The Nation: Who Are You?; When Perception Is Reality

THE growing national crusade against racial profiling is being called the civil rights movement of this generation. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe profiling is widespread, and an even greater majority disapprove of it. Yet throughout the country, the evidence for its existence is largely anecdotal. For that reason, the first wave of legislation and public policy initiatives designed to address the problem focus on the collection of data intended to substantiate allegations of racial bias in policing.

Two years ago, no police department in the country collected sufficiently detailed records of traffic stops to show whether officers were targeting minority drivers. Today, roughly 400 law enforcement agencies are compiling such data. The Justice Department is encouraging more agencies to follow suit as a way to overcome public distrust.

But the gathering of this information and the methods used are on a collision course with another rising national trend. Just as America’s insatiable need for information has engendered a growing concern for privacy, the government’s desire to collect more racial data conflicts with a rising public reluctance to answer questions about racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Perhaps as early as this week, a federal judge will officially place the Los Angeles Police Department under a sweeping federal consent degree, a portion of which requires officers to record what they perceive is the race, ethnicity or national origin of each driver they stop — without asking a direct question.

Arguing that Los Angeles was too ethnically and racially diverse to ever make sense of such information, both the police department and the city strongly resisted the data collection section of the decree. ”How are officers going to guess what background people like me come from?” asks Raquelle de la Rocha, president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners. Ms. de la Rocha, the child of a Mexican father and a Filipino mother, is particularly offended by the notion that police officers will be guessing the racial and ethnic origins of each citizen they stop.

”With all the racially mixed people in L.A., and Latinos coming in all shades, the data will be garbage in, garbage out,” she says.

But the Department of Justice — as well as the many police departments that have voluntarily begun to collect racial data — all agree that having officers explicitly asking people their racial background would only worsen tensions between the police and the communities they serve. Furthermore, say experts on racial monitoring, the purpose of such data gathering is not to find out the drivers’ actual backgrounds, but to record the police officers’ perceptions of them. ”We’re not trying to get at truth, we’re trying to get at bias,” says Margo J. Schlanger, who teaches at Harvard Law School.

TODAY, two days before Angelenos go to the polls to elect a new mayor, the L.A.P.D. is to inaugurate a pilot program in which 40 officers from two police divisions will begin testing two handheld computer devices into which they will register the newly required data. Back at the station house, officers will upload the information into a mainframe computer. But in Los Angeles, as in other cities, it is still unclear how the data will be analyzed and what benchmarks will be used to measure it. ”That’s the $10 million question,” says Professor Schlanger, who studies racial profiling data collection. ”Comparing the number of people stopped to the number of people there are is tricky.”

But other academics, including John Lamberth, an associate professor of psychology at Temple University, say appropriate benchmarks can be devised. Because drivers are often just passing through a neighborhood, it would not be statistically valid to compare the number of stops in one section of a street or highway to the area’s residential population. Professor Lamberth has proposed local sampling, whereby enumerators sitting in stationary cars or standing on street corners would guess the racial and ethnic breakdown of the commuter population in a given sector of the highway at various times of the day and night.

In North Carolina, one professor has suggested that researchers could estimate the racial and ethnic makeup of the ”violator population” by having troopers move with traffic and record both the speed and relevant demographics of the drivers from behind tinted windshields.

In New Jersey, all 2,700 state troopers were required to receive instruction on how to classify a motorist’s race by judging ”skin color” and ”facial characteristics.” While the multiracial option on the 2000 Census now allows Americans to identify themselves as any one of up to 126 potential racial and ethnic combinations, troopers are asked to place motorists into one of six racial-ethnic categories.

When Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote his famous dictum, in 1978, that to get beyond racism, we first must consider race, most Americans could understand his logic. A generation later, however, racial monitoring efforts that make the public even more race conscious than it already is may strike many Americans as feeding into a vicious circle.

So, despite the noble purposes for this monitoring, the prospect of the most visible arm of the government, the police, guessing the racial backgrounds of citizens is problematic to many observers. ”We paint ourselves into a corner,” says Ruben G. Rumbaut, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. ”In order to combat discrimination, we monitor race, which, in turn, only solidifies and hardens these racial categories.”

In addition, the Census Bureau has allowed Americans to self-identify their backgrounds on questionnaires since 1960. In 1995, the Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates the activities of all federal statistical agencies, issued a directive stating that self-identification should be encouraged.

”There’s a real inconsistency in a system based on the right to self-identification also allowing people to be identified on the bases of the perception of others,” says Kenneth W. Prewitt, a dean at New School University and the former head of the Census Bureau.

COMPLICATING matters is the fact that over the past several decades, a growing number of multiracial Americans have demanded the right to identify themselves outside of the four racial — and one ethnic — categories normally provided by government agencies. Last year’s decision by the Census Bureau to allow Americans to mark more than one racial box on their questionnaire was only the first salvo in a war that an increasing number of Americans are waging against the old mutually exclusive racial categories.

”Race in America is increasingly becoming a matter of subjectivity,” says Peter Skerry, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, who recently published a book on the racial politics of the census. ”At the same time, the government is relying more and more on this morass of data to make public policy.”

For example, in 1998, the first year the University of California abolished affirmative action in admissions, the number of applicants who declined to state their race shot up by 213 percent. Citing the need to get a full picture of the impact of race-blind policies, admissions directors at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at San Diego later admitted they peeked into SAT data in an attempt to ascertain those students’ racial backgrounds.

Americans’ distaste of the idea of the government assigning racial or ethnic categories to individuals comes, in part, from the nation’s past failure to live up to its individualistic values when it came to members of various minority groups.

Civil rights advocates and racial data experts reject the charge that increasing the collection of racial information will only make race more salient in everyday life. If race were not already a pervasive factor in policing, they argue, there would not be a national uproar over racial profiling.

”I think it’s a good thing to make officers more conscious of race,” says Deborah A. Ramirez, a professor at Northeastern University Law School and a consultant to the Department of Justice.

Yet recording the apparent background of every citizen involved in a traffic stop could engender even more types of racial score-keeping. In mid-May, seeking to combat charges that the New York Police Department targets minorities, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik announced that the city would begin releasing monthly statistics showing the race of crime victims, suspects, people stopped and frisked and those arrested.

As with all other racially charged issues over the past decade, the first major battle over racial data collecting is likely to take place in California over a ballot initiative. Ward Connerly, the Sacramento businessman who sponsored the successful anti-affirmative action measure in 1996, is now gathering signatures to place his ”Racial Privacy Initiative” on the state ballot in March of 2002. Ironically, Connerly has exempted law enforcement data from the measure, along with information collected to aid medical research. Aimed at barring public agencies from identifying people by race or ethnicity, the initiative, according to Mr. Connerly, will help ”California government to stop obsessing about race.”

But the abolition of racial data is as likely to eradicate the national obsession with race as widespread racial monitoring will make Americans less race-conscious. A frontal assault on race statistics could also provoke the opposite reaction, reinforcing the very demographic categories that racial privacy advocates believe already hold too much sway over American life.

Gregory Rodriguez is a senior fellow at New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute.

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