The Definition and Issues of Racial Profiling in the United States

Racial profiling is often misconstrued as a form of oppression against minorities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defines racial profiling as the “discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin” (“Racial Profiling: Definition”). However, there is a fine line that distinguishes racial profiling from racial discrimination and it is important to know this difference. Racial profiling is a legitimate tactic used by United States federal law enforcement agencies to ensure national security.

On the other hand, racial discrimination is the act of holding an individual guilty because of his race.

The police practice of viewing certain characteristics as indicators of criminal behavior. Profiling is now an established law enforcement practice that incorporates social science theory and statistical methodology into crime solving strategies. Though law enforcement agents historically have used race as an implicit signal for criminal behavior through conscious or unconscious racism, “racial profiling” is a relatively new term.

For example, the majority of current terrorist organizations that remain a threat to United States are founded on a form of Islamic beliefs that is most prevalent among people of Middle Eastern descent. After the attack of September 11, 2001 (9/11), federal law enforcement agencies and airport securities used the aforementioned description to profile possible terrorists. On the other hand, an example of racial discrimination would be if a black male driving by a crime scene is suspected of a nearby robbery in a wealthy neighborhood. Such was the case of Charles Belk, a television producer who was arrested after being seen walking by a restaurant in Beverly Hills, CA because he fit the description of a “tall, bald head, black male” (Williams).

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There are federal laws that prohibit racial discrimination such as Equal Protection Clause and Civil Rights, but law enforcement officers are often found abusing the system of racial profiling.

Seeing the abuse of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, the Bush Administration were the first to voice their concern on the issue, and enacted a plan to end racial profiling in 2001. In his first State of the Union address, former president George W. Bush announced it his goal to put an end to racial profiling. Bush expressed concern regarding the issue by stating “too many of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation’s justice, when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups instead of individuals” (qtd. in Badger). However, with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, racial profiling became a necessary tool to prevent further tragedy on American soil. It became essential for America’s federal law enforcement agencies to selectively screen racial groups in similarity to the terrorists that took the lives of thousands. In response to the attack on United States, the Bush Administration were forced to change their approach from ending racial profiling to tailoring it to be used under certain circumstances.

Unlike previous acts of terrorism that have been committed against the United States, the 9/11 attack was carried out by an external enemy that managed to infiltrate the United States homeland. Furthermore, the scale and nature of the attack was unprecedented (Bah 85).

In addition to the statement of Abu B. Bah, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology in Northern Illinois University, the attack of 9/11 alarmed the nation that once felt safe and secure. The terrorists of 9/11 managed to sneak past the security measures that should have prevented this tragedy.

In June 2003, the Department of Justice issued a policy regarding racial profiling titled Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies. This policy prohibits federal law enforcement officers from using race as a reason to place a suspect under the assumption of guilt and deems the method of racial profiling “wrong [and] ineffective” (1). The policy also states that “Federal law enforcement officers may not use race or ethnicity to any degree, except that officers may rely on race and ethnicity in a specific suspect description” (2). With that statement in mind, the United States government officials have recognized racial profiling as damaging, but have also realized it as a necessary tool under circumstance of providing national security.

The guideline issued under the Bush Administration banned racial profiling, but it only covers the issue of race. So the Obama Administration revised Bush’s 2003 policy by adding the prohibition of using religion, national origin, or sexual orientation to it as well. This revised policy under the Obama Administration was issued in December 2014, and much like the first policy published under the guidance of the Bush Administration, this revised policy also requires that law enforcement officials follow specific guidelines.

Under this guideline, federal agents are also required to attend regular training to recognize the delicate balance between racial profiling and racial discrimination, as well as to “learn about the factual application of theoretical concepts”. All federal law enforcement agencies are also required to keep track of complaints made in violation of the guidance to be investigated through data-driven researches.

However, this guideline does not apply to those near the border responsible for conducting screenings and inspections at the ports of entry of the United States (Horwitz). Secretary Jeh Johnson of Department of Homeland Security argues that while his department does not condone racial profiling, “immigration and customs agents and airport screeners needs to consider a variety of factors to keep the nation safe” (qtd in Horwitz and Markon).

In relation to Secretary Jeh Johnson’s statement, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria known as ISIS, is an international terrorist group have recently been caught trying to cross the southern border from Mexico into United States (Molinet). Texas Republican Duncan Hunter said “At least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas” (qtd in Molinet) by the border patrol. Had those protecting the border of the United States been required to follow the racial profiling guideline, this apprehension of these terrorists could have been minimal. With this example, it is evident that the policy issued by both the Bush and Obama Administration would not work in varying situations. It has to be tailored to ensure the safety of this nation.

Racial profiling has always been problematic to American society. In a country that has a history of over 240 years of slavery and 90 years of racial segregation, the problem of racial profiling is its “systemic profiling of Blacks” (ACLU). However, due to terrorist attacks responsible for the American lives of 9/11, racial profiling has become a necessary standard for federal law enforcement agencies.

The United States government officials should not be condemned for the exemption of local law enforcers in their policy, but there should be a guideline issued for local law enforcement agencies as well. 9/11 has changed racial profiling in America and from what was once mainly black Americans, Middle-Easterners are also racially discriminated against as well. It would be reasonable to assume that this shift has a lot to do with the current issue of this country, but it does not excuse the behavior of racial discrimination. Our government officials are making continual efforts to progress towards ending racial discrimination, but their focus is on a greater scale of national safety. Until our local law enforcement agents find a way to make informed decisions influenced only on legitimate evidences, it would be a dangerous choice to our nation if the system of racial profiling ended altogether.

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The Definition and Issues of Racial Profiling in the United States. (2023, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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