Racial Profiling

Rodriguez argues that racial profiling at the U.S. borders unfairly targets people of color and is used by politicians to exploit whites' fears. It is not that these arguments are entirely without merit, but Rodriguez misses some key points about racial profiling, in particular at the U.S.'s borders. His claims stem from a deep-rooted philosophical dispute with the way in which the modern world works. A more pragmatic view of racial profiling recognizes the value it serves as a law enforcement tool. Law enforcement agencies utilize racial profiling to help identify the most likely suspects, improving the protection of American citizens against a wide range of crimes. While the ethics of racial profiling can be endlessly debated, the outcomes cannot. Racial profiling, when used in conjunction with other law enforcement techniques, works to prevent criminal activities and apprehend criminals.

Body

There are a multitude of problems with declaring "racial profiling" unfair. One of the problems is that there is no clear definition of racial profiling. A definition offered by Weitzer and Tuch (2002) seems reasonable -- "the use of race as a key factor in police decisions to stop and interrogate citizens." However, in its application, this understanding of racial profiling is not straightforward. The same authors found that perceptions of racial profiling -- both its prevalence and its acceptability -- vary with social class. Racial profiling, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. To Rodriguez, it is everywhere and therefore a terrible injustice; to others, racial profiling is rare and therefore a minor problem. Certainly to the latter group, the label of "unfair" is too harsh. Such a label would only be deserved in the instance of widespread and unreasonable profiling, something they do not feel even occurs.

Regardless of one's view with respect to the prevalence of racial profiling, the practice is only a complementary tool in an entire set of law enforcement techniques. Profiling in general is the practice of "viewing certain characteristics as indicators of criminal behavior" and is an accepted law enforcement practice that works in concert with other policing strategies (Cleary, 2000). Indeed, racial profiling often works in concert with other types of profiling (i.e. age, dress, geography, gender). If it is considered reasonable and fair to use other criteria to help police evaluate a suspect, then an exception cannot be made for race. Race is just one of many valuable criteria that can help law enforcement agencies target their suspects more effectively.

Suspects are, after all, matched by description. Law enforcement that is fully colorblind is then left with a broader pool of suspects from which to choose. The result of that is that their work becomes less efficient. Bunzel and Marcoul (2005) predicted that enforcement of prohibition against racial profiling would lead to less efficiency in capturing criminals. This in turn would lead to an increase in crime, or an increase in the expenses associated with law enforcement. Additional resources would be needed in order to have the same efficacy, given a lower efficiency rate.

Whether or not racial profiling is fair can depend in part to one's ethical perspective as well. Most of the arguments against racial profiling take a perspective similar to that of Rodriguez in viewing racial profiling as inherently wrong. This represents a deontological ethical perspective, where a culture's moral imperative defines the ethics of an action. It has already been shown that this imperative differs based on social class. It also differs based on ethnicity. A Harris Interactive poll showed marked differences of opinion on the ethics of racial profiling by blacks, Hispanics and whites (Fetto, 2002). This calls into question the validity of moral imperative -- and by extension deontological arguments altogether -- in determining the ethics of racial profiling.

An alternate school of philosophical thought holds that the ethics of actions are determined by their consequences, rather than their inputs. The consequentialist perspective is at the heart of many arguments in favor of racial profiling. Israeli airline El Al is known for its use of racial profiling, but also boasts a perfect track record of preventing hijackings and other onboard terrorist incidents (Siggins, 2002).

The consequentialist perspective also ties into the reduced efficiency of law enforcement officers in a race-neutral environment. Reduced efficiency of law enforcement results in more crimes going unpunished, more criminals on the streets, more crimes being committed and more resources (i.e. tax dollars) going to fund these increasingly ineffective law enforcement efforts. The classic utilitarian ethical maxim of the greatest good for the greatest number is violated when racial profiling in all forms is eliminated. The fairness of racial profiling is therefore dependent on the subject group. If the subject group is strictly held to be a certain set of ethic minorities, perhaps racial profiling could be taken as unfair. If the subject group is society at large, then the fairness of racial profiling needs to be judged on the basis of all outcomes, including on the victims of crimes that could have been prevented had law enforcement officers been able to utilize all of the tools at their disposal. This utilitarian view, incidentally, is articulated in the Supreme Court's rendering of Whren v. United States: "the usual rule that probable cause to believe the law has been broken outbalances private interest in avoiding police contact."

This argument is often extended to potential enemies of the state. We view today the internment of Japanese during World War II as a negative act, but the view at the time was that it was a necessary step for national security. Today, we see Chinese scientists expelled from sensitive research positions (Wong, 2000) and most Americans support profiling of individuals of Middle Eastern descent (Siggins, 2002). The utilitarian view that the public good outweighs the private interests of a handful of individuals is supported not only in law, but in the ethics of American society.

When taking these ethical perspectives into question, we can see that the ethics of racial profiling -- the key means by which fairness is ascribed -- are highly variable. Depending not only on one's social class and ethnicity, but also on one's core philosophical beliefs and the ethical systems to which one subscribes, racial profiling may or may not be fair. Given that, it is unreasonable to determine that one group's ethical or philosophical outlook has more validity than another group's. To suggest that racial profiling is unfair is to suggest that one outlook is morally superior to the outlook of another. This view is, in an ironic twist -- highly unfair itself.

Yet, even if one were to take a strictly deontological outlook, the moral imperative is most reasonably defined in a democracy by the laws of the land. These laws are created by representatives elected by the people and therefore form a reasonable proxy for the culture's values, including the definition and application of the notion of fairness. Siggins (2002) outlines the current laws regarding racial profiling. In Whren v. United States, the Supreme Court supported the earlier decision in Terry v. Ohio. These decisions supported that law officers have the legal capacity to use a variety of criteria in determining when to stop or interrogate a person. The ruling is clear -- if the officer can articulate objective reasons for a stop, then the subjective reasons (including race) are irrelevant. Thus, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court supports the contention that law enforcement agencies have a wide range of tools at their disposal and as long as racial profiling is not used in exclusivity, it is legal.

Conclusion

It is all too easy to label racial profiling as "unfair." In reality, the question of fairness depends on the definition of racial profiling, its relative prevalence in law enforcement, in the ethical…