357. "Another Side of Racial Profiling." USA Today (May 21, 2001), p 15A.
I can just imagine the conversation in George W. Bush's inner circle: We must make inroads into the Democratic Party's major bases, especially African-Americans, who voted against us 9-1 in the presidential elections. Let's find a hot-button issue that agitates African-Americans and play to it.
It would not be surprising if out of such a meeting came Bush's condemnation of racial profiling -- the law-enforcement practice of singling out members of racial minorities as suspects. Bush recently directed Attorney General John Ashcroft to work with Congress to end it.
It seems a safe political gesture: Who would question that racial profiling is discriminatory?
The issue, however, is more complex than politicians often make it. And while racial profiling is understandably objectionable to those who are the targets, a statistical case can be made that it also is an effective tool that shouldn't be dismissed too quickly.
Assume that there is credible information that terrorists are planning new attacks here. Airports are on heightened alert. You, a law enforcement officer, are told to scrutinize incoming travelers. As thousands stream by, you focus only on young males because most terrorists are neither women nor old, and gender and age can, as a rule, be established at a glance. But if the logic of those who seek to ban racial profiling is followed, all innocent young males should be offended.
A greater likelihood
Race is used as one such marker by police, in part because it is relatively easy to discern but also because blacks commit a disproportionally large number of violent crimes: They represent 12.3% of the U.S. population, but commit about a quarter (estimates range from 24% to 27%) of solved violent crimes.
Like all statistics, these are subject to controversies. But any way one slices them, the basic correlation stands. Nor does the fact that "the system" may have driven many blacks to crime change the facts when one's job is to apprehend criminals. As a result, scholars who are both liberal and African-American have taken more nuanced positions on racial profiling.
For instance, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy writes, "Many who condemn racial profiling do so without really thinking the issue through. One common complaint about racial profiling is that using race . . . is fundamentally and necessarily racist. But racial selectivity of this sort can be defended on non-racist grounds and is, in fact, embraced by people who are by no means anti-black bigots and are not even cops."
And it was liberal stalwart Jesse Jackson who said, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."
Stop eight whites for every black?
If the police dropped racial profiling (say, by stopping eight whites for every black), the results would be much worse than a waste of police resources. It would penalize those African-American communities with high incidences of violent crime.
There are good arguments against racial profiling. It sometimes does reflect racism, especially when a very large number of blacks are stopped but next to no whites. And Kennedy argues that racial profiling does not treat all Americans equally, which he holds is a fundamental precept of a just society.
James Leitzel, a University of Chicago senior lecturer, believes that "when private citizens see or learn about racial profiling by police, their own attitudes toward and treatment of minorities are likely to be influenced." And minorities who feel unfairly targeted resent the police and may stop cooperating with them.
These objections deserve careful consideration, but they do not mean that racial profiling is always racist. Bush should find another way to court black voters.
Amitai Etzioni, who teaches at George Washington University, is the author of The Monochrome Society and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.