Racial Profiling: Why People Do It

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New York City's "stop-and-frisk" policy was recently struck down by a judge who alleged it targets black and Hispanic residents unfairly.
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The issue of racial profiling has again raised its ugly head after a federal judge knocked down New York City's "stop-and-frisk" policy stating it violated the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection because black and Hispanic residents were subject to stops and searches at a higher rate than whites.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the judge didn't understand the benefit of the policy, noting that "nowhere in her 195-page decision does she mention the historic cuts in crime or the number of lives that have been saved."

But is stop-and-frisk just another form of racial profiling? And what's the difference between profiling and racial profiling? Psychologists say that all of us act on stereotypes for different reasons, but the benefits of fighting against making judgments made from stereotypes are worth the effort.

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Racial profiling by police can fit one of several categories, according to Jack Glaser, associate dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in racial profiling and discrimination.

Police officers can decide to pull over pedestrians who are minorities because they think they are more likely engaged in crime, or they can decide to spend more time patrolling black or Latino neighborhoods rather than neighborhoods with lots of crime, crime that may be correlated with poverty rather than race.

"When we have incomplete information, stereotypes fill that void," Glaser said. "There are these prevailing stereotypes that blacks and Latinos are more prone to crime and that enables people to make an inference about an individual because of they belong to."

Glaser said police in New York and other cities often make judgments about whether to stop someone based on sketchy data.

The difference between profiling and racial profiling is that profiling uses cues about a suspect's current behavior and the officer's personal history of prior situations to predict dangerous outcome, rather than the suspect's race, according to David Rollock, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University.

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