Racist Profiling: Why Do Mainstream Media and Officials Ignore the Data?

One glaring aspect of the mainstream media’s treatment of the Gates incident is its general failure to discuss research data on racial profiling. Data-free opinions increasingly trump investigative reporting seeking empirical evidence. Racist profiling of African Americans and other Americans of color of color remains widespread. There is much empirical evidence.

One Gallup poll found that 83 percent of the black respondents thought that racial profiling was widespread, and in another recent poll some 20 percent of black respondents reported that they had faced such such racial profiling or other discrimination by police in the last 30 days.

A recent ACLU report has summarized racial-profiling research studies involving numerous police departments as showing

large differences in the rate of stops and searches for African Americans and Latinos, and often, Indians (Native Americans) and Asians, even though these groups are less likely to have contraband.

There have also been a number of recent court settlements. In 2008 the ACLU and other plaintiffs settled a class action lawsuit on racial profiling by Maryland State Police (MSP) officers in the Interstate 95 corridor. Studies over a long period showed motorists of color were disproportionately targeted and stopped and searched without good reason. An ACLU report notes that the settlement

agreement provides substantial damages to the individual plaintiffs, a requirement that the MSP retain an independent consultant to assess its progress towards eliminating the practice of racial profiling, and a joint statement by all parties involved in the lawsuit condemning racial profiling and highlighting the importance of taking preventative action against this practice in the future.

This profiling by police is not the only racial profiling that Americans of color face. Researchers Thomas Ainscough, Carol Motley, and Anne-Marie Harris, among others, have reported on audit and other studies that show discriminatory treatment of black and white customers in retail establishments, including poor service and various kinds of surveillance, searches, and neglect routines.

A recent Southern Poverty Law Center report Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South found too that in southern areas Latinos

are routinely cheated out of their earnings and denied basic health and safety protections. They are regularly subjected to racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement. . . . And they are frequently forced to prove themselves innocent of immigration violations, regardless of their legal status. (p. 4)

Numerous other studies (see here) show these patterns for many other walks of live, for African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans. Many whites seem predisposed to see African Americans and other Americans of color as inherently deviant or criminal, a centuries-old idea in the white racial framing of this society. It is no wonder black men like Professor Gates often run into this problem. It probably happens millions of times a year in the United States.

One can think of a number of strategies against profiling. For several years, U.S. House member John Conyers and U.S. Senator Russ Feingold have introduced the End Racial Profiling Act, which prohibits racial profiling and requires law enforcement departments to collect stop-and-search data, to have effective complaint procedures, and to insure that those abused by police departments have a right to sue. This legislation has yet to be passed. (Guess why?) In May 2008 even the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racism called on the US Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, as well as to set up an investigative commission to examine continuing racial discrimination.

Interestingly, there are modest educational steps that might help somewhat. Thus, in one psychological study Canadian researchers showed 264 photos of Chinese, black, and white male faces to 20 whites. After they had been trained these volunteers for hours on seeing subtle differences in these human faces, white volunteers were less likely to associate negative words and concepts with black faces than they were before the training. One researcher suggests that such training in seeing facial differences might reduce racial profiling by police and others. What do you think?