History provides a useful, often essential background against which important social and political issues can and should be discussed. Racial profiling is generally defined as a tool used to identify potential suspects on the basis of apparent race. It is distinguished from the profiling that occurs in criminal investigations where a suspect has already been identified by a witness in terms of race. When used as a predictor of criminal intent or conduct or as a pretext for subjecting an individual or group to further scrutiny or investigation without evidence of a crime, it poses a serious threat to those individuals’ or groups’ civil rights.
This threat is largely due to the fact that racial profiling is often prejudicial in nature, growing out of personal or organizational biases. Law enforcement officers whose observations suggest that individuals of a certain ethnicity or religion are more likely to be engaged in criminal or terrorist activity are prone to profiling others through that prism. This can be very difficult to prevent, as biases may be deeply embedded in an individual’s mind due to a history of observations and anecdotal information or on account of a personal history of immersion in a racially prejudicial environment.
Historical context is crucial in combating biases, but this effort is difficult and not always successful. Soon after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Newsweek’s cover story was titled, “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?” The purpose of the article by Fareed Zakaria was to explain the historical seeds of discontent behind an act of coordinated suicide attacks designed to kill as many Americans as possible. The history of relations—often adversarial—between the Islamic and Western worlds as well as more contemporary examples of hostility needed to be examined if Americans were to understand the nature of a conflict that had heretofore been a distant theater. However, Zakaria’s efforts at providing historical context most likely did not affect the tendency to profile travelers through American and European airports who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent.
Racial profiling in the context of policing in the United States is subject to the same type of shortcoming. Emotions and personal experiences interfere. A history of racism in the United States provides a vital historical subtext for discussions of crime today. The history of the United States includes racial discrimination, beginning with the practice of slavery and extending through the period of institutionalized segregation. The repercussions of these racist institutions continue to affect American society, and thus there is no question that history is important in considering the moral and practical nature of racial profiling. To put it simply, racial profiling in law enforcement carries with it far more negative baggage than it is worth.