no specific knowledge of a particular suspect or criminal scheme.1 We thereby distinguish profiling from situations in which a specific description of a suspect is issued on the basis of presumably reliable information.

Racial (or ethnic) profiling is a statistically discriminatory screening process in which race (or ethnicity) is used as one, or the only, observable characteristic in the profile. The problem of racial profiling in law enforcement has attracted a great deal of public attention in recent years. Such profiling is conceptually no different from the kinds of discrimination previously discussed in this report (see Chapter 4); it is simply one instance of the more general phenomenon we have termed statistical discrimination. Racial profiling in the criminal justice arena entails the use by law enforcement personnel of statistical generalizations about a group of people based on their race. To the extent that these generalizations reflect overt racial prejudice or issue from subtle, race-influenced cognitive biases, profiling is indistinguishable from the explicit prejudice we have already discussed. Even when race-based generalizations are consistent with one reading of the evidence (as when, in a certain locality, police officers give heightened scrutiny to blacks because they know that in that locality and on average blacks are more likely than whites to be involved in certain kinds of crime), it remains the case that profiling is a type of statistical discrimination. Thus, our earlier discussion of statistical discrimination based on race also applies to racial profiling.

Earlier we noted that it is unlawful to judge an individual job applicant on the basis of the average characteristics of the applicant’s racial group, regardless of whether the employer’s assessment of the racial average is accurate (see Chapter 4). Similarly, most observers believe it is wrong for domestic law enforcement personnel to base their routine treatment of individuals on the average behaviors of racial groups. Thus, the results of a Gallup poll in 1999 showed that 81 percent of Americans did not approve of racial profiling, defined as the practice by police officers of stopping drivers from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds because officers believe these groups are more likely to commit certain crimes (Gallup Poll, 1999). There have also been many policy statements by police officials and legislative bodies declaring the unacceptability of racial profiling in police work.2 Recently, the Bush administration issued policy guidance on racial or ethnic


For concreteness, we refer to profiling with reference to a criminal act, but the term applies to screening to detect any activity of interest.


See, for example, National Conference of State Legislatures (2002); Minnesota’s statute on racial profiling ( [accessed January 29, 2004]); and Tulsa Police Department Policy 31-316B ( [accessed June 9, 2003]).

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