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A series of articles on
Race and ethnicity
Main topics

Racial profiling is the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act or to behave in a "predictable" manner. It is often confused with the more comprehensive Offender Profiling and has been perceived to be directed most often toward non white individuals. Although this practice has been common for centuries, the practice became particularly controversial toward the end of the 20th century in the United States,as the potential for abuse by law enforcement came to light.

Some civil rights advocates[attribution needed] are against the use of racial profiling tactics by the police.[citation needed]

Motor vehicle searches and racial profiling

Motor vehicle searches are a possible application of racial profiling. In the United States, police officers target not race but certain characteristics that are only correlated with race. This is also related to the hypothesis that police officers have no racial preferences and only maximize the probability of a successful search. If black motorists are more likely to carry contraband or illegal drugs, racial profiling may lead to a higher probability of successful searches.[1]

At least for the state of Maryland data suggests the probability of a successful search is very similar across races. This suggests that police officers are not motivated by racial preferences but by the desire to maximize the probability of a successful search. In fact, data suggests that the probability of finding contraband in excess of a high threshold is higher for black motorists, implying a bias against white drivers.[1]

Critics argue:

  • that race would ideally not be considered for any reason in a police action[citation needed] (save the exceptions made below).
  • that race would ideally not be considered the primary or motivating factor for suspicion.
  • that race could be considered when it is used to describe a specific suspect in a specific crime and only when used in a manner like other physical descriptions (e.g., hair color, weight, distinguishing marks). This is often referred to as the "be on the lookout" (B.O.L.O.) exception.
  • that even if race could be helpful, use of race may cause many more errors where the actual offender happened not to fit the race predicted by the model and law enforcement fails to capture the suspect.[citation needed]

In the United States, the government does not have the right to conduct searches based solely on racial profiling. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause. Since the majority of people of all races are law-abiding citizens, merely being of a race which a police officer believes to be more likely to commit a crime than another is not probable cause. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that all citizens be treated equally under the law. It has been argued that this makes it unconstitutional for a representative of the government to make decisions based on race. This view has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Batson v. Kentucky and several other cases.

Airline security

Racial profiling is generally frowned upon in society. The security agent who checked in Muhammed Atta, the leader of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and a companion, would later say that looking at the pair his first reaction was to think "If this doesn't look like two Arab terrorists, I've never seen two Arab terrorists." But he immediately felt guilty, and had no legal grounds to search on the basis of their suspicious appearance had he wished to.[2]

In Los Angeles in December 2001, a man of Middle Eastern descent named Assem Bayaa cleared all the security checks in the airport. He was an American citizen and he got on a plane to New York. He had barely gotten settled in his seat when he was told that he made the passengers uncomfortable by being on board the plane. Once Bayaa got off the plane, he wasn't searched or questioned any further. The only consolation he was given was a boarding pass for the next flight to New York. The luggage he had checked wasn't even taken off the plane he was originally on. He filed a lawsuit on the basis of discrimination against United Airlines, who filed a counter motion. The motion was dismissed on October 11, 2002. The district judge ruled that a pilot's discretion "does not grant them a license to discriminate" (The Advocate, Santa Clara University School of Law Newsletter). While an example of prejudice and discrimination, this incident was an act by private individuals, and did not involve a government agency as decision makers. It can, however, be shown to illustrate the potential toward abuse of racial profiling, in spite of any actions on behalf of the targeted individual that were intended to advantage or incite such paranoia from otherwise unassuming bystanders.

Racial profiling involves police use of race as a factor in decisions to stop and interrogate people. More specifically, it can be defined as "the practice of constructing a set of characteristics or behaviors based on race and using that set of characteristics to decide whether an individual might be guilty of some crime and therefore worthy of investigation or arrest" (McGraw Hill Online Learning Center). In airports, racial profiling is sometimes used to pick who to search more carefully and extensively than everyone else.[citation needed] If a person's physical features look like those specific to someone of Middle Eastern descent, then they're generally more likely to be stopped and searched more thoroughly than someone who has the physical features of a European person. It has also been pointed out that many Arabs and South Asians resemble South (and occasionally even North) Europeans. On the other hand, confusion with Latin Americans and Caribbean people with Arabs is very common at airports. The constitutional basis for racial profiling has been a point of considerable discussion. The fact remains that racial profiling is also targeted against Europeans and others with similar ethnic features when abroad, as the practice is common throughout the world.


Accusations of racial profiling of visible minorities who accuse police of targeting them due to their ethnic background is a growing concern in Canada. In 2005, the Kingston Police Service released the first study ever in Canada which pertains to racial profiling. The study focused on in the city of Kingston, a small city where most of the inhabitants are white. The study showed that black skinned people were 3.7 times more likely to be pulled over by police than white skinned people, while Asian people were less likely to be pulled over than whites or blacks. [1] Several police organizations condemned this study and suggested more studies like this would make them hesitant to pull over visible minorities.

In 2003, Professional Boxer Kirk Johnson launched a Human Rights Inquiry against the Halifax Regional Police based on Racial Profiling. During the inquiry Johnson claimed that he had his car stopped 28 times over five years while in Halifax [citation needed]. The police service was ordered to create a scholarship in Johnson's name.

See also

  • Affirmative action
  • Contempt of cop
  • De-policing
  • Driving while black
  • Flying while Muslim
  • Police misconduct
  • Race and crime in the United States


  • Arrest of Henry Louis Gates
  • Edward C. Lawson


Ronald Weitzer and Steven Tuch. 2006. Race and Policing in America: Conflict and Reform (New York: Cambridge University Press).


Template:No footnotes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Knowles, John, Nicola Persico, Petra Todd (February 2001). Racial Bias in Motor Vehicle Searches: Theory and Evidence. Journal of Political Economy 109 (1): 203–229.

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