A practice that tears at the civic fabric
David Harris's book "Profiles in Injustice" is a significant work. Although the University of Toledo law professor finished his book well before Sept. 11, the controversy over racial profiling has become even more important because of the war against terrorism.
As some prominent liberals and many African-Americans come to support the targeting of individuals based on racial identity for national-security purposes, this reasoned voice is much needed. Every supporter of racial profiling should be required to refute the array of arguments given here, while every critic of racial profiling would do well to recite them.
This book may surprise or disappoint both constituencies, though, because Harris expresses no outrage and makes few references to civil rights. His is the pragmatist's case - "just the facts" - against racial profiling.
The book has two parts. Harris establishes that racial profiling is actually practiced. Then he shows why it should not be.
There should no longer be any doubt that law-enforcement officials often rely on race to decide who is suspicious.
Studies of the Customs Service and the New Jersey state troopers have provided data proving that African-Americans and whites are equally likely to be breaking the rules. But African-Americans are treated as wrongdoers at much higher rates. The Customs Service performs humiliating strip searches of black women, and New Jersey state troopers ticket people for "driving while black" with a frequency that far exceeds the representation of those groups within the population.
There is no comparable data confirming that racial assumptions are effective. To the contrary, racial profiling turns out to be the same as plain prejudice in many instances.
Even some of the supposed remedies for the problem have reinforced segregation. A wealthy suburb of Indianapolis, for example, issued to African-Americans who worked within its limits tags for their cars to ensure that they could be readily identified as allowed in the area.
Perhaps the most important feature of Harris's work, however, is the lack of accusatory tone. He calls nobody a racist. He even notes that African-American police officers have been found to be every bit as likely as their white peers to engage in racial profiling.
Harris turns these patterns to his advantage. The crisis, in his view, is societal and institutional. It is not the extreme result of a handful of bigots. That means that eliminating the causes will be all the more difficult.
Harris traces the use of racial profiling to aggressive implementation of crime-control theories promoted by James Q. Wilson. In an influential 1982 article, Mr. Wilson hypothesized that violent crime could be curtailed if authorities restored order in the urban environment down to the last detail. Communities that allowed broken windows in buildings to remain unrepaired invited much worse. Police forces were given great discretion to try Wilson's strategy.
Ironically, Wilson's warning about symbolism also is an important point against racial stereotyping. To those who are rarely pulled over by cops, subjected to body-cavity examinations by custom agents, or followed by store security guards, the preventative measures may seem only minor inconveniences.
Yet, much as Wilson suggested of the subtle indicators of stability and safety in the city, so too the cues of racial profiling point toward more significant consequences than might be imagined. They create generalized distrust across racial lines and disrespect for government institutions.
As Harris makes clear by sharing personal stories - many of them from African-Americans and Latinos who hold positions of power and who seem likely to be neither criminals nor protesters - the indignity of racial profiling destroys the civic society we strive to create. Even judges, prosecutors, and military officers who are black and brown feel compelled to tell their children that they are still likely to be treated unfairly because of skin color. (Harris includes Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans as well.)
Harris concludes with recommendations for change. The most fundamental is to gather data. Without information, we cannot determine our progress toward color-blindness or track our problems of color consciousness.
If "Profiles in Injustice" does not persuade readers about the pernicious effects of the practices, then no amount of evidence can.
Frank H. Wu, a law professor at Howard University, is the author of "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White."