Racial Profiling

New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman fired Colonel Carl Williams, her State Police superintendent, after he told reporters that minority groups were more likely to be involved in drug trafficking. Colonel Williams was already under fire by black ministers and civil rights groups accusing the State Police of racial profiling, a practice of targeting minority drivers for traffic stops and searches in the war against drug trafficking. Governor Whitman said she fired Colonel Williams because his comments "are inconsistent with our efforts to enhance public confidence in the State Police." Let's look at racial profiling.

If God was a state trooper He wouldn't be involved with the imperfection and indignity of racial profiling, not because He's good but because He knows all. God would know who is a drug trafficker and who's not. Mere mortals like us don't know everything. Unlike God we face a world of costly and incomplete information and that means we have to do a lot of guessing and playing hunches. Part of that strategy requires the use of indicators that have varying degrees of reliability. Physical characteristics, including race, are among those indicators that can tell us things. Thus, we can benefit from learning to employ cheap-to-observe characteristics as proxies for more costly-to-observe characteristics. Race is a cheap-to-observe characteristic that while imperfect is nonetheless sometimes useful.

I've hailed taxis in downtown Washington, D.C., at night, only to watch the driver pass me up and pick up a white passenger down the street. As often as not the driver was black. Was the driver a racist? Or was he using my skin color as a proxy for an undesirable destination such as a high crime neighborhood or as a proxy for the probability of being robbed? He was racially profiling me but he was wrong in my case. It is never pleasant to be a victim of racial profiling but whom should I blame - the taxi driver who's not God and simply doing what he can to protect himself? Or should I blame black thugs who prey on taxi drivers making them leery about picking up black customers at night?

My physician practices racial profiling. Even though my PSA is 2.3, he is very aggressive about the slightest change. He's also aggressive about treating my mildly elevated blood pressure. He doesn't know anything certain about my individual risk of prostate cancer and hypertensive-related diseases. Not being God he uses the medical evidence about blacks in general to make guesses about me. Should I take a cue from Governor Whitman and fire him for making assumptions about me based upon my race?

What about racial assumptions the New Jersey State Police may make? According to the 1997 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 63 percent of the 65,624 drug arrests were minorities (50 percent blacks and 13 percent Hispanics). Since blacks are only 13 percent of the total population, it means law enforcement officials can assign a higher probability that a drug trafficker is a black more so than other racial groups. In terms of arresting drug traffickers, doing disproportionate traffic stops on blacks will have a higher payoff than traffic stops on say Japanese, Russian Orthodox Jews, or 75-year-olds.

Statistics about the grossly disproportionate number of blacks involved in drug trafficking is no comfort to the law abiding black who's stopped and searched. It's humiliating, demeaning, not to mention inconvenient. But with whom should we be angry: police officers or those who've made black synonymous with crime?

Walter E. Williams


March 8, 1999

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