Racial Profiling and Implicit Bias

Sunday, June 18, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Is It

Whether for counterterrorism measures, street level crime, or immigration, racial profiling of minorities occurs frequently. However, racial profiling is illegal under many jurisdictions and many might say ineffective. Is racial profiling ever moral or is it always an unjustified form of racism? Is there any evidence that certain races or ethnic groups have a tendency to behave in particular ways? Or is racial stereotyping a result of deeply-held biases we're not even aware of? Ken and guest host Jenann Ismael share their profiles with Linda Alcoff from the City University of New York, author of Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self.

Listening Notes

The show opens with Ken telling Jenann Ismael, filling in for John, how he hates visual profiling, meaning when police single out random individuals for suspicion based purely on the looks of the persons. Jenann is not surprised to hear, and she asks which part Ken objects to: the racial aspect or the profiling itself? Ken assures Jenann he is concerned with the racial part. Criminal profiling, he explains, is acceptable, a useful tool for law enforcement, and scientific profiling is also okay because race is not the only consideration – personality traits and so forth are also taken into account. But then, asks Jenann, when race is one of many factors in a complex case of profiling, is it an acceptable characteristic to put to use? And in the case of single profiling based on one characteristic, solely on race, it is problematic? Take gender, for example: we automatically assume that violent crimes are committed by men. So with racial profiling, it is not that there is a single factor that makes it a questionable practice, but rather something else. If we did not live in a racist society, Jenann asks Ken, would he still have a problem with racial profiling? Ken says that in such a society there would be no racial profiling, because racial profiling is our deeply rooted stereotypes and prejudices triggered by ‘the other.’ Jenann continues to wonder whether racial profiling is a symptom of a racist society, and Ken about implicit bias and what it represents.

Jenann and Ken welcome guest Linda Martin Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center and author of Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Jenann asks Linda what compelled her to study this topic. Linda explains that she has a multi-racial background, and that as she was observing conventions of behavior in the South during the civil rights movement, she found the resistance of individuals to said conventions very interesting. Jenann asks whether all racial stereotypes are harmful and whether it is okay to at times generalize about a group of people based solely on race and ethnicity. Linda explains that there are true and false generalizations, as well as contexts in which it is okay to generalize and contexts in which it is not, in which one must look into individual characteristics. The discussion then turns to what the difference between a stereotype and a true generalization is.

Ken then attempts to get to the root of the problem of profiling: how do we develop racist, homophobic, and gender stereotypes? Linda explains that our material environment, various experiences, and culture in the sense of entertainment, for example, are all factors that lead to these stereotypes. At the same time, Linda explains, it is misleading to talk about assuming stereotypes as if it was an automatic response mechanism produced by an environment over which we have no control. Indeed, says Linda, we should take more collective control than we do over our environment, and furthermore, in individual terms we can choose where to live, what to do, what information sources to seek out, and thus we can have an impact on the environment that may change our associations between skin color and criminality. Ken wonders whether it is really just the media and culture that shape these stereotypes, because the mind seems to be built to reason according to stereotypical generalizations. So isn’t the fact that we stereotype inbuilt in what it means to be human? Linda agrees, but also explains that while we need this ability as a survival skill and while it is a good mechanism of judgment, the way we put this ability to use in all cases is not necessarily good.

Ken and Jenann welcome audience participation. Linda discusses new research on the subject of racial stereotyping and profiling. Questions regarding whether we should even hold people responsible for racial stereotyping, whether people use the new research and terminology to make apologies for profiling, and whether we are responsible for specific cognitive frames are discussed.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:34): Natalie Jones talks to Jack Glaser, Associate Professor of Psychology at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, about prejudices and stereotypes and the widespread tendency to racially profile. Jack speaks about law enforcement personnel allowing personal biases to take over in order to make snap judgments, and suggests that we need to standardize police work as much as possible.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:46): Ian Shoales talks gender politics, focusing on a new term: cisgender. This is supposed to be a value-neutral term, but is it really? Is the cisgender community an oppressor class if we go back to the root of the word? Ian discusses this and other sensitive words.