The related question to my provocative title is "and does it matter?" In other words, even if racial profiling is not discriminatory, it might still be morally wrong. I am not going to address this related question here, it is beyond the scope of my little economics blog.
The question in the title comes from this story from OPB's April Baer (whom I haven't quite forgiven for her decision to leave the Morning Edition host spot - no one is quite as good) on Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer's comments about tracking the success of searches by race. I know all about where this comes from: a famous paper by John Knowles and Petra Todd that looked at the conviction rate, by race, of vehicles searched from traffic stop data in Maryland. Good to know Chief Sizer is keeping up with the economics literature as we all know that economists have all the answers.
But let's start from the start. Suppose you see that police in some jurisdiction are stopping and searching cars driven by African-American (black) drivers just as often as Caucasian (white) drivers even though only 10% of the population is black. [In Maryland 63% of cars stopped were driven by African-American drivers, while only 18% of all cars on the road were driven by African-Americans along I-95] This stopping and searching of cars then is disproportionately focused on black drivers and is evidence of racial profiling, stopping and searching cars precisely because they are being driven by black drivers. Even if it is the type of car itself, say, that is the reason for the search, if that type of car is disproportionately driven by black drivers it could still be considered racial profiling. But what if police officers are using their wealth of knowledge and experience to judge which cars to search regardless of the race of the driver, and it just so happens that this leads to half the cars searched being driven by black drivers? In other words, what if officers are quite good at detecting illegal activity and that this activity has disproportionate racial participation. How could you tell the difference between discriminatory behavior, searching drivers because of race regardless of likelihood of illegal activity, and good policing, searching only cars with a high likelihood of illegal activity?
Well if it is the former, what we would expect is a higher number of unsuccessful searches among those performed on cars driven by blacks than among those driven by whites because blacks are being stopped due to race and not evidence of illegal activity. This is precisely the test Knowles and Todd did with the Maryland traffic stop and search data. It turned out that though the searches were disproportionate, the conviction rates from those searches were not. There was no lower a conviction rate among black drivers that were searched than among white drivers. So while racial profiling might be the reason for the search it is not, in this case, evidence of racial prejudice. Now, as I said before, there is a bigger question about whether, even if this is true, racial profiling is justified and should be allowed. You are welcome to discuss this in the comments, but I am going to leave it as an open question. It does seem, however, that Chief Sizer wants to do something exactly equivalent to the Knowles and Todd test for Portland Police searches. It would be good to know, for instance, if there is evidence of racial discrimination. But even if similar results to the Maryland study are found, the question of the righteousness of profiling remains.
On a related note: my study of racial discrimination in the NFL has a similar design. I looked at whether the outcomes of players in the NFL were consistent with their draft position and found that non-white players systematically outperformed their draft position while white players underperformed relative to what their draft position would predict. This is evidence, then, that NFL teams discriminate against non-white players when they draft players into the league. [Note that the action here is not in the first and second round stars but the in the outcomes of the many players taken the the later rounds] Why? That is an open question, but I believe that teams find white stars more marketable (at the time the white Ed McCaffrey was a huge media darling in Denver while the statistically better black Rod Smith was not). I did find some suggestive evidence that teams pay a real price for this behavior where teams that were more egregious in their racial preference fared worse in terms of the their record.
[Image: Scott Sroka]