henry Louis Gates and Racial Profiling: What's the Problem?"

Prosecutors have not charged George Zimmerman with uttering a racial slur. In this obviously
racially charged and tragic case, prosecutors have alleged that Zimmerman profiled Martin just before the shooting. Legal experts explain that profiling does not necessarily mean racial profiling. The common law enforcement practice uses perceived "facts and circumstances" to determine whether someone may be committing a crime. Most of us support efforts to identify perpetrators by analyzing crimes and the way they are committed, both to track criminals and to prevent crime. Profiling records and classifies our behaviors. As the Electronic Privacy Information Center explains:

"This occurs through aggregating information from online and offline purchase data, supermarket savings cards, white pages, surveys, sweepstakes and contest entries, financial records, property records, U.S. Census records, motor vehicle data, automatic number information, credit card transactions, phone records (Customer Proprietary Network Information or "CPNI"), credit records, product warranty cards, the sale of magazine and catalog subscriptions, and public records."

We now have what is called "Customer Relations Management" (CRM) or "Personalization" -- a new industry -- birthed by the demand for such analyses.

Racial profiling is more specific in that it disproportionately targets people of color for investigation and enforcement. The ACLU has argued that such discrimination alienates communities from law enforcement, hinders community policing efforts, and causes law enforcement to lose credibility and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve. They conclude that "countless people ... live in fear [because of] a system of law enforcement that casts entire communities as suspect."

Adam Serwer, writing for Mother Jones, used the profiling of the Muslim community to caution a similar boomerang affect from abuse or misunderstanding within communities. As Server stated,

"It's no secret that New York City is a huge target for terrorism ... however, the Associated Press has shown that the New York City police have responded to that threat by treating its entire Muslim community like possible suspects. That approach harms the NYPD's ability to respond to threats in the future, since American Muslims are frequently the ones who alert law enforcement to potential threats."

When University of Chicago's Professor of Law and Political Science Bernard E. Harcourt presented a paper at the Malcolm Wiener Inequality & Social Policy Program at Harvard University in 2009, he discussed the racial issues concerning the arrest of Professor Gates. He suggested that the inherent racial profiling bothered many of us most. But Harcourt's warning focused beyond racial discrimination or profiling, as he argued that the underlying premises and basic mathematical assumptions are faulty, saying that:

"... the problem with racial profiling is precisely the misguided use of statistical discrimination in situations where there are potential feedback effects. The problem is that our customary and ordinary forms of rationality, our 'odds reasoning,' our daily uses of statistical discrimination are leading us astray. Race is the miner's canary that signals -- or should signal -- the larger problems of statistical discrimination and profiling. And until we properly understand the problems of statistical discrimination writ large, I fear that we will make little progress on racial profiling." ("Henry Louis Gates and Racial Profiling: What's the Problem?," Bernard E. Harcourt, 2009)

Events of Sept. 11 recast the profiling issue. Public opinion had become strongly against racial profiling in particular. But those terrorist attacks tipped the balance toward reimagining profiling as necessary to fight terrorism. That makes the work of people like David A. Harris, Professor of Law and Values at the University of Toledo College of Law and a Soros Senior Justice Fellow, even more important. What if racial profiling is not only morally wrong but also ineffective? Harris is considered to be one of this nation's leading authorities. His book, "Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work" (2003), directly challenges the assertion of law enforcement that profiling is an effective crime-fighting tool. Publisher's Weekly, in reviewing Harris' book wrote:

"[Harris] analyzes how each, aside from often not passing basic legal or ethical standards, nearly always fails to discover criminals or deter crime. These conclusions are supplemented by his often surprising analysis of arrest statistics: the New York attorney general's office shows that even though more blacks than whites were stopped and frisked for concealed weapons, the arrest rate of whites for violations was actually higher, while composite profiles of convicted criminals are skewed because 54.3% of violent crimes are never reported to the police. Other studies show just how difficult it is to guess someone's race just by looking at them."

The ineffectiveness goes to catching criminals and to preventing crime. Harris added a new chapter to examine how the events of Sep. 11 impacted public opinion and policy.

According to the New York Post, George Zimmerman has dreamed of a life in law enforcement for more than a decade. A longtime neighbor, retired clergy George Hall, told reporters that Zimmerman wanted to join either the state police or the county police. "But instead of becoming a real cop, he lived out his big blue fantasy by tracking down stray dogs, 'suspicious' children and other intruders in his gated Florida community," wrote reporters Oliveira and Buiso in the New York Post.

Now the justice system will determine what went wrong and whether or not a crime was committed. What we know for sure is that Trayvon Martin is dead. We may also learn again that the false assumptions that undergird all sorts of profiling endanger our citizens and visitors, and divide us against each other.