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The response of politicians to the outcry over racial profiling amounts to a lawmaking jamboree. Congress is considering the End Racial Profiling Act, which would force local police to record the race of everyone subjected to a traffic or pedestrian stop and to punish officers who rely on race when deciding whether to stop someone. Thirteen states and hundreds of localities have enacted legislation designed to reduce or at least study racial profiling. Bills are pending in at least 12 other states. Everyone from Attorney General John Ashcroft, long a conservative on race issues, to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, long a liberal, has denounced racial profiling. Declared President Bush in February: "It is wrong, and we must end it."
But what, exactly, is "it"? One doesn't diminish the gravity of racial profiling by noting that there is no accepted understanding of what the term means. It is not in criminology texts. It seems to have been popularized in the early '90s by activists and reporters in New Jersey, not cops. Before we can tell police what they are doing wrong, we must figure it out for ourselves.
When Americans first became interested in the idea of criminal "profiling," it seemed a heroic pursuit. A decade ago we fell in love with Clarice Starling, the fictional FBI agent chasing a serial killer. But was Starling a racial profiler? Remember the scene in The Silence of the Lambs in which Special Agent Crawford asks for a description of the man the two are after? Her first answer is that the killer is "a white male." It just so happens that nearly all American serial killers have been white men. It just so happens that blacks commit a disproportionate percentage of rapes and (nonserial) murders in the U.S. But when should acting on such information become a crime? When does the useful practice of criminal profiling become the inglorious practice of racial profiling?
Most often we use the latter term to describe the police practice of stopping people for "driving while black," but there are myriad permutations. Actor Danny Glover held a press conference in 1999 because cabdrivers weren't stopping for him in New York City; some called this "hailing while black." In May the American Civil Liberties Union got the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to repay $7,000 it had seized from a black businessman in the Omaha, Neb., airport on the (quite false) theory that it was drug money. The A.C.L.U. called it "flying while black." Dr. Lauren Shaiova, a pain specialist who treats sickle-cell-disease patients at Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center, says doctors have long allowed African-American sickle-cell sufferers to agonize because they assume blacks will become addicted to pain medication. Call it "ailing while black."