In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Racial Profiling

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conceptual, Theoretical, and Etiological Issues
  • Legal Cases and Issues
  • Methodological Issues
  • Studies Using Police Records and Observations
  • Studies Using Citizen Self-Reports
  • Attitudes Toward Racial Profiling
  • Policy Issues

Criminology Racial Profiling
Roger Dunham, Jeff Rojek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0109


One of the most significant problems facing all societies, and American society in particular, is the use of race as a criterion in official or governmental decision making. If police officers use race inappropriately as a criterion in professional decision making, it is called “racial profiling” or “racially biased policing.” More specifically, racial profiling denotes the practice of targeting or stopping an individual based primarily on his or her race rather than more appropriate suspicious characteristics or behaviors. In the research literature on racial profiling, writers identify the general issues and concepts that frame concerns and claims about racial profiling, and tie in relevant theories and research on racial prejudice. In recent years, the practice of racially profiling individuals in automobiles has led to the “Driving While Black” (DWB) phenomenon and has attracted considerable attention from the media, civil rights groups, and political leaders. Consequently, public proclamations have condemned the practice of racial profiling, without really understanding its history or implications. Prior to the 1990s, the term “racial profiling” had little meaning to the general public. However, during that decade racial profiling had become a dominant concern in American society generally and in political circles specifically. The “war on drugs” promoted profiling for routine enforcement activities but resulted in an increased concern over racially biased policing. This initial profiling came at a time when crime indices were falling and the decline in crime was being attributed to the aggressive policing strategies that targeted quality-of-life infractions and traffic violations. Many police departments responded to the claim of racial profiling by strongly denying its existence. However, no agency had statistical data to defend its denial. Since the late 1990s, many police departments have undertaken the effort to collect data on their officers’ behaviors that might indicate racial profiling. Recent statistics show that more than four hundred agencies have collected traffic stop data, and twenty-three states have passed legislation that requires racial-profiling studies. Racial profiling is a complex problem involving human rights issues that is relatively new to law enforcement but nonetheless is a longstanding American concern.

General Overviews

Racial profiling is a controversial policing topic that has produced a number of publications intended to inform the public, political officials, and law enforcement about the empirical and moral issues that surround it. Withrow 2006 and del Carmen 2008 provide a balanced general overview of racial profiling that covers competing perspectives and current research. Fridell, et al. 2001 provides a similar overview that is more geared toward law enforcement practitioners. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report (Alexander 2002) adopts a narrower focus on the nature of racial profiling and its impact on minority communities through the presentation of arguments against this practice and stories from individuals who have experienced it. With a similar approach, Harris 1999 is a widely cited article on racial profiling that presents legal issues and statistical analysis to argue against the practice. Feagin 1991 predates the current focus on racial profiling but provides insight on the everyday experiences of racial discrimination, including interactions with the police, that is consistent with the ACLU and Harris view, and informs the reader how this current issue affects minority citizens. Jones-Brown 2007 places racial profiling in a broader historical context of interactions between the police and minority citizens. Taylor and Whitney 1999 provides an argument contrary to those of the ACLU, Harris, Feagin, and Jones-Brown, arguing that racial profiling by the police can be appropriate in certain situations.

  • Alexander, Michelle. 2002. The California DWB Report: A report from the highways, trenches, and halls of power in California. San Francisco: American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

    This report examines the problem of “Driving While Black or Brown” (DWB) in communities of color in California and nationwide. A discussion of this issue and the struggle to bring racial profiling to an end in California is provided, along with stories of victims subjected to racial profiling.

  • del Carmen, Alejandro. 2008. Racial profiling in America. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    Unique in both its scope and focus, Racial Profiling in America is a “must-read” for anyone interested in this contemporary issue. Offering a comprehensive view of the topic, the author addresses the origins, components, dilemmas, and challenges surrounding racial profiling. Utilizing current research and statistics, the book offers a balanced presentation that moves beyond one point of view to address the complexities involved with this issue.

  • Feagin, Joe R. 1991. The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places. American Sociological Review 56:101–116.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095676

    This study examines the significance of race for the black middle class. The author analyzes public accommodations and other public-place discrimination from in-depth interviews with black middle-class respondents. He focuses on three aspects: the sites of discrimination, the character of discriminatory actions, and the range of coping responses by blacks to discrimination. Results show that middle-class black Americans remain vulnerable targets in public places.

  • Fridell, Lorie, Robert Lunney, Drew Diamond, and Bruce Kubu. 2001. Racially biased policing: A principled response. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.

    This book was developed as a reference to help police leaders respond to the issues associated with racial profiling. Topics include critical issues in racially biased policing; police and citizen perceptions; accountability and supervision; policy to address racially biased policing and perceptions; recruitment and hiring; education and training; minority community outreach; and data collection of citizens’ race/ethnicity to address racially biased policing and perceptions.

  • Harris, David. 1999. The stories, the statistics, and the law: Why “Driving While Black” matters. Minnesota Law Review 84:265–326.

    Represents one of the early important contributions to the study and debate over racial profiling. Provides a detailed discussion of important legal cases in New Jersey and Maryland that set the stage for numerous empirical efforts that would follow. Reviews the negative impacts racial profiling has on minority citizens and outlines potential legislative and litigation remedies.

  • Jones-Brown, Delores. 2007. Forever the symbolic assailant: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Criminology and Public Policy 6:103–121.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2007.00424.x

    The article frames the issue of racial profiling in Jerome Skolnick’s classic work on the police perception of the symbolic assailant (the use of appearance and demeanor to determine if an individual is a threat), which in this case is prompted by an individual’s race. The author gives a detailed discussion on the impact this practice has on minority communities.

  • Taylor, Jared, and Glayde Whitney. 2002. Racial profiling: Is there an empirical basis? Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 24:485–510.

    The authors provide a controversial counterargument by suggesting the debate over racial profiling has ignored empirical data on race and offending. Discusses the disproportionate representation of blacks in criminal justice data to suggest law enforcement officers are justified in engaging in racial profiling.

  • Withrow, Brian. 2006. Racial profiling: From rhetoric to reason. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    An attempt to move the racial-profiling controversy from its current rhetorical base into a reasoned argument. Author focuses on the scientific investigation of racial profiling without alternative political or social agendas, devoting equal attention to the multiple perspectives on this controversial topic. He tries to facilitate learning and make students more informed consumers of the research.

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