What is racial profiling, and is it racist? We can think of profiling as using cheap-to-observe characteristics as indicators or proxies for more-costly-to-observe characteristics. A person’s physical characteristics, such as race, sex and height, are cheap to observe, and they might be correlated with some other characteristic that’s more costly to observe such as disease, strength or ability.
Profiling examples abound. Just knowing that one person is 6 feet 9 inches tall allows one to predict that he’s a better basketball player than a 4-feet-9-inch-tall person. That might be called height profiling. While height is not a perfect indicator of basketball proficiency, there is a strong association.
Similarly, just knowing the sex or age of an individual allows one to make predictions about unobserved characteristics such as weightlifting ability, running and reflex speed, and eyesight and hearing acuity because they are correlated with sex and age.
What about using race or ethnicity as proxies for some unobserved characteristic? Some racial and ethnic groups have a higher incidence of mortality from various diseases than the national average. In 1998, mortality rates for cardiovascular diseases were approximately 30 percent higher among black adults than among white adults. Cervical cancer rates were almost five times higher among Vietnamese women in the United States than among white women. The Pima Indians of Arizona have the highest known diabetes rates in the world. Prostate cancer is nearly twice as common among black men as white men.
Would one condemn a medical practitioner for advising greater screening and monitoring of black males for cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer, or greater screening and monitoring for cervical cancer among Vietnamese American females, and the same for diabetes among Pima Indians? It surely would be racial profiling — using race as an indicator of a higher probability of some other characteristic.
You might say that’s different and that using racial profiling as a proxy for potential criminal behavior is indeed racist. Just as race and ethnicity are not perfect indicators of the risk of certain diseases, neither is race a perfect indicator of criminal activity, but they are associations, and people act on those associations.
A Washington, D.C., taxicab commissioner, who is black, issued a safety advisory urging D.C.’s 6,800 cabbies to refuse to pick up “dangerous looking” passengers. She described “dangerous looking” as a “young black guy … with shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants, unlaced tennis shoes.” By no stretch of imagination does every young black person pose a threat to taxi drivers, but in Washington, D.C., and other cities, there’s a strong correlation between race and the threat of robbery/murder.
We seriously misunderstand the motives of a taxi driver who passes up a black customer if we use racism as the sole explanation for his behavior. It might be racism, but it might just as easily and more probably be a fear of robbery, murder or being taken to a dangerous neighborhood. There are other examples and greater detail of this phenomenon in my recent Cornell Law and Public Policy Journal article “Discrimination: The Law vs. Morality“.
Needless to say, the law-abiding black person who’s refused a taxi ride or pizza delivery or pulled over by the police is justifiably annoyed and offended. The rightful recipients of his anger should be those blacks who have made black synonymous with high crime and not the taxi driver or pizza deliverer who might fear for his life or the policeman trying to do his job.
By the way, attempting to explain profiling doesn’t require one to take a position for or against it any more than attempting to explain gravity requires one to be for or against gravity.