Racial Profiling

“Driving While Black” is a folksy term for racial profiling. But in many parts of the country it’s been replaced with “Driving While Hispanic.”

The odds a Hispanic adult believes the use of racial profiling by traffic patrol is widespread are 1 in 1.59 (63%), very close to the odds a black adult shares that belief—1 in 1.49 (67%). By contrast, the odds a white driver believes police often use racial profiling as a basis for stopping drivers are 1 in 2 (50%).

And when it comes to concerns that police may single out people on the basis of color or ethnicity, replace “Driving” with “Driving, Walking, or Just Hanging Out,” according to opponents of Arizona’s strict new immigration statute, signed into law on April 23. Slated to take effect this summer, the law requires police to inquire about the immigration status of people they encounter whom they suspect might be in the country illegally. No crime has to be committedofficers can question anyone because if their suspicions turn out to be correct, the new law provides the crime, asserting that anyone in the country illegally is automatically trespassing. Individuals who are unable to produce documentation about their status are subject to arrest and can be turned over to immigration officers.

Advocates for the law point out that the state’s border with Mexico, much of it in remote desert, attracts the bulk of the country’s illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America. According to the New York Times, there are an estimated 450,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona. Concerns about crime, loss of jobs for US citizens, and the drain on local services are often cited as reasons for supporting the new immigration law—by far the toughest in the country.

On the other side are deep-seated worries that the law is a recipe for racial profiling. Many argue that non-native speakers, people with certain physical traits, or those with Hispanic-sounding surnames will be automatically singled out for increased scrutiny. President Obama has called the law “misguided,” and says it “threatens to undermine basic notions of fairness,” long cherished by Americans.

The new law prohibits police from using race or nationality as the sole basis for stopping someone, but racial profiling can be both subtle and difficult to prove. There have been a number of studies which look at ethnic and racial disparity in traffic stop, and even before the Arizona law takes effect, the numbers tell an interesting story.

There is no evidence of a dramatic difference in the likelihood of a driver being pulled over: the odds a white driver will be stopped by the police in a year are 1 in 11.43; for a Hispanic driver they are 1 in 11.67; for black drivers 1 in 10.94—about a 4% greater likelihood a black driver will be pulled over than a white or Hispanic driver.

The big difference comes in what happens next. The odds a white driver stopped by the police was not given a reason for getting pulled over are 1 in 56.41. The odds for a black driver are more than double: 1 in 22.25. Currently the odds for Hispanic drivers are in between the two, but a far greater number of Hispanic drivers ( 1 in 42.62) than whites are stopped by police without being given a reason.

In some jurisdictions, Hispanic drivers may be more likely than other drivers to end up with a ticket. A recent analysis by students at Yale Law School revealed that more than half of the tickets issued along two main thoroughfares in East Haven, Connecticut were given to Hispanic drivers—although the local population has fewer than 6% Hispanic residents. The analysis also alleges that East Haven officers grossly underreported the number of tickets given out to Hispanic drivers by erroneously marking most of them as “white.” The department is facing a federal investigation.

Fourteen states currently require police departments to record demographics of the people they pull over, and 26 have banned racial profiling. In addition to ethical and civil liberties considerations, states may be motivated by the same concern expressed by President Obama—that racial profiling erodes confidence in law enforcement, especially for those who feel they have been unjustly singled out.

The odds a white adult rates the honesty and ethical standards of the police as very low are 1 in 100, while the odds a black adult rates them as very low are 1 in 25—four times more likely. So far, we don’t have those odds for a Hispanic adult—and they may be changing.

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