New Facts on Racial Profiling

By Prescott, Jeffrey | The Christian Science Monitor, May 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

New Facts on Racial Profiling


Prescott, Jeffrey, The Christian Science Monitor


For years, activists, community leaders, and ordinary citizens have said minorities in this country are treated unfairly by police and the criminal-justice system. Now, a flood of recent studies and reports are proving them correct.

Last week, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights released a report suggesting that African-American and Hispanic citizens are treated more harshly than their white counterparts at all levels of the criminal-justice system, from arrests to likelihood and length of imprisonment. And on April 25, a groundbreaking study financed by the Justice Department examining the juvenile justice system reached the same stark conclusion.

These reports, among others, join a growing body of evidence on race and police practices, particularly racial profiling.

Law-enforcement agencies have generally responded to accusations of profiling by arguing for its rationality. Because blacks commit crimes at a higher rate than whites, the argument goes, profiling is justified. A more subtle explanation for profiling suggests that since poverty-stricken communities feel the impact of crime most severely, and because these areas are also composed disproportionately of minorities, use of race as a factor in selecting potential lawbreakers is an inevitable byproduct of sound police practices.

Extensive new research on profiling, however, has exposed this rationale as a myth. In the April 25 juvenile-justice report, minorities were at least twice as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison, even comparing youth with similar criminal histories.

Similarly, a recent General Accounting Office study showed that minorities were far more likely than whites to face intrusive searches by US Customs. In fact, Customs Service searches did not correlate with the likelihood of discovering contraband. In at least one category, the disparity was startling: The report found that black women were 9 times more likely to be x-rayed after a frisk or pat-down in 1997 and 1998, but actually "were less than half as likely to be found carrying contraband as white women."

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's study of the "stop and frisk" practices in New York City, using a complex statistical model, found that 50 percent of all police stops were of black New Yorkers, though African-Americans account for only 25 percent of the city's population. …

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