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<nettime> Racial profiling
Greg Elmer on Wed, 24 Oct 2001 04:30:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Racial profiling

Policing Space and Race: Prejudice, Policies, and Racial Profiling

Greg Elmer, 
Boston College

	Seemingly overnight, the September 11th terrorist attacks in the
United States have caused Americans to question their steadfast belief in
broad civil liberties. The rethinking of racial profiling, in particular,
has occurred in light of allegations that the September 11th highjackers
lived counter intuitive lives while in the U.S. and also significantly
deviated from the single and economically marginalized profile of the
(Israeli constructed) Palestinian suicide bomber. Subsequently, as fears
of the Other in the U.S. grow, the near universal opposition to racial
profiling across the country continues to erode. However, despite
re-emerging public support for racial profiling, the term itself continues
to elude simple explanation or definition. Initially, the term was
circulated in response to a slew of complaints from African American and
Latino communities who found themselves disproportionately stopped on U.S.
highway 95, the major north south Interstate in the eastern U.S.. In the
1980s the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Department of
Transportation had singled out the interstate as a key north-south drug
trafficking route. Early definitions thus generally focused on the act of
"…police stopping black and Latino motorists or pedestrians solely because
of their race." (Hurley 2001) Such definitions therefore called into
question the practice of literally "policing" the spatial mobility of
America’s racial minorities.

	In the past few years though instances of racial profiling have
seemingly appeared in all aspects of society, not solely on one or two key
Interstate highways. Racial profiling has come to define, in its broadest
articulation, an act of racism or prejudice. Accordingly, the most vocal
critics of racial profiling, American civil rights leaders Al Sharpton,
Coretta Scott King, and Jesse Jackson have dubbed racial profiling the
civil rights issue of the 21st century. However, a tertiary reading of
many of Sharpton’s comments on recent racial profiling calls into question
the distinction between individual acts of racial prejudice, broader law
enforcement use of racially coded criminal "profiles", and technologically
institutionalized forms of racial discrimination. For instance, in
responding to the recent violent assault of Boston Celtic star Paul
Pierce, Al Sharpton consistently alternated between the terms "racial
profiling" and "stereotyping", providing no clear distinction between the
two. (Ranalli 2000) Later Sharpton and others sought to define the issue
further by asking the Clinton administration to withhold federal funds to
law enforcement agencies that "show a pattern of racial profiling".
(Santana, 2000) In other words, both Sharpton, and later law enforcement
agencies themselves, came to define racial profiling as a pattern of
behaviour by law enforcement – evidence that suggested a disproportionate
number of arrests and stop and seizures against members of minority

	What I’d like to suggest however, is that racial profiling is much
more than stereotyping, much more than a simple "mind set", or evidence of
past behaviour. One could argue that if no clear distinction is made
between prejudice and profiling, the act of discrimination can be much
more easily dismissed as an individuated case of racism, as was evidenced
in Harvard law professor Margo Schlanger’s comment that: "The challenge of
the racial profiling cases is that we start with statistics to get inside
the heads of police officers." (Pritchard 2001) What’s ultimately missing,
of course, from such perspectives is a fundamental understanding of both
the process of profiling and ultimately, the deployment of a "profile"
itself. If racial profiling is merely conceived in individual terms, then
the criminal profile would simply be a subconscious picture of a probable
criminal. While some individual law enforcement officers hold such racist
views, as the stereotype definition of profiling would highlight, there is
also ample evidence to suggest that such views have been purposefully
cultivated, indeed institutionalized through police training and tactics.
Obscured by the mound of news reporting on individual cases of racial
profiling, the state of New Jersey released documents that discussed the
legalities of the "drug courier profile". Moreover, the profile was
discussed in institutional terms as a blueprint of sorts for police
officers – one which singled out minority groups as probable criminals. In
the mid-1980s the state of Florida also circulated guidelines to its
police outlining the "Common Characteristics of Drug Couriers", including
a discussion of "ethnic groups associated with the drug trade" (Harris, p.

	As politicians across the U.S. sought to disassociate themselves
from such institutionalized forms of racial discrimination – including
both candidates in the recent presidential election – various law
enforcement agencies have moved to delete overt racial elements of
profiling. Resulting techniques and technologies of profiling, have begun
to rely heavily upon spatial and behavioural variables, particularly those
associated with personal travel, mobility, and navigation.  In response to
heightened security even before the September 11 terrorist attacks a
select few American airports began instituting the Computer-Assisted
Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS). While the exact workings of the
system are a closely held secret, various reports have suggested that
CAPPS constructs a terrorist profile by drawing upon passenger records,
not race, ethnicity, or nationality per se. Passengers who "fit the
profile" have their luggage tagged and extensively searched. Needless to
say, while race is seemingly taken out of the equation, the profiling of
travel patterns would obviously focus law enforcement attention on
specific international routes and their corresponding national citizens.
Thus from a spatial perspective, CAPPS-profiling is but an extension of
the profiling of minorities in overwhelmingly affluent and white
neighborhoods or on U.S. Interstate 95. Ultimately, though what sets CAPPS
apart from law enforcement profiling/training, and what further sets such
profiling policies apart from the broader social definition of racial
stereotyping (or individual acts of racism), is the increasingly
institutionalized, and subsequently intransigent, discriminatory power of
social classifications, be they under the headings of travel, behaviour,
or race.


Elmer, Greg. (1997). "Spaces of Surveillance: Indexicality and
Solicitation on the Internet", Critical Studies in Mass Communication,
Vol. 14, #2, pp. 182-191.
Harris, David. A. (1999). "Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our
Highways", www.aclu.org/profiling/report.

Hurley, Mary. (2001). "Cambridge Airs Issue of Racial Profiling", The
Boston Globe, October 22. p. C1

Pritchard, Justin. (2001). "Racial Profiling a Conundrum for Police", LA
Times, p. 22, Jan. 21.

Ranalli, Ralph. (2000). "Sharpton See Stereotyping in Pierce Stabbing
Probe", The Boston Globe, October 25. p. B1.

Santana, Arthur. (2000). "Activists Seek Penalties to Halt Racial
Profiling", Washington Post , August 26, p. B01.

Greg Elmer, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication
Boston College
215 Lyons Hall
Chestnut Hill, MA
USA   02467
617.552.1928 tel.
617.552.2286 fax

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