September 21, 2007

Ambiguous laws increase likelihood of racial profiling

The data are in, and – no surprise:
  • People in general do sometimes engage in racist behaviors under ambiguous situations in which they can rationalize their decisions in some other way.
With those data in mind, here’s a great idea: Let's pass ambiguous new laws and see how they are enforced.

That's just what municipalities around the country are doing, in a recipe for increasing racially discriminatory arrest patterns.

Take "sagging."

Atlanta, the hip hop capital of the South and perhaps the world, is currently debating whether to follow other cities around the country that have enacted laws against wearing baggy pants that show one's undergarments. The ordinance would impose fines and even jail time for violators.

The ACLU of Georgia says that is unconstitutional. The issue is not just about baggy pants, but about the criminalization of young black men, says ACLU executive director Debbie Seagraves: "We are talking about creating one more ordinance, one more law that can be used to put more and more young black people into a system that is already eating them up."

Not so, says C.T. Martin, the 70-year-old city councilman who proposed the law.

"My legislation is designed to help young people, to enlighten them and help them understand," said Martin. "When the police pull you over, you can't say they are profiling you. You've already profiled yourself."

Would it surprise you to learn that Martin is a longtime African-American activist?

Not if you are familiar with the research on unconscious racism, which shows that African American police and probation officers, for example, are just as likely as anyone else to make racist judgments about black criminal suspects. What's ominous is that the underlying racist stereotypes are not conscious, so people don't even know they're relying on them.

Or, as another example of ambiguous laws, take anti-gang injunctions.

On the opposite side of the country from Atlanta, progressive San Francisco is enacting anti-gang injunctions that bar people named on a gang list from congregating, wearing gang symbols or clothing, or flashing gang signs in certain geographic areas. The injunctions, already in place but currently being expanded, also impose a 10 p.m. to sunrise curfew on these individuals, under penalty of jail.

Remember the research about racist behavior being most likely to occur under ambiguous circumstances in which it can be rationalized away?

Well, with gang signs and symbols constantly changing, police will be given the leeway to interpret which hand signals, clothing, or other symbols constitute evidence of membership in the Norteños and other gangs.

Criminal defense attorneys opposing the injunction argued in court that some of the people named on the list are not in gangs and are being targeted because they live in public housing or have rapped about gangster life.

Robert Amparán, who is representing four men on the list, went so far as to call the injunction "government-sponsored racial profiling" that gives police sweeping power to harass and arrest Latino men.

While that may be true, the social science data on modern racism predict that those involved will rationalize any racist conduct on other grounds. After all, no one in these modern times wants to be seen – or even to see themselves – as a racist.

Photo credit: "CR Artist" (Creative Commons license)

Attorney Neil Richards comments on the constitutionality of baggy-pants laws at the Concurring Opinions blog. The Chicago Tribune has a news analysis of those ordinances.

The San Francisco Chronicle provides coverage of the debacle over San Francisco's anti-gang injunctions.

Research data on unconscious racial stereotyping among police and probation officers includes: Graham, S., & Lowery, B.S. (2004). Priming Unconscious Racial Stereotypes About Adolescent Offenders.
Law and Human Behavior, 28, 483-504.