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  • Writer's pictureSharon Chau

Why Racial Profiling Is Illegitimate

“In the era of colourblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of colour “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010)



  • Racial profiling could ensure security and decrease the crime rate by focusing resources on specific areas. Race could be a useful heuristic for different types of crimes and should not be hindered by political correctness.

  • However, racial profiling punishes individuals for their race, uses faulty statistics and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, worsens stereotypes and racism and decreases trust in the criminal justice system.

  • Hence, racial profiling is illegitimate and ought not be used.

Context of Racial Profiling

Rosalind Williams was stopped by a police officer in a station in Valladolid, Spain, and told to produce her identity documents. She questioned why she was the only person stopped. When the police officer told her it was due to the colour of her skin, she reported her treatment to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. In June 2009, the hallmark verdict of Lecraft v. Spain was born - that law enforcement based on race was unlawful discrimination.

This example is just the tip of the iceberg for issues surrounding race in a polarised world of color-blindedness. Many argue the trend of political correctness has gone too far - that we are discarding tools for better justice and protection for the fear of offending someone. This essay will hence examine the controversial issue of racial profiling within the criminal justice system, and whether its use is legitimate or not.

Racial profiling is defined as the act of targeting a person of a certain race on the basis of observed behaviour of an ethnic group, rather than on individual characteristics. Contrary to popular belief, a positive form of racial profiling is something that is already used commonly. Positive racial discrimination is applied when offering help to individuals based on race. For example, governmental welfare programs in the United States target African-American communities, which have been shown to fall through the cracks in structured welfare. The Obama administration introduced a program to reward schools for working with students of racial minorities. Positive racial discrimination also includes affirmative action, where quotas are set for individuals based on their race. Racial profiling in the context of this essay is specifically within law enforcement - when the criminal justice system and law enforcement deem an individual’s race to be a relevant factor. A crucial thing to note is that racial profiling is not about “targeting Muslims or Arabic people in case they are terrorists”. It is about statistical realities and future trends, not individual stereotypes. For example, many have the perception that most acts of terrorism have been committed by Muslims - but in fact far-right violent extremist groups have been behind 73% of terrorist crimes since 9/11 in the United States. Under racial profiling, these objective statistics would be utilised, instead of personal perceptions that certain races may be more susceptible to crime.

Legitimacy can be demonstrated in mainly two ways - through moral justification or consequentialist justification. An action could be legitimate because it fulfils certain moral obligations, or because it brings good outcomes to a large amount of people. Under the latter justification, the implicit moral underpinning is one of utilitarianism. Equally, an action could be illegitimate if it fails certain moral duties, or if it creates harm.

Racial Profiling Ensures Security

An argument for racial profiling is how it protects victims and ensures security. Perpetrators of crimes often demonstrate racial trends - angry white teenagers are more likely than every other demographic to commit hate crime, and poor black communities are more likely to be involved in drug crimes. Racial profiling also extends to victims of crimes. African-Americans, Latinos and Hispanics are more likely to be victims of racially-motivated crime - in fact, hate crime towards African-Americans constituted 48.7% of all race-based hate crime in the United States in 2017[4]. If the police were equipped with this information, they would be able to target their efforts to certain areas with a higher propensity for crime. This could look like stationing more policemen to patrol in high-crime neighbourhoods which might be dominated by a particular race. An increased police presence means perpetrators are more likely to be caught and punished, making them less likely to commit crimes in the future, while posing a deterrent effect to potential criminals. Racial profiling could also look like increasing community outreach programs in communities where teenagers are at high risk of committing crimes or joining gangs. Reaching out to high-risk teenagers and putting them through educational programs on drugs, sex and crime means they are far less likely to stray into the vicious cycle of crime. Targeted measures are especially important due to the fact that funding for policing is limited. In an ideal world, adequate policemen would be stationed in every single neighbourhood and education about crime would be offered to all teenagers. But with finite resources, it is impossible to do so. If the police were to randomly stop and search people of any person within London instead of specific demographics, it would be analogous to searching for a needle in a haystack. It is simply a waste to spread resources so thin - which is why we already discriminate based on geographical area, age and gender. If we were cracking down on vandalism and knife crime, it would be irrational to search the elderly at the same rate we search young adults. If we were cracking down on drunk brawls and pub fighting, it would be irrational to target females as much as we do males. By the same logic, there is no reason why race should not be a relevant factor when narrowing down suspicious individuals or communities. Rather than letting political correctness get in our way, we should acknowledge racial realities in patterns of crime, and act expediently on that information to prevent more crimes and victims.

Failure to optimise crucial intelligence for the sake of political correctness has resulted in multiple tragedies. One high-profile illustration of this was the Rochdale child sex abuse ring case. Nineteen British Pakistani men formed a child sex ring in 2008-09, where they groomed and raped forty-seven underage girls. However, even though reports of the crime were brought forward no less than one hundred times by victims and crisis coordinators in Rochdale, the police and social services ignored the reporting on the grounds that witnesses were unreliable. Suggestions emerged that the authorities failed to act for fear of appearing racially motivated. Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, said she was "round at the police station virtually every week" and was "begging" both the police and social services to do something. Cryer recalled, "Neither the police nor social services would touch those cases. I think it was they were afraid of being called racist." This demonstrates the ridiculous extent to which political correctness has gone in hindering effective crime response. Tim Loughton, the Minister for Children and Families, urged police and social workers not to allow "political correctness around ethnicity" to hinder their work to apprehend such criminals. Had the authorities been less concerned with causing offence and more concerned with investigation into a potential sex ring that enslaved young vulnerable girls, the atrocious sexual violence could have been halted much earlier.

But despite this tragedy, political correctness still seemed to prevail over safety. A report by the deputy children's commissioner in 2012 found that 33% of child sex abuse by gangs in Britain was committed by British Asians, who made up 7% of the population, but concluded that it was "irresponsible" to dwell on the data. This caveat made it almost impossible for anyone to utilise the information to better preempt and prevent future instances of sexual abuse. With this information at our fingertips, what the British authorities could have done was to target police activities to predominantly British Asian, specifically British Pakistani neighbourhoods. It would truly be “irresponsible” for us to discard statistical data that could allow us to crack down on crime syndicates much faster.

Racial Profiling is Principally Illegitimate

On the other hand, many argue that racial profiling is principally illegitimate. It punishes individuals for their race, something they had no choice in. As it is purely birth lottery that has determined the colour of our skin, we ought not be judged based on it. We also ought not be punished for crimes that other individuals have committed, which is the implicit reasoning of racial profiling - that x race has been shown to commit y crime more, hence all members of x race should be subject to more scrutiny and harassment. For example, we cannot allow a judge to determine the length of a sentence by saying, “It has been statistically shown that African-Americans have a higher chance of reoffending. Therefore, all African-Americans should serve longer sentences to prevent recidivism.” We intuitively recoil from this because we recognise it to be unfair that individuals are punished for being a part of a collective they have been randomly assigned to. It is also patronising and offensive to suggest that all members of the same race behave in a certain way. We are not defined by the colour of our skin, and should not be condemned to it under our criminal justice system.

Racial Profiling Uses Faulty Statistics

Another assumption of racial profiling is that criminal statistics accurately reflect the amount of crime committed. This is not true as crime is a social construct. The amount of “crime” is based on factors like the amount of police stationed, the rate of reporting, and the rate of conviction. Take the example of two separate streets where the same amount of people jaywalk. If a policeman is stationed on only one of them, the recorded rate of jaywalking for one street would be much higher. However, this “crime statistic” does not accurately reflect the actual number of people who jaywalk. This is problematic when all this “objective” statistical data is analysed to project future patterns of crime. Equally, the fact that black teenagers have been caught possessing drugs more often does not necessarily mean they actually use drugs more often, as it can very well be due to higher stop-and-search rates. This has been proven to be empirically true - black Britons were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people in 2017-18. Statistically, this necessarily means that a disproportionate number of black people would be found with drugs. In addition, interviews with police officers from the New York Police Department demonstrate how the crime rate was horribly manipulated to meet policing targets[9]. Police chiefs refused to take crime reports from victims, wrote down different things than what had actually happened, and even threw paperwork away for a lower crime rate. All these examples call into the question the efficacy of racial profiling. If the official crime rate does not truly reflect the amount of crimes actually committed, it is dubious how racial profiling uncovers and stops crimes. If the link between race and certain crimes is because of tenuous connections drawn from inconclusive data, targeting efforts towards a particular race might not actually be more efficient. Racial profiling is hence marginally effective at best, completely ineffective at worst due a subjective and manipulable crime rate.

Racial Profiling Worsens Stereotypes and Racism

At the same time, racial profiling legitimises and entrenches existing stereotypes. In essence, it is a policy of state-sanctioned discrimination against individuals. The sheer message that we can judge individuals by the colour of their skin renders irrelevant any limits on what legitimate racial profiling is. People feel that their prejudices have been actively endorsed, and as a result feel empowered to act on their personal racial biases. This could lead to terrible consequences. In recent years, we have seen an upsurge in hate crime due to Islamophobia and ill will towards immigrants and refugees. Racial profiling grants a victory to the very people trumpeting racist views. White supremacist groups like the KKK, alt-right political parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), xenophobic public figures like Katie Hopkins - all these individuals and organisations will be emboldened in spreading their racist vitriol. This could lead to horrific acts of racism towards racial minorities. An example to illustrate this would be the 2016 United States election. After the victory of Trump, hate crime towards African-Americans and immigrants increased significantly, and the KKK was also greatly emboldened. In August 2017, Trump’s failure to condemn the white-supremacist Charlottesville attack resulted in amplified calls to “make America white again”. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what authority figures merely being elected, or failing to condemn xenophobic views looks like. If the government were to institute a state-wide policy of racial profiling, hate crime is likely to surge; racial slurs and micro-aggression would increase; and the safety of racial minorities would be increasingly under threat. Racial profiling thus increases dangerous racist behaviour through endorsing preexisting stereotypes and emboldening xenophobic rhetoric.

Racial Profiling Decreases Trust in the System

Racial profiling decreases the legitimacy and buy-in of the criminal justice system and the state as a whole. Communities of racial minorities, which are often targets of racial profiling, feel unfairly discriminated against. They perceive the state to have labelled them as criminals, and consequently view the state as an alien, impositional entity. This translates into suspicion and distrust of the government. On the ground, drastic consequences might occur. Conflicts between individuals and the police could increase, with effects ranging from refusing to comply with policing regulations to horrific race-based shootings that happen far too often in the United States. Cooperation with law enforcement could decrease, leading to less reporting and eyewitness testimony, which are highly instrumental in uncovering and preventing crime. Vigilantism could become the last resort of communities which believe the state to be unwilling to protect them, which is harmful due to its lack of accountability and its likelihood of degeneration into abuses of power. Rejection of all forms of state assistance could occur if communities distrust the state’s motives. This looks like refusal to participate in community outreach programs, refusal to accept welfare and the increased isolation of people of certain races. All these consequences are extremely detrimental to the wellbeing of these vulnerable communities. Hence racial profiling hinders the state’s ability to prevent crime and protect individuals through alienating racial minorities.


In conclusion, racial profiling could occasionally be effective in preventing crime. However, it punishes individuals for the behaviour of others and assumes that people of a certain race act the same, which is principally illegitimate. Racial profiling also relies on inaccurate crime statistics that are constructed by a flawed and deeply racist society. It legitimises and increases racist behaviour, while making it far more difficult for the state to protect communities through an active policy of discrimination. Racial profiling is hence illegitimate and should not be utilised in a criminal justice system. As Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than fifty years ago, a racial caste system does not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. It needs only racial indifference. Let us not allow racial biases to infiltrate a system that upholds our most fundamental values, and let us stand proudly for a true era of colour-blindedness.


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