Some Thoughts About Racial Profiling

A reader recently asked me a thoughtful question about something I posted on Facebook that used the term “racial profiling.” As a police officer, he was wondering what I meant by that, and whether I was referring specifically to profiling by law enforcement.

This is an important question, so I will give it a thorough answer.

I Googled “racial profiling” and this is what came up first: “the use of race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed an offense.” That's what I meant. I wasn’t thinking specifically of law enforcement.

It happens all over the world, not just in the U.S., and in fact is far worse in some places. Hitler was a racial profiler in the most deadly sense. He regarded Jews and Gypsies, for instance, as dangerous, criminal, and unfit to live. 

On the other hand, books and movies in which Germans were always “the bad guys” were in one sense understandable given two World Wars, but that didn’t make it right. Racial profiling was done when loyal Japanese American citizens were suspected or assumed to be complicit with the enemy, and were placed into internment camps.

Today there are certain races that are more frequently detained in security. While some argue that it’s reasonable since statistically Arabs are more likely to be terrorists than say, Swedes, it’s easy to infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens because of racial profiling and stereotyping.

When writing my novel Dominion, I interviewed many African-American men who lived all across the country and had never met each other. Yet they told me the same stories, of being followed by store security, people pulling back from them on the street and in elevators, being pulled over without cause while driving, etc. Of course, in some cases they might have been guilty of a traffic violation, but in many cases honest Christian men told me they are frequently pulled over even though they aren’t guilty, and it’s traumatic because they fear what could happen to them.

In the U.S. profiling is sometimes done in stores where security routinely follows people of a certain color, or in neighborhoods or apartment complexes where it's assumed people of certain ethnicities won't be good neighbors and in fact are probably criminals, in churches where people are considered suspect because they don't look like the rest of the church, and in academics where certain races are profiled as being smarter and others as being dumber, and are sometimes given erroneous placement accordingly.

While this is far broader than law enforcement, it does include it.  But despite the fact that I wasn't referring specifically to law enforcement, I can see why a police officer could think I was targeting law enforcement, so perhaps I should have used a different and more generic term, or at least clarified by using a broad range of examples, as I’ve just done.

I have the highest respect for what police officers do. I have many good friends who are cops, and I know it's extremely difficult. They will be falsely accused of racism many times, though sometimes, unfortunately, it’s true of some cops. Like everyone else, including pastors and writers and athletes and farmers and business people, cops are human, and humans are sinners. So a minority of cops will be guilty of racism, and I believe a majority is not, but those innocent of it will feel the sting of the assumption. In other words, cops can be profiled as racists, so that would be “vocational profiling.” Another example of that would be “priests are pedophiles” or even “bosses are jerks.”

Of course, there are many false accusations of profiling and racism, just as there are false accusations of police brutality, parental child abuse, student plagiarism, and everything else. Unfortunately, when it happens to a cop (or a parent, in the case of child abuse) the consequences are far greater than most instances in other professions, and sometimes tragic. As true racism by a cop can result in disaster, false assumptions about the majority of cops can also be devastating, giving people a warped lens through which they view the police. Sadly, the true cases of police brutality and racism feed the unfair prejudice against cops in general, as the true cases of criminals being of a particular race feed the labeling that “this guy is probably a criminal.”

Related to this topic, I highly recommend Benjamin Watson's thoughtful and well-written book Under Our Skin. (Much of what Benjamin writes about reminded me of what I learned in researching for Dominion.) In one of the chapters Ben tells a story of coming to a police roadblock and everything in him panicking and wanting to find a back street to turn down and escape. Though he hadn't done anything wrong, his life experience, or his interpretation thereof, convinced him that as a big black man he would be suspected, disrespected, and likely arrested. He knew if he fled he would appear to be guilty, but the “if you're innocent you have nothing to fear” rationale was counteracted by various life experiences so he couldn't push it out of his mind.

Now, to some that's irrational; to others it’s built into the very fabric of their being, and they will read into every cop the bad experiences they (and their parents and grandparents and siblings) had with others. (Like a woman who was abused by her father and boyfriend will naturally profile men as abusers.) Watson does an excellent job of encouraging people to not act according to those fears and to never run from a cop, for everybody's sake, but he also encourages cops of all colors to understand why sometimes a truly innocent person wants to run. Under Our Skin is unusually penetrating and insightful.

I’m grateful for everything that police officers do for their communities. We are all in debt to those who serve in law enforcement.

Here are some further articles that may be of interest:

Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Racism, by John Piper

On Race and Love and Trying to Understand, by Kevin DeYoung

Why Statistics Don’t Justify Our Prejudice or Our Profiling, by Thabiti Anyabwile

Shopping While Black: The Problem of Racial Profiling, by Jemar Tisby

Brotherhood and the Color of Our Skin, a post on my blog that includes a dialogue excerpted from Dominion

Photo by Malik Earnest, via Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries