Racial Profiling

By Williams, Walter E. | Ideas on Liberty, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Racial Profiling


Williams, Walter E., Ideas on Liberty


Former President Clinton called for a national crackdown on racial profiling and ordered federal law-enforcement authorities to begin an investigation. While running for president Al Gore promised the NAACP that if elected, eliminating racial profiling by the nation's police departments would be a top priority. New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman fired Police Superintendent Carl Williams after the 35-year veteran trooper said in an interview that minorities are more likely to be involved in drug trafficking.

In 1996 New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert E. Francis suppressed evidence and dismissed criminal charges against 19 black defendants because he found a "de facto policy of targeting blacks for investigation and arrest ... violating the equal protection and due process clauses."

What is racial profiling? Does it serve any purpose? In the most general terms, racial profiling is a process whereby people employ a cheap-to-observe physical characteristic, such as race, as a proxy for a more costly-to-- observe characteristic. It is prejudice, in the sense of the word's Latin root-the act of prejudging, or the practice of making decisions on the basis of incomplete information.

Since the acquisition of information is not costless and requires the sacrifices of time and/or money, we all seek methods to economize on its acquisition. Prior to making a decision, people never obtain all of the information available or possible to obtain. For example, people prefer low prices to higher prices for a given purchase, but they never canvass all prices. In choosing a mate, we never obtain all possible information about our prospective spouse. In these and other decisions, we decide that a certain amount of information is "enough" and we search no more.

Consider the following example of prejudging. Suppose on entering a room a person is unexpectedly confronted with the sight of a fully grown tiger. A fairly reliable prediction is that one would endeavor to leave the area in great dispatch or otherwise seek safety. All by itself that prediction is uninteresting. More interesting is the explanation for the behavior. Would the person's decision to run be based on any detailed information held about that particular tiger? Or would the decision be based on the person's stock of information about tigers in general, what his parents have told him about tigers, and tiger folklore? Most likely the individual's decision would be based on the latter. He simply pre-judges, or stereotypes, the tiger. The fact that it is a tiger is deemed sufficient information for action.

If a person did not pre-judge, or employ tiger stereotypes, his behavior would be different. He would endeavor to acquire additional information about the tiger before taking any action. Only if the tiger became menacing or lunged at him would he seek safety.

Most people so confronted by a tiger would not seek additional information. They would quickly calculate that the expected cost of an additional unit of information about the tiger is greater than the expected benefit.

Pre-Judging People

What is popularly termed racial profiling represents pre-judging, where policemen disproportionately stop black motorists or pedestrians for identification, questioning, and contraband searches. We might ask: can one's racial characteristics serve as a proxy for some other characteristic not as readily observed? The answer is unambiguously in the affirmative. Knowing a person's race allows one to make some fairly reliable generalizations because race is correlated with a number of social and physical characteristics. Knowing that a man is black, one can assign a higher likelihood of his having diseases such as prostate cancer, sickle cell anemia, and hypertension. …

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