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With racial profiling, even research is suspect

Controversy erupts over a study that tracks driving habits among racial groups.

By Patrik Jonsson Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2001



RALEIGH, N.C.

Like some A-team of pencil-wielding statisticians, a band of researchers from North Carolina State University piled in a rented van last summer and hit the highways to scope out scofflaws.

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Their mission: to determine, to the extent possible, if any racial profiling - police disproportionately pulling over motorists who are minorities - goes on along North Carolina highways.

While the full results won't be known for several months, preliminary indications show that police in North Carolina are more likely to stop minorities than whites - in fact, 20 percent more likely.

But the question is: Why?

Are the police motivated simply by racial prejudice? Or are there other reasons for the disproportionate ticketing of African-Americans - for instance, because they speed more often than whites?

The very question is sparking controversy here and across the country about a study that is one of the most extensive under way on racial profiling in America.

Under the direction of lead researcher Matt Zingraff, the project is not only cataloging how many blacks and whites are pulled over for supposedly driving too fast along North Carolina highways. It is also trying to determine if there are different driving habits between the races.

The decision to pursue that notion has gotten Mr. Zingraff labeled a "police apologist" and the purveyor of "loony science." A local NAACP group has condemned the effort as an attempt to single out black Americans as criminals.

But Zingraff defends his work as essential to trying to fathom the complex motivations that may lay behind a practice that has haunted race relations since the early 1990s.

"I'm just amazed when I hear people saying things about racial profiling with certainty," he says. "We've done more research than anyone on this, and I realize I may never know the whole truth. But we are trying to get closer."

The Raleigh project is being closely watched, not only because of its unusual focus, but also because it is one of the furthest along on racial profiling. Across the country, from San Jose, Calif., to Grand Rapids, Mich., some 400 law-enforcement agencies are now gathering information on traffic stops along racial lines.

At the same time, Congress is mulling a Traffic Stop Statistics Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft has called for more study of the issue. He says solid scientific evidence is needed to pursue any legal cases against against police departments, as allowed under a 1994 civil rights law.

Many African-American groups applaud the attorney general's move, especially coming, as it does, after his divisive confirmation hearings a few weeks ago, in which race and discrimination were central issues.

Yet some black leaders argue there has been enough study of the issue: The time for action has come. "[Ashcroft] assured the caucus that he would deal with this sooner rather than later, and the caucus is of course going to hold him to that," says Devona Dolliole, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus.