Like some A-team of pencil-wielding statisticians, a band of
researchers from North Carolina State University piled in a rented
van last summer and hit the highways to scope out scofflaws.
Their mission: to determine, to the extent possible, if any
racial profiling - police disproportionately pulling over motorists
who are minorities - goes on along North Carolina highways.
While the full results won't be known for several months,
preliminary indications show that police in North Carolina are more
likely to stop minorities than whites - in fact, 20 percent more
But the question is: Why?
Are the police motivated simply by racial prejudice? Or are there
other reasons for the disproportionate ticketing of African-
Americans - for instance, because they speed more often than
The very question is sparking controversy here and across the
country about a study that is one of the most extensive under way on
racial profiling in America.
Under the direction of lead researcher Matt Zingraff, the project
is not only cataloging how many blacks and whites are pulled over
for supposedly driving too fast along North Carolina highways. It
is also trying to determine if there are different driving habits
between the races.
The decision to pursue that notion has gotten Mr. Zingraff
labeled a "police apologist" and the purveyor of "loony science." A
local NAACP group has condemned the effort as an attempt to single
out black Americans as criminals.
But Zingraff defends his work as essential to trying to fathom
the complex motivations that may lay behind a practice that has
haunted race relations since the early 1990s.
"I'm just amazed when I hear people saying things about racial
profiling with certainty," he says. "We've done more research than
anyone on this, and I realize I may never know the whole truth. But
we are trying to get closer."
The Raleigh project is being closely watched, not only because of
its unusual focus, but also because it is one of the furthest along
on racial profiling. Across the country, from San Jose, Calif., to
Grand Rapids, Mich., some 400 law-enforcement agencies are now
gathering information on traffic stops along racial lines.
At the same time, Congress is mulling a Traffic Stop Statistics
Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft has called for more study
of the issue. He says solid scientific evidence is needed to pursue
any legal cases against against police departments, as allowed
under a 1994 civil rights law.
Many African-American groups applaud the attorney general's move,
especially coming, as it does, after his divisive confirmation
hearings a few weeks ago, in which race and discrimination were
Yet some black leaders argue there has been enough study of the
issue: The time for action has come. "[Ashcroft] assured the caucus
that he would deal with this sooner rather than later, and the
caucus is of course going to hold him to that," says Devona
Dolliole, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus. …