Racial Profiling by Police in the Contemporary Society


Racial profiling by police, or in other words “inclusion of race as a primary determinant in the characterization of a person considered likely to commit a particular type of crime” (Banks, 2003) for many years was considered to be a practice that violates civil rights and democratic freedoms.

In the past several years, however, due to the increased terrorist attacks and mass killings that bear a mark of racial or religious affiliation, there has been a considerable shift in the debate over the racial profiling. Many journalists, scholars, and politics now believe that racial profiling should be a part of the broader strategy in the fight against terrorism. Public opinion polls also indicate higher level of racial profiling approval as a means of achieving a greater level of safety through sacrificing some of the civil and democratic liberties. (Sue, 2003) All this means that in our day to day life people of Arab origin or simply those having Arab appearance are increasingly exposed to police questioning and security checks, as well as unfair police treatment, the reason being not their suspicious behavior or actions, but simply their skin color, name, religious believes, or even clothes. Similarly, people of color are frequently stopped because of the police and general public beliefs that there is a linkage between a person’s color or nationality and criminality, beliefs that a person of color is more likely to be involved in illegal practices than white people.

This essay aims to explore the phenomena of racial profiling in the contemporary society, its origins, definition, and influence on national minorities and society in general, as well as the consequences that racial profiling leads to in terms of investigative effectiveness and ways to achieve greater results without severe racial discrimination based on stereotypes.

Racial Profiling Background. War of Definitions

The tradition of singling out people suspected in crimes on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs has its origins in the history of relations between police, national minorities, communities of color and other marginalized groups in the United States of America.

The term “racial profiling” emerged from the “profiles” created by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the United States for drug couriers in the mid-eighties. These profiles were used to identify individuals or vehicles suspected of drug trafficking that the police should turn their attention to. The general guidelines included such indicators as nervousness, rented cars, point to point driving, etc. (Harris, 2002) Furthermore, these profiles included certain characteristics of race, age, and gender of the potential drug traffickers, and thus also included indications of racial profiling.

Although certain singling out of a suspected criminal on the basis of particular racist views by the police officers existed long before racial profiling became a widely discussed issue, the term itself is a relatively new one, and thus in many cases is interpreted and understood quiet differently. It may seem that many debates and discussions on the topic by police, government, and general public result in a common consent, but at the same time the consent appears to be false at times as it develops from completely different comprehension of what racial profiling is, and what its constituents are.

Over the two decades of the racial profiling practice, two different definitions of racial profiling evolved, each defining the basis of the race-based or ethnicity-based investigative procedures in its own way, allowing a variety of interpretations that often cause arguments.

The first definition can be described as a narrower one, and identifies racial profiling as something that “occurs when a law enforcement action is based on the race of the suspect, so that race is the sole criterion for questioning, stopping, or searching a suspect”, thus identifying the race as the single reason for security checks or questioning (Rome, 2004).

If we accept this definition than any police officer or law enforcement body would say that they have never been involved in such practice and restrict their staff members from participating in it.

Another, broader definition describes racial profiling as a practice that “occurs when a law enforcement officer relies upon race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion as one of several factors in determining whom to stop, search, or question” (Rome, 2004). This definition, it its turn, identifies race or ethnicity as one of the factors among such as gender, age, behavior, etc. in the decision of the police officer to take further steps in stopping, questioning or searching a suspect. In this case, the judgment can be based on acting for the good cause, and the police officer himself might not realize he is engaged in racial profiling.

It is important to remember, therefore, before participating, or initiating a discussion or debate on the topic of racial profiling that a clear definition of the phenomena should be given in order to prevent false consent, and ensure general understanding of the issue, otherwise the discussion or debate would be completely fruitless as people would be talking about different things.

Effectiveness of Investigation Based on the Racial Profiling

In the recent years, the cases of racial profiling as a basis for investigative actions have drawn the attention of public, mass media, politicians, and scholars to this issue. While many believe that such actions could in reality stop or prevent a great number of crimes, there exists undeniable evidence that racial profiling can actually hinder the process of investigation.

To begin with, racial profiling can prove ineffective, because in many cases it keeps the law enforcement bodies from digging deeper into facts and a detailed examination of the evidence, behavior cues, or suspect description. Focusing solely on the race or ethnicity only destructs us from observing behavior that could serve as a much better and effective mark of illegal action. Race, unlike behavior, does not show what a person has done or what they are capable of doing. A good example of this is the experience United States Customs Service in 1999. At that time, the Customs Service excluded race from the factors taken into consideration when making decisions on whom to stop for security checks and questioning. The Customs Agents concentrated instead on other signs, for example, nervousness, intelligence information, etc. This approach allowed to considerable change the Customs data by 2002. The search numbers decreased by 70%, and the rates of searches that succeeded in finding some type of illegal activity were improved by about 15% (Sue, 2003).

The experience of the United States with racial profiling on the example of the World Trade Center shows that the terrorists displayed a high level of intelligence detecting the weak spots in the airport security system. It is worth reminding that the attack on the World Trade Center was not the first one, and after their initial unsuccessful attempt in 1993, the terrorists patiently waited and carefully planned their next step for years (Banks, 2003). With the consideration to all this, it would be unwise to think that should they decide to plan and carry out another attack, the people performing it would look exactly the same like in the previous cases, exactly the same as what the police is looking for basing on the data about race and ethnicity in the previous cases.

Experience shows that targeting only those who belong to a particular race cannot be a practical investigative strategy. For example, Arabs are people increasingly targeted these days for search and questioning. There are about 300 million Arabs in the world, many of them reside in different countries, and many travel around the world, or will travel at some point of their lives. Thus, Arab race cannot be sufficient enough indication in a profile, and such strategy will turn to be not only ineffective, but even dangerous (Sue, 2003). In such cases, a multi-variable statistical profile could be more useful as it concentrates on peculiarities of behavior and a variety of other information.

Furthermore, when police engages into racial profiling, the minority group exposed to such practice displays increased distrust in the law, and the law enforcement bodies, and does not cooperate willingly with the investigative procedures, neither are the members of this group likely to report a crime, voice their suspicions, or serve as witnesses in courts. The constant pressure that lies on the suspected minority groups takes a certain mental toll; this effect is well described by Professor Barbara Underwood: “…by repeatedly excluding from various benefits the members of the same well-defined group, the practice contributes to the formation of a discrete disadvantaged class, whose members share a massive sense of injustice” (Harris, 2002).

In Great Britain, the statistics show that black people are stopped five times as much as whites, this in turn gave origin to a notorious term Driving While Black (derived from Driving While Intoxicated), which in the world of nowadays also developed into Flying While Arab – both terms indicating how on the basis of race and ethnicity groups of people are unfairly treated by the law enforcement bodies.

On the other hand, there do exist cases when investigative procedures based on the race alone can prove effective. For example, when having specific suspect description, race can be on of the many elements used for identifying a suspect including age, gender, appearance, etc., under condition of course that all these elements are specific and credible.

Also, it can prove effective in cases when trying to prevent a future crime, the police have gathered information that a particular group with members belonging to a particular race are planning to engage in illegal activities at a specific location at a specific time. Here, the race can be used as a part of the general profile when there is evidence from a credible source, such as intelligence, informant, witness information, that connects race to particular illegal activities.

Regardless of the remarks that racial profiling is a necessity directed by the difficult times through which we are passing, it still remains a violation of basic civil rights and freedoms, and can lead to severe international and intra-national conflicts.

Proposed Solutions to the Problem of Racial Profiling

The racial profiling has proven to be mainly ineffective, and yet it is still widely employed in the streets, airports, and strategically important locations. It seems to be logical to stop using the practice that alienates large groups of people on the basis of an indicator that cannot be changed, and in reality can indicate neither the suspect’s capabilities, nor his past doings – one’s race or ethnicity.

There have been suggested several solutions to put an end to racial profiling. These included changing the police culture, and even changing the law. Some scholars believe that one of the possible solutions would be “adopting a per se rule against radically motivated searches and seizures” (Rome, 2004). Any democratic country of the world cannot use color of someone’s skin to prevent a person from receiving desired education, employment, or accommodation. It follows logically, that no government and law enforcement bodies should use racial or ethnical classification for the purpose of convicting or suspecting a person of a crime.

Adopting such rule or set of rules would help to eliminate racial or ethnical inferior classification created by racial profiling and stereotyping, and eventually might help to reduce the emotional and psychological effects for the members of the vulnerable groups.

Although some are concerned about the costs of eliminating racial profiling, since racial profiling has also proven to be of little or no effect, most scholars believe that the costs of eliminating it will be very insignificant, if any at all. On the contrary, continuing to employ practices of singling out suspects on the basis of their race can be useless, and thus waist funds, or even pose a security risk, and thus lead to even worse consequences – focusing solely on people of a particular race as possible terrorist threat makes the security officers allow less attention to other people who might not fall into the customary description, and yet pose a real threat. In addition to that, because of the broad context of racial profiling it inevitably leads to ineffective personnel allocation and resource usage that also result in increased, but useless spending.

Adopting specific rules that prevent race based searching and questioning might help to redirect the police forces towards investigating specific crimes employing the available evidence and detailed analysis.


It might seem that in the condition of the increased security measures employed to prevent further terrorist attacks racial profiling is something that the law enforcement bodies could employ in order to effectively search for the suspects. The history and previous experience, however, shows that racial profiling leads to completely opposite results and often brings dissatisfaction with the police work without particularly decreasing the crime levels.

Like initial profiling used by DEA in the United States, racial profiling is based on a variety of groundless stereotypes that could not serve as a basis for an effective investigation. In addition to that, race-based profiling cannot simply substitute for behavioral cues and intelligence data, as it exposes no specific information about the person.

Racial profiling can severely aggravate social conflicts and increase distrust in government leading to alienation of minority groups that can result in an extensive crisis.

Although it clearly cannot be eliminated in a day, racial profiling should be eventually substituted by more effective and integral investigative practices to ensure the effective outcome and safe future for the large and small communities existing on our planet.


Banks, R. R. (2003). Beyond Profiling: Race, Policing, and the Drug War. Stanford Law Review, 56(3), 571.

Brown, M. K., Carnoy, M., Currie, E., Duster, T., Oppenheimer, D. B., Shultz, M. M., et al. (2003). Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Chermak, S., Bailey, F. Y., & Brown, M. (Eds.). (2003). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Harris, D. (2002). Flying While Arab: Lessons from the Racial Profiling Controversy. Civil Rights Journal, 6(1), 8.

Rome, D. (2004). Black Demons: Media’s Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Sue, D. W. (2003). Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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