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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
10 Dec 2014
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3 Dec 2014
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26 Nov 2014
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Should Profiling Be Banned?


Last week, the Obama administration announced new curbs on racial profiling by federal law enforcement. Before deciding whether this is good or bad policy, we might try to develop a description/definition of racial profiling or any other kind of profiling.

A good definition of profiling in general is the use of an easily observed physical characteristic as a guess for some other, difficult-to-observe characteristic. The reason people profile is that information is costly and they seek methods to economize on information costs. One way to do that is through profiling.

Imagine a chief of police in a city where there has been a rash of automobile hubcap thefts and he's trying to capture the culprits. Should he have his officers stake out and investigate residents of senior citizen homes? What about spending resources investigating men and women 40 or older? I would imagine that he would have greater success in capturing the culprits by focusing most of his resources on younger people — and particularly on young men. Doing so would more likely lead to the capture of the culprits because hubcap theft is a young man's game. My question to you is whether you'd bring charges against the police chief because he used age and sex profiling — and didn't investigate seniors and middle-aged adults.

Some years ago, a Washington, D.C., taxicab commissioner, who is black, issued a safety advisory urging D.C.'s 6,800 predominantly black cabbies to refuse to pick up "dangerous looking" passengers. Cabbies in D.C. and other cities often bypass black males for fear of robbery or of being taken to an unsafe neighborhood. We seriously misunderstand the motives of a taxi driver who racially profiles and passes up a black customer if we use racism as the sole explanation for his behavior.

The reality is that race and other behavioral characteristics are correlated, including criminal behavior. That fact does not dispel the insult, embarrassment, anger and hurt a law-abiding black person might feel when being stopped by police, being watched in stores, being passed up by taxi drivers, standing at traffic lights and hearing car door locks activated, or being refused delivery by merchants who fear for their safety in his neighborhood.

It is easy to direct one's anger at the taxi driver or the merchant. However, the behavior of taxi drivers and owners of pizza restaurants cannot be explained by a dislike of dollars from black hands. A better explanation is they might fear for their lives. The true villains, to whom anger should be directed, are the tiny percentage of people in the black community who prey on both blacks and whites and have made black synonymous with crime.

There's little-noticed racial profiling in medicine. Some racial and ethnic groups have a higher incidence of mortality from various diseases than the national average. Mortality rates for cardiovascular diseases are approximately 30 percent higher among black adults than among white adults. Cervical cancer rates are almost five times higher among Vietnamese women in the U.S. than among white women. The Pima Indians of Arizona have the highest known diabetes rate in the world. Prostate cancer is nearly twice as common among black men as it is among white men. Would one condemn a medical practitioner for advising greater screening and monitoring of black men for cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer or greater screening and monitoring for cervical cancer among Vietnamese-American women or 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.

God would never do profiling of any sort, because God is omniscient. We humans lack that quality and must depend upon sometimes-crude substitutes for finding out things. By the way, my attempting to explain profiling doesn't require one to take a position for or against it any more than the attempt to explain gravity requires one to be for or against gravity.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



6 Comments | Post Comment
When I notice a woman crossing to the other side of the street when we might otherwise pass each other on a quiet street, I do not blame the woman for sexually profiling me, even though it makes me sad that I make her nervous. She is clearly making a rational choice that has nothing to do with me personally. I blame the men who sexually harass or rape women for making members of my age and gender statistically riskier to her than others.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Mark
Mon Dec 15, 2014 9:10 PM
Sir;...We cannot expect the police who are so often lazy people who really don't want honest work to ever give up on a method as effective as racial profiling. It is quite possible for profiling to become a self fulfilling prophecy of crimminal activity. If everyone is not guilty of something, they can all be made to seem that way. When the Nazis used to do a roundup they always packed their suspects in with a plant. Sooner or later people would begin to wonder out loud- what they might have done to warrant arrest and in this way they confessed if not their facts, then at least their fears, and if set free, their fear followed them down every street.

Sir;... Have you never heard of overcharging people. That is an effective method as well to get some one to plead guilty rather than risk the possibility of long prison terms; but what does that do to your society when people are forced to confess to a crime of which they are not guilty rather than face charges worse yet. Criminals are not the only ones who play the system, who make it speak falsely of liberty and justice.

I act on the premise that no one is innocent, but only few are guilty. Cops to often act on the premise that everyone is guilty, and no one is innocent. For such people, crude, stupid, and abusive beyond belief of common sense there needs to be a reminder: If the police are officers of the Court as they surely are; then the motto Innocent until Proven Guilty applies to them. They are not to judge, and not to punish. They are supposed to begin a process in which those though guilty are fairly judged and justly corrected. To this end, prejudice is anathema.

I would not ask cops to ignore the obvious. They should not let crime occur under their gaze. If they think the place to interdict crime is in its commerce and communication, some where between point A. and point B.; how can I disagree? If they guess that in a black neighborhood most of the criminals will be black, that is no great insight. As soon as they turn that assumption on its ear to mean that all black people are criminals they have simply abused every common sense. There is a reason they can catch black youth by profiling them while they are out and on the move: Parents will not let such activity in their homes, which is a good thing, and means: caught or not, to have the moral relationship of the family that youth must grow out of crime.

We know that many youth are fatalistic, think they are fated to loneliness and misery and an early death. The object of society is not to re-enforce the prejudice that youth have of their own lives, but to encourage a more adult way of thinking. It is not for the cops to tell youth that they cannot win against the law, and youth will figure that out in time, anyway. People do win against the law and in large measure because the cops are fishing for crime rather than hunting it as big game. Rather than teach that the criminals cannot win; teach that crime is playing against the house, and too many trips to the well and the bucket breaks.

As much as idiots seek punishment, and relish cruelty; the object of society is to return these youth to the fold, to the love and trust of society. This will never happen where profiling teaches the lesson of prejudice, the barrior of prejudice, the impediment of prejudice to justice and liberty.

You have to get cops to see the larger picture. This is not an activity that can be measured against productivity. The object of cops is to conserve the peace, and that does not mean adding to the future problems of society by brutalizing people, lying about them, and bringing them in prejudice before the court where their rights may be forever abridged. Cops don't need to save the world to make it a better place for all people to live. They need to start with themselves, and give the presumption of innocense, and realize that innocent or not, that most youth find their way home eventually. They must occasionally look at the criminal justice system for the failure that it is, how much money it wastes for so little gain. We cannot afford law, and we cannot afford police -if they are simply going to make every problem worse.
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Dec 16, 2014 9:30 AM
I pledge to not be the sort of "person" who disparages policemen as a group. Policemen are individuals, as are we all. The collectivists among us are unable to grasp simple truths.
Comment: #3
Posted by: jm
Wed Dec 17, 2014 5:07 AM
Our nation's police are to some degree like doctors: Their training and experience lead them to either a provisional or definitive diagnosis, an outcome. And since America is becoming a nation deluged with jargon and double-speak, why not call the technique our police use to arrive at persons-of-interest-- something like "description profiling."
One of my girlfriends recently wrote a letter to a potato chip company complaining that almost all the chips in the bag she bought were purple. The return letter from the company read: "When a chip is discolored, it is difficult o say whether this is due to a process of active migration of the anthocyanin from the periderm and cortex, or the primary protection within the flesh of the tuber." Double-speak! All she wanted was an apology and another bag of chips.
In this double-speak society, a new term for the "homeless" is "urban camper." graffiti sprayers are called "wall artists," and we better get ready for patients who die and may be described as "persons who fail to achieve their wellness potential." Thus, "description profiling."
Comment: #4
Posted by: Rick Martinez
Wed Dec 17, 2014 6:43 AM
Re: jm;... Nonsense. No average individual go through the sort of training which often involves agressive police tactics. My daughter graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice. She is hard core and even unrelenting in her support of the police, but she knows they are also trained to never back off, never back down, and never give in. Just look at the number of homicides by hot pursuit in this country when some times simple mental illness or minor infractions cause the chase. Some times discretion is the better sign of intelligence as it is of valor.

The cops do not have to always win. They have the odds on their side; but when they choose to always win no matter what the cost they give away the civic support that makes law enforcement possible. We are not the enemy. All black people are not the enemy. Your attitude that anyone standing up for themselves and their rights is collectivist means you don't get it. DO YOU PRIZE YOUR CONSTITUTION? It begins with the line: WE the People. Right requires a united defense. A couple of sellouts is all that is needed for our rights to be meaningless. You are on the wrong side of rights.

Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Dec 17, 2014 2:56 PM
Re: Rick Martinez;... I don't want to be alarmist, but it is going to take more than double speak to sell the trick bag the police are putting themselves into. And I know some people will like the police all the better if they shoot black people for no good reason; but from my perspective there is a growing disregard of law in this country. They say everyone cheats on their taxes, and why not? If the poor see the rich shirking their patriotic duty they will do so as well. Now; I am too scared to cheat on my taxes, and in fact, I am rather proud to carry my society rather than ride it. But everyone speeds. Isn't that basic; that speed kills; so it isn't just a matter of opinion. And there are laws that enforce what is common sense. And yet people speed and disregard both the police and common sense. First of all they need to. We have to squeeze a little bit of life out of what jobs and sleep demand of us. Second; the people know there are not possibly enough police to control the speed of traffic. One slob pulled over is just a big tally ho to the rest. The same situation maintains in the inner city. Pull over some punk with an out tailight and twenty go by with drugs and guns. To have police fishing for crime when they might actually be investigating crime only enrages the very good people essential to effective policing. What is the point of doing what is so counter productive for something that only accidentally produces an arrest and conviction?
Too often the police think of themselves at Fort Apachi. If they think that way, they have done it to themselves. We are not the enemy. We honest and law abiding cittizens can hardly call on the criminals for help; but neither is it fine to be treated as a criminal by cops who think if it's not a cop- its a criminal. There is more middle than either end here, and most of us need peace and some security. We don't need all the blacks and all the poor to have a big chip on for us that the cops put there. The idea is not just to enforce law and punish criminals. It is also to help make the whole society work and give justice.
Comment: #6
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Dec 17, 2014 3:16 PM
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