Racial Profiling During Traffic Stops

Do cops really pull you over for “driving while black”?

Though the research studies on racial profiling during traffic stops are a few years old, they are still alarming. In 2011, out of the one in 10 American drivers pulled over for traffic violations, there were proportionately more black drivers (12.8 percent) and Hispanic drivers (10.4 percent) pulled over than white drivers (9.8 percent). These statistics translate into a 31 percent greater likelihood of being stopped for a traffic violation if you are African-American than if you are white, and a 23 percent greater likelihood if you are black than Hispanic. Apparently, “driving while black” does put you at a much greater risk of having a confrontation with police while on the road.

Lest you feel that only blacks and Hispanics are racially profiled in this country, you should know that Native American drivers have an even greater likelihood of being stopped by police while driving than do black drivers — 15 percent.

Reasons for Traffic Stops Vary Among Races

Just over 50 percent of white drivers are most often stopped for speeding, as opposed to 37.7 percent of blacks and 39.2 percent of Hispanics. Interestingly, black drivers are more commonly pulled over for vehicle defects or record checks. While this may partly be because of racial profiling and trumped up excuses to target black drivers, it may also have socioeconomic basis. Since blacks in this country are far more likely to be poorer than whites, they are that much more likely to be driving older cars with more vehicle defects. They are also less likely to have the financial resources to keep their cars up-to-date in registrations and inspections because of the fees involved.

Inequalities in Treatment after Being Stopped

Not only are black, Hispanic, and Native American drivers pulled over more frequently, but they more frequently complain about being treated with disrespect by law enforcement. They also complain about:

  • Not being given a reason by police for being pulled over
  • Being searched more frequently than other drivers
  • Having their cash seized by police

These complaints are borne out by the facts. While only 2.6 percent of whites report not being giving a reason for the traffic stop, 3.3 Hispanics report this injustice, as do nearly 5 percent of African-Americans. Many of us may also be familiar with the recent case in Suffolk County, New York in which a police officer has been arrested for routinely stopping, searching, and robbing Hispanic immigrants whom he suspected of being undocumented. His theory was that they would be afraid to report the crime; many of them were.

Evidence that Law Enforcement Practices Are Unfair

Clearly, as many of the presidential candidates are pointing out during their campaign speeches, criminal justice in this country is badly in need of reform. The following statistics attest to the inequalities present in the arena of traffic law enforcement.

The percentages of motorists who felt unfairly stopped by traffic police were:

  • 32.5 percent of blacks
  • 26.4 percent of Hispanics
  • 16.4 percent of whites

Interestingly, in all cases drivers were more likely to feel that the traffic stop was legitimate if the traffic cop who pulled them over was of the same race.

Racial Attitudes and Racial Profiling

Though there may be reasons besides racial profiling that lead to the troubling statistics, the fact remains that blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups (even as they are becoming the ma