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Hypocritical Opponents of Racial Profiling


All right-thinking people oppose racial profiling in law enforcement, the use of race or ethnicity to help determine whom the police suspect of criminal activity. Nothing is easier than opposing it. Ask Vice President Al Gore.

But beware of hypocrisy. One mark of a hypocrisy in politics is the failure to think along these lines: If I oppose something, I must also oppose what necessitates it.

Most people who oppose racial profiling fail to oppose what necessitates it. On the contrary, they enthusiastically support its cause. Thus protestations about racial profiling are empty posturing designed only to appeal to a set of voters.

Racial profiling is used most often to catch drug sellers and buyers. It’s not needed to catch real criminals — people who have violated the rights of others by killing, beating, raping, or robbing them. You don’t need it for crimes with victims, who can go to the police and describe their assailants. Where no description is available, the police use fingerprinting, DNA, and other evidence-gathering measures.

Take the tragic incident in New York last year when Amadou Diallo, a black man, was gunned down by four policemen. Whatever may be said about that tragedy, or its exploitation by Al Sharpton, it was not a case of racial profiling. The police were looking for a man who had raped several black women in Diallo’s neighborhood. They had a description of the suspect, a black man. Diallo fit the description. Thus the policemen’s decision to approach him could hardly have been a case of racial profiling, much less racism. Should they have questioned white males for the sake of fairness?

Racial profiling, on the other hand, is indispensable for catching perpetrators of victimless crimes, such as drug use. Why? Because there are no complaining witnesses. The parties to a drug transaction consent and therefore have no reason to describe each other to the police. This makes victimless crimes fundamentally different from real crimes.

If both parties to a certain kind of criminal activity do not wish it to come to the attention of the police, the police have a problem. They must find other ways to ferret out evidence of the crime. They will have to rely on wiretaps, searches of residences, street stops of people on the basis of low-level suspicion, and sting operations, such as the one that led to the death of another innocent man in New York. The police have no other way of catching violators. Obviously, the police will not want to waste time and money with truly random searches and sting operations. Rather, they will want to focus their efforts for the maximum return. If experience indicates that drug activity is concentrated in particular parts of town and that minority groups are heavily represented among people caught with drugs, the police will focus on those groups and parts of town. That may look like racism, but that’s an unlikely explanation. Police win glory by making busts. They have nothing to gain by targeting members of any particular racial group, no matter how much they may dislike that group, if its members rarely engage in the illegal activity. The targeting of groups will tend to have some basis in reality.

Racial profiling is wrong, but not because looking for patterns in the perpetration of crime is in itself wrong. What’s wrong is the war on drugs. No violation of rights is intrinsic in the buying, selling, or using of drugs. In a free society, consensual activity between adults should not be a crime. Of course, if someone who’s on drugs violates another’s rights, the criminal should be punished for the actual crime. Drugs, like alcohol, may not be used as an excuse.

Anyone who really opposes racial profiling must logically oppose the war on drug use that necessitates it. If victimless activity were decriminalized, there would be scant opportunity for racial profiling. On the other hand, a war on drug users without racial profiling would be a sham. Take your choice.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org), and editor of Ideas on Liberty magazine.

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Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.