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The History Of Racial Profiling Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2758 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Racial Profiling refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials who target individuals for suspicion of criminal activity based on the individuals race, ethnicity, religion or national origin (Bernard, 2007). Criminal profiling, generally, as practiced by police, is the belief on a group of characteristics they trust to be associated with crime. Situations of racial profiling are the use of race to determine drivers to stop for minor traffic violations also referred to as “driving while black “, or the use of race to determine which individuals to search for illegal contraband (Harris, 1999). Racial profiling obviously targets people of color for investigation, isolating communities from law enforcement, complicating community policing efforts, and causing law enforcement to lose integrity and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve (Lippert-Rasmussen,2006). Any definition of racial profiling must include, discriminatory omissions or lack of recognition on the part of law enforcement as well (Harris, 1999). As a society, we must be able to rely on the police to protect us from harm and to support fairness and justice in our communities. The disgraceful practice of racial profiling has led countless people to live in fear and created a system of law enforcement that casts entire communities or groups as suspicious characters. The practice is shown to carry the hazard of producing rights-violations by increasing the occurrence of racist attitudes. Racial profiling appears to be ethically more disturbing when the racial group that is the object of the profile suffers from discrimination (Bernard, 2007). This researcher hopes to show that racial profiling is a severe problem.

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Racial profiling has been part of the U.S. criminal justice system since there has been a U.S. criminal justice system, and part of North American colonial justice systems in the centuries preceding its creation (Velleman, 2001). King Charles I in 1514 commanded that Native Americas submit to Spanish authority or face persecution. It was one of many colonial Spanish criminal justice policies, established hypothetically to promote law and order in the New World, which used an ethnic profiling policy against American Indians (Glover, 2009). Nat Turner, a religious leader and self-styled Baptist minister, led a rebellion in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner and his followers killed approximately sixty white men, women, and children. Afterwards approximately 250 black slaves were rounded up and killed–55 executed by the government, the rest lynched–in vengeance (Dale, 2001). Many of the slaves, predominantly the hanging victims, were selected more or less at random because of their color, their bodies mutilated and displayed on fence posts as a forewarning to any slaves who might choose to revolt. In Korematsu v. United States 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court held that ethnic profiling is not unconstitutional and may be practiced in times of national emergency. The ruling, which defended the involuntary imprisonment of an estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans on the basis of ethnicity and nationality during World War II, has been bluntly condemned by legal scholars ever since (Lever, 2007).

During the eras of lynching in the South in the 19th centuries and again during the civil rights movement, southern sheriffs sat carelessly by while racists like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans. At times, the sheriff’s of small southern communities would even release black suspects to the lynch mobs (Lever, 2007). Following September 11th the Bush administration rounded up an anonymous number of Middle Eastern women and men on suspicion of being linked with terrorist groups. Some were deported; some were released; hundreds captured overseas remain imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay (ACLU, 2002). The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868 and states that “No State shall … Deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” and alone would have made racial profiling illegal. Racial profiling is, by definition, based on a standard of unequal protection for those that are victims of the discriminatory act (Bond, 1997).


According to the Amnesty International USA study, Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States, many have fallen victim to racial profiling. The following are just a few cases mentioned in the above study.

Mr. Cho was a leadership program counselor for a group of about 30 high school students. The group was composed of individuals from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese ancestry. In the summer of 2001, as the group walked from their lunch break to an artists’ event in the Chinatown-

International district, they were confronted by police. As half of the group waited for a green pedestrian light to join the rest of their party, a police officer yelled through the loudspeaker,

Do you know how to cross the street? Do you know how to speak English? The last question was repeated four or five times. When one student answered, “Yes, we speak English,” the officer reportedly searched her in an attempt to find weapons.

Santiago Villanueva was from the Dominican Republic, did not speak English, and had dreadlocks; he also had epilepsy. He was in Bloomfield, New Jersey when he experienced an epileptic seizure. When police arrived on the scene they saw an African- American man with dreads seizing on the ground and assumed he was on drugs. Officers harassed Mr. Villanueva and insisted that he speak English. They threw him on the ground and one officer put his knee on Mr. Villanueva’s neck while another placed a knee on his back. Mr. Villanueva stopped breathing and was given oxygen. He reportedly gained consciousness for a short while and was handcuffed in the ambulance the entire way to the hospital where he died.

Leonard Mitchel, an African-American man, was pulled over by police on his way to work. When asked for his driver’s license, Mr. Mitchel inquired as to why he was pulled over. Upon receiving no response from the officers, Mr. Mitchel protested about being asked to hand over his I.D. After the police threatened to spray him with mace, he relinquished his driver’s license. They immediately arrested him for an outstanding seatbelt violation. The police placed Mr. Mitchel, a 500-pound man, in two sets of handcuffs and ordered him to get into the backseat of the police car. He was charged with resisting arrest because he claimed he would not fit due to his weight. After calling for backup and attempting to physically force Mr. Mitchel into the backseat, the officers finally placed him in the front seat. He describes his experience,

They holler at the car, n- [N word] get your a-[obscenity] in the car. . . . So they came out . . . threw me on the hood, said, you’re going to get in this back seat. I said, sir, I don’t care about going to jail . . . but I can’t fit in the back seat.

Mr. Mitchel spent two days in jail and was told he was being charged with resisting arrest and failure to provide identification. (Amnesty International USA, 2004)

Approximately thirty-two million Americans report they have been victims of racial profiling. Despite the prevalence and serious nature of the problem, no jurisdiction in the U.S. has addressed the problem in a way that is both effective and all-inclusive (Johnson, 1995). The injuries caused by racial profiling are suffered regardless of whether the person singled out is actually engaged in criminal activity. Twenty- nine states have passed laws concerning racial profiling, state and federal protections against this problem, but when will the others follow (Bradford, Jackson, and Stanko. 2009).

Future and Solutions

Racial profiling continues to be a common form of discrimination in the United States. Since September 11, 2001, new forms of racial profiling have affected a growing number of people in the U.S., including members of Muslim and Arab communities (ACLU, 2002). The Obama administration was given a dishonorable system of racial profiling and a tarnished list of programs that treat Arabs and Muslims as suspects and denies them the presumption of innocence and equal protection under the law. Equally troubling has been the federal government’s encouragement of unique raids of immigrant (particularly Latino) communities and workplaces by local law enforcement in cooperation with federal agencies (ACLU, 2002). These policies have unreasonably expanded the weakened trust in law enforcement, separated immigrant communities, and created an atmosphere of uneasiness towards anti-immigrant expressions and have led to a dramatic increase in hate crimes against and racial profiling of Latinos (ACLU, 2011). In December 2011, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), codifying or arranging and labeling a system of laws, that allows indefinite military detention without charge or trial into law for the first time in American history. The NDAA’s dangerous detention provisions would authorize the president to order the military to pick up and indefinitely hold people captured anywhere in the world, far from any battlefield (ACLU, 2011). These policies and practices will continue to produce devastation on individuals, families and communities, tearing them apart through unwarranted detentions, deportations, raids and more.

For local law enforcement the solution will progress when procedures for receiving, investigating and responding to racial profiling complaints are established. Creating disciplinary measures for officers steadfast and abiding to engage in profiling, is another solution based measure. The final part to the answer, for law enforcement, is to keep track of racial profiling, offer culture competency training and buy monitoring equipment such as video cameras for police vehicles. These are just a few measures that can happen locally by morally considerate officials that want to stop this form of oppression. Until a voice is given to this social issue and heard by the masses, nothing can be done to stop it.

Social Theory

Robert K. Merton developed the strain theory that explained deviance within society as a result of the culture and structure of society itself. His theory is based on the idea that all members of society share common values and goals. Certain values and goals wanted by many in mainstream society are home ownership, owning sports cars, and taking expensive vacations to name a few. However, because not all members in society occupy the same economic or social position, they do not all have an identical chance to realize those goals. Merton states that with this theory there are winners and losers. The basic argument is that the pressure to achieve mainstream success aggressively pushes individuals to engage in criminal activity and therefore is the cause of deviant behavior. In other words, American society generates a desire for material possessions, especially because success is measured by the achievement or gain of such possessions (Bernard, 2007). In this materialistic society, those who cannot succeed by lawful means will resort to conniving means to do so. While many believe that this theory helps support the need for racial profiling, this researcher does not agree. Many that have immigrated to the United States and started life here with nothing have not committed crimes to gain wealth. Many low income or poverty stricken African Americans have not broken the law to gain possessions. So for law enforcement to group individuals as to race and socioeconomic status alone for purposes of the possibility of stopping criminal activity is uneducated and further stereotyping at its worst.

This researcher feels that the theory that explains racial profiling the best is Social Identity theory. Social identity theory maintains that group membership serves to strengthen and reinforce self-esteem, and thus, individuals have a reason to favor the in-group (their own) over others (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). In essence, people create positive social identities that are linked to group membership. As a result of these identities, people tend to view their own social groups more positively than other groups or races. When social identities center on race and ethnicity, the result can be negative and racial stereotypes are then reinforced by group beliefs and interactions. Research suggests that racial identity gets formed and reinforced through contact and interactions with others – in-group and out-group members. What is learned from the in-group and what is experienced from out-group basically shapes racial identity (Warren and Tomaskovic-Devey, 2009). When a majority of law enforcement is seen as upper class Caucasian males, than using this theory easily explains the stereotyping and profiling can take place. The acts of berating and demeaning others serve to enhance the perpetrators’ self-esteem and regulate their sense of self-worth.

The practice of racial profiling has no place in law enforcement. It is an activity that destroys the public trust which is crucial for an effective policing organization. Police must be seen as both providers of public safety and respectful to the rights of those they have sworn to protect and serve. While a majority of police officers may serve their communities in a professional and ethical manner, the debate over the authenticity of racial profiling as a practice in law enforcement is loudest on the side of its continuation on a national level. All law enforcement officials must treat all individuals, regardless of their immigration status, race, or economic status the same. During the course of all law enforcement proceedings, professional interpreters must be provided for those who do not speak English. Everyone’s civil liberties have to be kept sacred and secure for our society to work as a cohesive unit.


American Civil Liberties Union. 2002. Arrest the racism: Racial profiling in

America. Retrieved October 12, 2012, from http://www.aclu.org/profiling/ index.html

American Civil Liberties Union. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/blog/tag/ndaa

Amnesty International USA. (2004, October). Threat and humiliation: Racial profiling, domestic security, and human rights in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/rp_report.pdf

Bernard, Harcourt. 2007. Against prediction: Profiling, policing, and punishing in an actuarial age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bond, James E. 1997. No Easy Walk to Freedom: Reconstruction and the Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Bradford, Ben, Jonathan Jackson, and Elizabeth A. Stanko. 2009. Contact and confidence: Revisiting the impact of public encounters with the police. Policing and Society 19(1): 20-46.

Charles V. Dale. 2001. “Congressional Research Service Edition”. Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Glover, Karen S. 2009. Racial Profiling: Research, Racism, and Resistance. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: New York.

Harris, David. 1999. The stories, the statistics, and the law: Why ‘driving while black’ matters. Minnesota Law Review 84: 265-326.

Johnson, E.L. 1995. A menace to society: The use of criminal profiles and its effects on black males. Howard Law Journal 38(3): 629-674.

Lever, Annabelle. 2007. What’s wrong with racial profiling? Another look at the problem. Criminal Justice Ethics26: 20-28.

Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper. 2006. Racial profiling versus community. Journal of Applied Philosophy23: 191-205.

Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall

 Velleman, J. David. 2001. The genesis of shame. Philosophy & Public Affairs 30: 27-52.

Warren, Patricia Y. and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey. 2009. Racial profiling and searches: Did the politics of racial profiling change police behavior? Criminology and Public Policy 8: 343-369.


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