Racial Profiling and Implicit Bias

18 June 2017

Like many people, I think the practice of racial profiling—the police or security practice of targeting individuals for investigation because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin—is obviously wrong. What’s less obvious, to me at least, is exactly why it’s wrong.

It’s not that profiling by itself is problematic. But here I’m thinking of the kind of complex profile investigators may come up with by gathering evidence from the scene of a crime, e.g. a murder. Some of that evidence will be purely physical in nature, but there might also be psychological evidence that can provide a clue as to what kind of person could have committed the crime. A good profiler might be able to infer information about the criminal’s personality, motives, skill set, relationship to the victim, and so on. Race could even be an aspect of that profile. For example, statistically speaking, serial killers tend to be white, so if police are investigating a serial killer, it would make sense for them to look for a white person, though, of course, exceptions are always possible.

The difference between these two types of profiling then—one racial profiling, the other, let’s call it complex profiling—suggests a reason to object to the first but not the second. Racial profiling is just too simplistic. By focusing only on a person’s race or ethnicity, police are making sweeping generalizations about a whole set of people without knowing anything else about their behavior or tendencies. And, we might think, these kinds of generalizations, based only on a single factor, are unjust.

That sounds plausible, except I know I that I do sometimes “profile” people based on a single factor, and I don’t think I do so unreasonably or unjustly. That single factor is gender. If I’m walking down the street alone at night, as a woman, I’m naturally going to be much more vigilant of men than I am of other women. I think this is probably true for many men too—they don’t tend to feel threatened by women on the street, but they may be wary of other men. Similarly, when we hear about violent crimes, we automatically assume they’re committed by men and are surprised to hear of a woman who commits such a crime. Think of serial killers again. We tend to assume they’re men and we’d be right to do so!

What’s the difference here? If it’s legitimate to be more wary of someone simply because they’re male, then why not because they’re black, or Latino, or Middle Eastern? It can’t be that focusing on a single factor is the problem, because gender is a single factor. So what is the problem with racial profiling?

The answer, I think, has to do with the predictive power of race. When it comes to violent crime, I think gender is genuinely predictive because of statistical regularities. Race, on the other hand, is not genuinely predictive in the same way.

Defenders of racial profiling might point to the higher population of African Americans or Latinos in prisons as evidence that race is predictive of certain kinds of crime, but I don’t think this kind of claim can stand up to scrutiny.

Take something like marijuana possession. Should the fact that blacks make up the majority of those incarcerated for this non-violent (and arguably victimless) crime lead us to believe that they are more likely to break anti-marijuana laws, or the law in general? This comprehensive report from the ACLU explains exactly why this is such a bad inference. So, why are so many black men incarcerated for a crime that, statistically speaking, they are actually less likely than whites to commit? Because they are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. And why is that? Because of racial profiling. Because police are more likely to pull over and search a black driver than a white driver, despite the fact that a higher percentage of blacks have never used marijuana compared to whites.

The problem with racial profiling, then, is that it reflects racist attitudes and reinforces racist institutions. It is a tool of oppression dressed up as a tool of law enforcement.

If that’s the case, then how do we address it? This, I think, is a very difficult question, particularly when we consider some of the recent research on implicit bias, or unconscious prejudice, which shows that often our explicitly held beliefs conflict with our implicit attitudes.

In other words, the cop who pulls over a young black guy who is driving through a rich, white neighborhood because he looks “out of place” may not have explicitly racist beliefs, but he enacts racist attitudes in his unconscious evaluations and responses. He perceives the black man as a threat because of his implicit bias. Even a black cop could have such an implicit bias, just as women may have unconscious prejudicial judgments about other women. We internalize all sorts of negative stereotypes and unconsciously act upon them, even when they conflict with our explicit avowals.

Overcoming these implicit biases becomes more complicated when we consider how, by necessity, so much of how we read other people is done unconsciously. Consciousness is slow and clunky, and it requires a great deal of cognitive resources, which is why so much of our cognition happens automatically, or implicitly. We have all sorts of cognitive mechanisms that operate below our conscious awareness and if we didn’t, we’d never get anything done! We rely on these unconscious mechanisms to navigate our way through the world and to respond with speed and accuracy to what gets thrown in front of us. That includes our responses to other people.

Our show this week explores the issue of racial profiling in the light of this research on implicit bias. How and why do we develop these biases in the first place? Are all racial or ethnic stereotypes harmful? How does the kind of crime that police focus on (e.g. marijuana possession versus insider trading) reflect our racial biases? And what kinds of steps are needed to tackle the problem of racial bias and end racial profiling? 


Comments (9)

Steve S's picture

Steve S

Sunday, June 18, 2017 -- 11:09 AM

Last year, in a lecture by

Last year, in a lecture by Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone I heard the story of a caucasian male raised in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population was Black. When he went to college in the U.S. he had a white girlfriend. What is interesting is that he had a real problem in distinguishing her from her white female roommate. This implies that we are imprinted at an early age as to what is an "us" face, and that a drastic variation from this facial type becomes a "them" face. Hence the tendency toward racial stereotyping seems to have a neurological basis.
Had institutionalized segregation in this country not been in effect for so long (be it via slavery, or real estate redlining), there would be a lot less racial profiling and stereotyping here.

donkinon's picture


Sunday, June 18, 2017 -- 7:10 PM

When a listener asked

When a listener asked Professor Alcoff if he had any solutions to racial profiling (and racism in general), she did not offer much substance. Professor of Culture and Cognition Lawrence Hirschfeld offers up sound recommendations in his book Race in the Making, which should be read by anyone researching race and its concomitant effects. One of his suggestions is that the concept of race (which is a concept) should be taught the way we teach physics. In other words his thesis is that race is something that is constructed conceptually, but does not have any grounding in the natural world (i.e., biologically). I'm surprised that no one mentioned his work during the show.

mwsimon's picture


Monday, October 6, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think your analysis of the

I think your analysis of the issue of racial profiling is accurate.  It is, in a sense, a self-perpetuating cycle: minorities are incarcerated because they are profiled, and then police use these incarceration rates to justify profiling.  I'm not sure, however, that if this statistical correlation were accurate, that would make the profiling morally permissible.  It of course makes sense for a women to be wary of men at night because of the predictive power of this judgment.  But does that mean it is ok to profile all men and take preemptive action against them?  If a small minority had a very high rate of a certain crime, would it be permissible to stop any member of that group to investigate for such a crime?  

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, October 7, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for the comment! I

Thanks for the comment! I agree that the statistical correlation is not sufficient to warrant profiling, but it is at least necessary. In its absence, profiling cannot be morally permissible. 
On whether it's sufficient, I think Chris Zahar makes an excellent point (on our FB page):
 "The answer, I think, has to do with the predictive power of race. When it comes to violent crime, I think gender is genuinely predictive because of statistical regularities. Race, on the other hand, is not genuinely predictive in the same way."
I disagree with this and think it can set a dangerous precedent. It means that if a statistic showed that a higher portion of minorities regularly committed crime X, I would be justified in being more wary of members of that minority. 
But is that something we want to encourage, especially if the number of people in that minority group who commit crime X represents an isolated minority of the people in that minority? Couldn't such wariness add fuel to the fire of already existent racial tensions? Wouldn't that just make things worse for race relations? 
Instead of saying "I should be wary of group Y because it regularly commits crime X in higher numbers than group Z," I think we should say, "the number of people in group Y who commit crime X, though regularly statistically higher than group Z, still represents an isolated minority of group Y." That seems to make just as much sense as being wary of groups with statistically higher crime rates, but has the added advantage of not having the potential to increase racial tensions.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, October 7, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

After a discussion with Jason

After a discussion with Jason Boesiger on FB, I realize the example of investigating physical and psychological evidence from the scene of a murder and coming up with what I called a 'complex profile' might be misleading in that it suggests racial profiling can never happen in the investigation of a specific crime, which was not what I meant. I use 'racial profiling' in an inclusive way, where race or ethnicity or national origin is the primary reason for targeting an individual, whether that be in the investigation of a specific crime or because of some vague suspicion that a crime has been commited. 

MJA's picture


Friday, October 17, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

"Man is the measure of all

"Man is the measure of all things" an old Greek once said. And it is measure that inequitably divides us All. But the Universe is truly immeasurable don't you know, as science has proven it to be. Why then do we continue to measure and divide? Is it not denial or ignorance, tradition or habit that continues mankind up or down this divisive Way?

"Cold hearted orb that rules the night, Removes the colours from our sight, Red is gray and yellow white, But we decide which is right. And which is an illusion?" Moody Blues
Remove the measure from black and white leaves just the light, the truth that shall set us free.
Try it and see!

Guest's picture


Tuesday, April 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Well that is really a good

Well that is really a good idea here you are making the  thing more appropriate here. You must be doing the things really nicely.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, August 16, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

It of course makes sense for

It of course makes sense for a women to be wary of men at night because of the predictive power of this judgment. Venuekings Coupons

alicebobby's picture


Monday, January 22, 2024 -- 10:49 PM

That is actually a pretty

That is actually a pretty tunnel rush smart notion; you are making the situation more suitable in this instance. It looks like you're handling things quite well.

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