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Research: What Is Racial Profiling?

  • August 31, 2009

by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research –

Racial profiling, as it is most commonly exhibited, tends to stem from a first-impression response. A typical incident involves a police officer stopping, questioning, and searching a member of a racial minority for no apparent reason, other than that person’s skin color.[1]  Basically it involves stopping individuals and investigating them based on the way they look.

It became an acknowledged issue in 1988, when the U.S. Department of Justice investigated New Jersey police and found a pattern of racial profiling. These conduct violations led to the DOJ-NJ State Police Consent Decree.[2]

But what causes law enforcement to engage in racial profiling? Is it, as naysayers suggest, an overblown issue created by a few “loudmouths” who capture media attention? Statistics suggest otherwise. In one case, a study found that 76 percent of traffic stops along a particular stretch of Maryland highways involved African American drivers—even though African Americans represented only 25 percent of the population in Maryland, and 20 percent of licensed drivers in the state.[3] Many other studies tell a similar story.

Perhaps law officers are over-applying a negative stereotype. Naysayers might even suggest there is truth in these stereotypes: Some populations are more likely to commit certain crimes, aren’t they? The U.S. Department of Justice acknowledges this notion, but rejects it as an excuse:

Stereotyping Certain Races as Having a Greater Propensity to Commit Crimes Is Absolutely Prohibited. Some have argued that overall discrepancies in crime rates among racial groups could justify using race as a factor in general traffic enforcement activities and would produce a greater number of arrests for non-traffic offenses (e.g., narcotics trafficking). We emphatically reject this view. [4]

So, stereotyping may be at play. But some don’t think the matter is quite that simple. Lorie Fridell, a criminology scholar at the University of South Florida, believes implicit bias is at play. In other words, she thinks police officers unconsciously make certain mental associations between a person’s skin color and his or her tendency to commit a crime. As she describes it, implicit bias “might lead [an] officer to automatically perceive crime in the making when she observes two young Hispanic males driving in an all-white neighborhood.”[5]

Implicit bias can be powerful. Harvard University sponsors an effort known as “Project Implicit” that lets users test their own implicit biases, often with surprising results. (See According to the site, implicit biases are pervasive; people frequently don’t realize they harbor subsconscious biases; yet these biases do predict behavior.[6]

The workplace is a common scenario for behaviors stemming from implicit bias. Racial profiling may also occur in the workplace, but implicit bias is more likely. It also is less tangible, less acknowledged, and thus potentially more pervasive. By adopting a culture of inclusion, and working to help different cultures understand and embrace each other in the workplace, an employer may be able to mitigate or even prevent profiling and bias—even the implicit kind.


[1] “Racial Profiling – Should Police Practice Racial Profiling?, Further Readings.” American Law Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, online.

[2] “History of Racial Profiling Analysis.” Data Collection Resource Center online.

[3] Callahan, Gene and Anderson, William. “The Roots of Racial Profiling.” ReasonOnline, August/September 2001.

[4] “Fact Sheet: Racial Profiling.” U.S. Department of Justice online. June 17, 2003.

[5] Fridell, Lorie. “Overcoming Implicit Bias. Room for Debate: The Gates Case and Racial Profiling.” New York Times online. July 22, 2009.

[6] “General Information: Project Implicit.” Project Implicit online.

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