Racial profiling as a minority issue

Cynthia Willis-Esqueda

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Scopus citations


On a recent airing of the Actor's Studio (May 21, 2006), James Lipton interviewed Don Cheadle about the movie Crash and his personal experiences as a Black man in Beverly Hills, California. Mr. Cheadle related that the police stopped him as he was walking down the street. "Did they give you a reason for why you were stopped?" asked James Lipton. "Oh yea, I fit the profile. You always fit the profile," replied Don Cheadle. This response brought a burst of laughter from the studio audience. Yet, the response and the laughter highlighted some noteworthy issues. First, the audience shared in the understanding that Black men in America can be stopped by police on any pretext, and this shared knowledge does not have to originate from direct experience with crime or with criminal suspects (Klein & Naccarato, 2003; Oliver, 1994; Prosise & Johnson, 2004; Weitzer & Tuch, 2005). We obtain the stereotyped link between race and crime from family, peers, media, film, and literature. Second, while we know racial profiling happens, we allow it to continue, and as a society, we may be motivated to do so (Wilson, Dunham, & Alpert, 2004). Racial profiling and its outcomes allows the dominant culture to maintain their status in the social hierarchy (Sidanius, Levin, & Pratto, 1998) and keeps minorities, mostly men of color, in a precarious psychological state. By racial profiling, I mean the term as it is used to "identify law enforcement practices that use race to make discretionary judgments" (Aguirre, 2004, p. 929). I refer to the use of racial profiling as a means for law enforcement to wield power against individuals of color with irrelevant or no evidence for doing so. Racial profiling has received increased attention in the legal community (Banks, 2003; Gross & Barnes, 2002; Hickman, 2005; Johnson, 2003; Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act, 2001; Totman & Steward, 2006), in part owing to the number of personal testimonies and studies indicating its prevalence for people of color at the national, state, and local levels (Black police executives, 1999; Indian drivers, 2004; Kafka, 2000; Kocieniewski, 2002; Melton, 2002; Missouri Vehicle Stops, 2005; Novak, 2004; Parker, MacDonald, Alpert, Smith, & Piquero, 2004; Ramirez, McDevitt, & Farrell, 2000; Reitzel, Rice, & Piquero, 2004; Tomic & Hakes, 2004; Williams, 2002; Wolfson, 2005). Its significance as a human rights issue in the United States has been noted as well (Amnesty International, 2004). We have garnered a clearer understanding of the legal issues that permeate racial profiling, particularly from the work of Gross (this volume; Gross and Barnes, 2002). We also have an understanding of the psychological processes involved in making judgments about whether racial profiling has occurred and whether it is accepted, most notably from the work of Tyler, who outlines these processes in Chapter 3 (this volume; Tyler, 2005). Although racial profiling has been noted in the psychological literature as an issue involving the intersection of race, psychology, and law (Barrett, 2005), we know little about the cognitive processes that are used to determine a racial category in a profiling situation. We know less about the short-term and long-term psychological ramifications of such profiling for its targets from an empirical standpoint. Nevertheless, "Driving while Black," "Driving while Brown" (DWB), and "Driving while Indian" (DWI) are common occurrences for (and maybe offenses against) people of color in the United States, particularly for men, regardless of socioeconomic status (SES). In fact, while those in high SES categories may be less likely to experience racial profiling from law enforcement, high SES does not preclude men of color from experiencing racially motivated police stops, interrogations, and detainments (Becerra, 2001; Black executives, 1995; Johnson, 2000). In 2001, for example, an African American surgeon from Florida who taught at the University of Miami School of Medicine was en route to lecture at the UCLA Medical Center. The LAPD stopped him in his rental car, made him lie on the pavement, and detained him for 4 hours. His handcuffs were so tight that his wrists were injured and he could no longer perform surgery. He tried to show officers the rental car documents and information about his trip, but to no avail. It was later determined that the rental agency had placed the wrong plates on the rental car, and the stolen car was not the car the surgeon was driving. However, the LAPD had refused to call the rental agency to determine the status of the car. The case resulted in a jury award of $33 million to the plaintiff.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSocial Consciousness in Legal Decision Making
Subtitle of host publicationPsychological Perspectives
PublisherSpringer US
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9780387462172
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Racial profiling as a minority issue'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this