Politics

Racial Profiling Seen as Pervasive, Unjust

When it comes to race relations in America, few topics generate more discussion than racial profiling does. Whether it's real policy or just a perceived tendency, the idea that law enforcement may be stopping members of certain racial or ethnic groups because they are believed to commit certain types of crimes more often than others does lend itself to fierce debate. Racial profiling also lends a specific point of emphasis to the black community's well-documented distrust of the police.

Gallup's most recent Minority Rights and Relations poll* assessed public opinion on racial profiling in two ways. Gallup first asked respondents how widespread they think the practice is in certain situations. Then, respondents were asked whether they think racial profiling is justified in those situations. Gallup asked respondents about three different situations -- motorists stopped on roads and highways, passengers stopped at airport security checkpoints, and shoppers questioned in malls and stores about possible theft. Not surprisingly, the results show that blacks and Hispanics were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to say profiling is widespread in two of the three situations (because of the high margin of error, the difference between whites and blacks is not significant on airport security situations). But blacks and Hispanics tended to differ in their opinions about whether the practice is justified.

How Widespread?

Results show that a substantial proportion of Americans believe racial profiling is widespread in all three contexts. Slightly more than half (53%) think the practice of stopping motorists because of their race or ethnicity is widespread. Roughly half (49%) think racial profiling is used widely by those attempting to prevent theft in shopping malls and stores, and 42% think the practice is widespread at security checkpoints in airports.

Not surprisingly, perceptions about the prevalence of racial profiling differ by racial and ethnic group -- Hispanics and blacks generally believe it is more common than whites. For example, a majority of black Americans (67%) feel racial profiling is widespread in traffic stops, a sentiment shared by nearly the same percentage of Hispanic Americans (63%). By contrast, only half (50%) of non-Hispanic whites feel the practice is widespread.

Hispanics and blacks were about equally likely to say that profiling is widespread in airports -- 54% of Hispanics and 48% of blacks -- compared with 40% of non-Hispanic whites.

When asked about malls and stores, black Americans and Hispanic Americans were also more likely than non-Hispanic whites to believe that racial profiling is widespread. Sixty-five percent of blacks and 56% of Hispanics think the practice is widespread in that context, compared with 45% of non-Hispanic whites.

Is Security a Justification?

A majority of Americans do not believe racial or ethnic profiling is justified in any context, but opinions varied according to the specific situation respondents were asked about. Only a quarter of the public thinks the practice is justified when it comes to questioning shoppers in stores, and roughly a third (31%) thinks it is justified in the case of stopping motorists. Significantly more Americans -- 45% -- feel it is justified at airport security checkpoints, probably a reflection of Americans' ongoing wariness about terrorist attacks.

Again, the answers to this question differ along racial and ethnic lines. In all three cases, black Americans tend to be least likely to say racial profiling is justified, while in most cases Hispanics hold opinions that are more similar to those of non-Hispanic whites.

  • Fewer than one in five blacks (19%) believe racial profiling is justified to prevent theft in malls and stores. This sentiment is shared by a quarter of non-Hispanic whites (24%) and more than a third of Hispanic Americans (38%).
  • In the case of stopping motorists, nearly a quarter of blacks (23%) believe profiling is justified, compared with 30% of Hispanics and 31% of non-Hispanic whites.
  • Just under a third of blacks (32%) think profiling is justified at airport security checkpoints, compared with 40% of Hispanics. Nearly half of non-Hispanic whites (46%) think profiling is justified in that setting.

Bottom Line

While blacks and Hispanics in the United States are more likely than whites to believe the practice of racial profiling is widespread in various situations, their opinions diverge on the question of whether such practices are ever justified, with Hispanics generally more likely to believe they are justified than are blacks.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 2,250 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 9-30, 2004, including oversamples of blacks and Hispanics that are weighted to reflect their proportions in the general population. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.  

Results for the sample of 816 non-Hispanic whites, aged 18 and older, are based on telephone interviews conducted June 9-30, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.

Results for the sample of 801 blacks, aged 18 and older, are based on telephone interviews conducted June 9-30, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±8 percentage points.

Results for the sample of 503 Hispanics, aged 18 and older, are based on telephone interviews, conducted June 9-30, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±8 percentage points. (164 out of the 503 interviews with Hispanics were conducted in Spanish.)

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/12406/Racial-Profiling-Seen-Pervasive-Unjust.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030