Clinton’s Racial Policy Profile

Lucas Morel

June 1, 1999

Police have recently come under fire for using “racial profiles” when questioning individuals suspected of committing a crime. And with Governor Christine Todd Whitman acknowledging that some New Jersey state troopers have been stopping motorists simply on the basis of their race, racial discrimination in law enforcement has become a national priority. Unfortunately, a recent executive order signed by President Clinton not only fails to solve the problem, it exacerbates the government’s preoccupation with the race of American citizens.

Clinton announced that agents of the Treasury, Justice, and Transportation Departments must soon report the race (and gender) of individuals they question or arrest. These agencies have four months to devise proposals for monitoring the racial make-up of their respective constituencies. The president also urged states and cities to follow suit.

All will agree that DWB or “Driving While Black” should not increase the likelihood of one’s being pulled over for questioning. But monitoring the race of individuals with whom law enforcement agencies interact is both the wrong means and leads to the wrong end with regards to eliminating racism.

For starters, what would the government do with these statistics? Let’s say that blacks, which make up 13% of the national population, are questioned in 70% of all arrests made in a given year. Is this evidence of racial discrimination? Any number of reasons could explain the disparity, regional demographics being the most likely explanation. Allowing government to keep track of the racial composition of citizens teaches our rulers that a citizen’s membership in this or that sub-group of Americans is more important than his or her rights as an individual. And it’s the individual, not his or her racial group that should remain the focus of government’s protection.

But in the fight against racial profiling, protecting the rights of the individual is replaced by a concern that a particular group not be subjected to disproportionate questioning or too many arrests. A judge recently threw out a case not because there was insufficient evidence to convict, but on the grounds that the accused was a member of a racial group that was disproportionately singled out for questioning! How does that secure justice for the victim in that case, or future victims of crimes?

Ultimately, a reliance on statistical disparities in law enforcement would lead to a categorical prohibition of racial identification in law enforcement. This would make apprehension of criminal suspects more difficult, and therefore the last thing racial minorities should ask for—especially those living in communities unable to control the intimidation and violence of rogue elements. If a person falls victim to a crime, should he not tell a police officer every characteristic of the assailant that could aid in his capture? Is not race a telling detail that could narrow down the number of innocent citizens who would be questioned by the police in pursuit of the perpetrator?

For now, at least, Clinton’s crackdown on racial profiling would apply primarily to immigration and customs officials and patrolmen in national parks. Down the road, though, this policy would lead to a dependence on aggregate statistics as prima facie evidence that a particular agency has violated the civil rights of this or that minority group. Following the bad example of affirmative action, this would lead to the remedial use of racial goals, targets, or quotas in law enforcement, where the most likely beneficiary would be criminals who happen to be members of a racial group disproportionately targeted for apprehension. But crime has always been an equal opportunity employer. It doesn’t need the federal government to ensure the right mix of colors among the criminal element apprehended in our communities.

For the federal government to monitor the race of those questioned by law enforcement officials would constitute yet another intrusion on the lives of citizens whose race takes on more significance than their individual rights. If affirmative action has taught us anything these past thirty years, it is the futility of using racial discrimination to reduce racial discrimination.

So, if government really wants people to stop paying attention to race, it should stop doing so itself. It would then stand a better chance of protecting the rights of every citizen, making “civil rights” the preserve not only of minority citizens but a blessing to be secured for all Americans.

Lucas Morel is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an assistant professor of Political Science and History at John Brown University in siloam Springs, Arkansas.