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date: 13 August 2020

Racial Profiling and Policing Black Communities

Abstract and Keywords

Strained police-community relations are not new to distressed and black communities. However, recent decades of modern-day policing have become a challenging, stressful job for officers in terms of safety and social order, job performance, and being recorded (often on cell phones) and quickly judged by the public. This article looks at racial profiling, implicit bias, and how the heavy hand of order-maintenance policing is used to the detriment of black communities, especially black males. The relevance of contact theory will be discussed in terms of its relevance for reaching mutual ground between black males and police officers. This article offers practical strategies for (a) social workers (community practitioners), (b) black males and citizens of color , and ( c) police officers themselves. For officers specifically, this potential awareness can lead to healthier, neutral experiences with black males leading to positive policing of black communities.

Keywords: black males, community relations, contact theory, implicit bias, police officers, racial profiling


Law-enforcement practices between police and residents of marginalized communities in the United States have been viewed as strained for decades. Modern policing has become a challenging job in terms of not only safety and social order but also how the general public perceives policing. The job stress and scrutiny of the law-enforcement profession makes it an unpopular choice of employment for racial minorities and millennials, especially as examples of racial profiling become more commonplace. Discretionary, proactive policing has been important in the history of law enforcement. In this type of policing, officers make choices about when to engage with different communities of color. Often, patrol officers choose to target a distressed neighborhood based on anecdotal evidence, hunches, hearsay, and past experiences instead of objective evidence (Way & Patten, 2013). These officers disregard department-wide crime-deterrence strategies and instead focus on what they choose to, likely because of pressure from administrators to be productive and deliver statistical data or “stats” such as numbers of contacts made, violations cited, and arrests, which ostensibly reflect productivity (Way & Patten, 2013). These targeted locations are normally poor, minority neighborhoods; this targeting leads to a significantly negative relationship between the police and the community. This aggressive order-maintenance model of policing undermines positive community relationships and further entrenches the idea among members of the public that police officers see themselves as crime fighters going after the “bad guys.”

The protocol and practice for patrolling in order-maintenance policing are distinct. Many police chiefs and elected officials are proponents of the aggressive enforcement of misdemeanor-level crimes, which they see as sending a deliberate message to potential offenders and community citizens that patrol officers will exercise zero tolerance in response to the slightest infractions. These zero-tolerance initiatives are intended to maintain social disorder and to promote an environment of perceived constant surveillance (Greene, 1999). Citizens’ perceptions and realities, however, may be different from those of police and city leaders. Proactive policing initiatives directed at minor offenses exemplify the state’s exertion of a level of power that is disproportionate to the severity of the crimes committed (Geller, Fagan, Tyler, & Link, 2014); that is, the state uses stiff enforcement forcefully in response to offenses that some might consider nonserious or even trivial. When this philosophy is implemented, negative perceptions and experiences surface in these marginalized communities, which breeds a feeling among residents that “they are always targeting” or racial profiling community members.

Racial Bias Practice and Effect

Debates on racial bias in policing remains volatile and tenuous across the nation, dominating social media in real-time and attracting national headlines. In New York City, the controversial “stop, question, and frisk” (SQF) policy was endorsed by some as essential for reducing crime rates (Donald, 2001) and challenged by others as racially insensitive and as placing a heavy burden on affected individuals and communities (Fagan, Geller, Davies, & West, 2010; Geller et al., 2014). Well-documented research has suggested the existence of racial bias in various areas of policing, including in the use of racial profiling in pedestrian and vehicle stops, the use of police force, and in officers’ decision to shoot black and white criminal suspects in technology-assisted simulated scenarios (Chan, 1996; Fagan, Conyers, & Ayres 2014; Plant & Peruche, 2005). Yet research on the causal dynamics underlying racial profiling, targeting communities, the excessive use of police force, and other forms of discrimination has largely ignored an important aspect of the social environment in which discriminatory behavior occurs (Fagan, Conyers, & Ayres, 2014). The ongoing focus on events helps efforts to extend previous work from a focus on where discrimination takes place to considering when it happens. In addition, evidence suggests that some order-maintenance strategies may disparately affect disenfranchised persons such as black males, minorities, and the poor (Duneier & Molotch, 1999; Roberts, 1999; Way & Patten, 2013), as these efforts are not always distributed evenly throughout the social dimensions of all groups.

Procedural justice and police legitimacy challenge the concept of order-maintenance policing. In procedural justice, process-based criteria are used to evaluate whether individuals were treated fairly (Tyler & Wakslak, 2004), and this element of process-based criteria can dictate citizen satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The literature on policing contains ample evidence attesting to the importance of procedural justice in police-citizen encounters (Tyler, 1990; Tyler & Folger, 1980), even when such interactions result in arrest (Paternoster, Brame, Bachman, & Sherman, 1997; Sherman, 1993). The concepts of order-maintenance policing and procedural justice are incompatible and potentially breed conflict and racial profiling. On the one hand, order-maintenance supporters tout the strategy as an indispensable crime-fighting tool (e.g., Dilulio, 1995; Kelling & Bratton, 1998; Kelling & Coles, 1996). On the other hand, aggressive policing can leave citizens feeling hostile, humiliated, isolated, violated, or victimized (Brunson, 2007; Duneier, 1999; Sherman, 1993; Sue, 2015).

Black Males and Racial Profiling

Blacks, especially black males, continue to suffer from racial profiling and microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are described as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed towards racial minorities, often automatically or unconsciously” (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). They are hidden in everyday interactions, which helps widen the gap between racial realities and the unspoken rules of society. Most white Americans experience themselves as decent human beings who believe in equality and thus are unable to identify their own biased attitudes about race and expression of discriminatory behaviors or to believe that they harbor such biases. The cumulative nature of these innocuous expressions is detrimental to black males, as it creates a feeling of isolation because of limited access and opportunities, which impairs their performance and productivity in many settings (Constantine & Sue, 2007; Omi & Winant 1994; Sue et al., 2007).

The popularity of aggressive order-maintenance policing among police executives and politicians has, unfortunately, had a damaging effect for many communities. It has left not only black communities but many marginalized groups and communities of color feeling disenfranchised, alienated, and isolated. Order-maintenance policing as the daily code of patrolling can cause mistrust and hostility and, if not addressed transparently, can become a permanent stain on the community’s perceptions, as racial profiling makes existence hostile for black males.

Social Unrest on the Rise

The call for an American dialogue about race and the importance of black lives (especially as highlighted by Black Lives Matters) in the U.S. was echoed by many people of color and white allies. Nonetheless, these “calls” were met by counterarguments that race had nothing to do with the shooting deaths of victims such as 23-year-old Ariane McCree in South Carolina, 22-year-old Terrence Franklin in Minnesota or 18-year-old Michael Brown in Missouri whose case received national attention and outcry (Sue, 2015). Sadly, the United States continues to witness angry debates that divide and confuse rather than bridge, clarify, and heal. Commonly, when debates are not actively acknowledged, the response is assertive protests such as with the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement has been experienced in deeply personal and political ways (Austin, Cardwell, Kennedy, & Spencer, 2016).

Opposing viewpoints in this national dialogue represent not only deep divisions in understanding and “definition” but also more intractable opinions that are grounded in history and personal experiences; at least to some degree, these opposing viewpoints explain why dialogues on racial topics take place in vain and why they are so difficult to initiate and to navigate. In addition, the race, gender, and class of facilitators who lead this type of discussion can also be a key factor in the progression or regression of blacks in America experience. Unequivocally, such discussions evoke a clash of racial realities (Sue et al., 2007). Discussions of race among people with differing racial realities and experiences are likely to engender strong feelings of discomfort, anger, and anxiety, which can cause the process to be defeated or sabotaged before it starts. In reality, although misunderstood or mischaracterized, Black Lives Matter organizers have consistently pointed to a number of structural and systemic issues—such as institutional forms of racism, the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, redlining, and the repeal of certain provisions in the Voting Rights Act—as central to understanding the ongoing violence on black communities in the United States and globally (Austin et al., 2016).

Underpinnings of Contact Theory

Ongoing prejudice research has focused primarily on people who are motivated to respond without prejudice and the ways in which unintentional bias can cause these people to act in ways that are inconsistent with this motivation. However, some real-world phenomena (e.g., hate speech, and hate crimes) and experimental findings (e.g., Plant & Devine, 2001, 2009) suggest that some expressions of prejudice are intentional.

When police assume that people of color are linked to criminal behavior, they are acting on strong implicit biases (Cox, Abramson, Devine, & Hollon, 2012). Dispelling such rigid beliefs requires a progression from awareness to acknowledgment and willingness to dispel the belief. Studies have measured what is known as “blink response” or implicit bias, the phenomenon of being more likely to see people of color than white people as implicitly linked to threats, violence, and aggression (Brooks et al., 2016; Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012; Geller et al., 2014). This subconscious response often happens without in matter of a few seconds and without the perceiver’s awareness of the response. This can affect perceptions over the course of a lifetime and can direct behavior.

A key theory here is what is called contact theory: the more than individuals interact with those who are different from them, including those whom they stereotype, the more likely it is that their conscious and implicit biases against them will be reduced. Since the 1954 beginnings of Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, various works have continued to validate the importance of contact in reducing prejudice. Findings have supported that positive contact experiences have been shown to reduce self-reported prejudice (the most common way of assessing intergroup attitudes) toward black males, Muslim neighbors, immigrants, the elderly, gay men, and the disabled—to name just a few (Caspi, 1984; Vonofakou, Hewstone, & Voci, 2007; Works, 1961; Yuker & Hurley, 1987). Most interestingly, though, in a wide-scale meta-analysis, it has been found that although contact under Allport’s (1954) conditions is especially effective at reducing prejudice, even unstructured contact reduces prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008). These findings support Allport’s proposal that the ideal conditions for such interactions be facilitated rather than a natural occurrence. Still, contact between groups, even in suboptimal conditions, is strongly associated with reduced prejudice (Allport, 1954; Al-Ramiah & Hewstone, 2011).

Importantly, contact not only influences explicit self-report measures of prejudice but also reduces prejudice as measured in different ways. Explicit measures (e.g., “How afraid are you of black males?”) are limited in that there can be a self-report bias: people often answer in a way that is politically correct or that shows them as inclusive. As such, research has examined the effects of contact on implicit measures (measures that involve investigating core psychological constructs in ways that bypass people’s willingness and ability to report their feelings and beliefs). Implicit measures have been shown to complement traditional explicit measures—particularly when there may be a strong chance of a self-report bias (Sue, 2015). In computer-based reaction-time tasks, contact has been shown to reduce implicit associations between the participant’s own in-group (the group that the participant belongs to) and the concept “good,” and between an outgroup (a group that the participant is not a member of) and the concept “bad” (Aberson & Haag, 2007; Sue, 2015). Furthermore, positive contact is associated with reduced physiological threat responses to outgroup members (Blascovich et al., 2001; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008) and with reduced differences in the way that faces are processed in the brain, implying that contact helps to increase perceptions of similarity (Al-Ramiah & Hewstone, 2011). Contact, then, has a real and tangible effect on reducing prejudice—at both the explicit and implicit levels. Indeed, the role of contact in reducing prejudice is now so well documented that it justifies being referred to as intergroup contact theory (Hewstone & Swart, 2011).

Practitioners Applying Holistic Integration Techniques as a Buffer Intervention

Many social workers and practitioners receive the voices and narratives of racial-profiling victims. They help victims take the charge of repairing the wounds and scars of this ongoing, painful experience. These scars can surface in multiple forms, such as in mental-health disorders, substance abuse, violence, unemployment or underemployment, poverty, and incarceration.

Holistic integration techniques (HIT) can be applied to help marginalized individuals such as black males to curb feelings of defeat, to accept their strengths and limitations within themselves and their environment, and to work toward a holistic method of decision-making, functioning, and coping that fosters happiness and wellness (Kirven, 2000, 2014). With this approach, black males are encouraged by the practitioner to share narratives and experiences that exalt their capacity of self-determination and help them to cope with obstacles and stigma such as being targeted by law enforcement (Kirven, 2000, 2014). Additionally, HIT seeks to motivate black males to think and speak freely about a positive life that is based in strength and equality, holistically centered, and focused on the betterment of the entire community instead of just on themselves (Kirven, 2000, 2014). One effective method in reaching these goals can be the use of a narrative therapeutic approach in a safe, confidential place. This modality can empower “quiet populations”—those whose voices have been silenced—such as black males (and possibly even police offers) to share their stories and life experiences as a way to learn, heal, and grow (Abels, 2001; Kirven, 2014). A narrative clinical reference involves listening to and retelling stories and narratives about unique experiences that empowers or challenges the audience and those who share such stories about the problems and issues that they face daily. Narrative therapy can be extremely relevant for black males who experience stress, anger, depression, and isolation at the hands of racial profiling by police. Community practitioners can also serve as brokers and advocates in closing the gap of tension between the police and black males and other citizens.

Strategies in Creating Culturally Aware Police Officers

One way that police officers can become more culturally sensitive and effective is to adopt the community engagement, education, and empowerment (CE3) model as a method for breaking down trust barriers between police and residents. CE3 builds on the ability of residents to connect with one another and the police in order to establish a network of interconnected programs that over time will be created, managed, and implemented by residents to address needs as they arise in the targeted area. This community-efficacy approach brings together the willingness of local residents to intervene for the common good based on trust and relationships among residents (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997; Wilson, 2012). This framework dictates that strategies center on the continued empowerment of black male youth and adult residents, finding a role for them to play in the existing grassroots neighborhood narrative and leveraging the pride that residents feel for the community.

CE3 innovatively incorporates trauma-informed community-building tenets, including transparent dialogue with law enforcement, intergenerational programming, and neighborhood pride to help establish positive social norms while emphasizing safety, attachment, neighborhood advocacy, police accountability, and authentic engagement (Kirven, 2014; Rose, 2014).

Another catalyst of change is based on Brooks et al.’s (2016) research with black males in focus groups. This research highlights three themes that can help police officers be more culturally sensitive: (a) black people have the right to be angry, (b) there is an ongoing fear of black males, and (c) there is a need to revamp law-enforcement training and education practice. (pp. 353–357.)

The Role of Community in Fertilizing Positive Policing

Communities can build stronger ties with police by conducting monthly community forums and block-club meetings to assess the priorities of their neighborhood; additionally, communities can host trust talks between the police and the community. One collective-engagement initiative to implement can be a community trust coalition (CTC) comprising community residents and leaders (including youth leaders), law-enforcement officers, businesses, resource providers, local officials, and interfaith organizations. The goal of such a group would be to build group cohesion and trust so as to build relationships and to strengthen communities’ ties and public safety.

Such a coalition would normally comprise community leaders or key informants; interfaith-alliance members; patrol and middle-management police officers; and citizens, including black males. These citizens would represent one of each of the following categories: youth (18–22), young adults (23–35), and older adults (36 and older). This coalition should have no more than 15 members, and those members would commit to serve for at least one year. All meetings would be accessible at convenient locations in the center of the community. Community issues and topics would be identified by all members, and residents would take the lead in identifying and discussing those topics. Their input and voices would be central in “trust talks” and in initiating sustained action. Discussion points and meeting minutes would be recorded and put on social-media platforms and linked on a community webpage hosted on the police department’s website. This effort would promote trust in showing a genuine commitment to and investment in the sincerity, success, and safety of the community.

A critical issue in many marginalized communities is what to do when pulled over by the police. According to Brooks et al. (2016), having a clear protocol can be invaluable. Brooks et al.’s (2016) recommendations for protocols for what to do when pulled over that reduce anxiety and tension include the following:

  1. 1. The driver should pull over right away, preferably in a lighted area.

  2. 2. The driver and any passengers should say to themselves, “Just keep a calm head and make it home.”

  3. 3. The driver should keep both hands on the steering wheel.

  4. 4. Neither the driver nor any passenger should make any quick or sudden moves.

  5. 5. If the driver needs his or her wallet, registration, or anything else that is in a pocket or glove compartment, he or she should not reach for it. Instead, the driver should explain to the officer where the documents are and ask permission to get them.

  6. 6. If it is dark, the driver should turn on the vehicle’s interior light so that the police officer can see into the vehicle clearly.

  7. 7. The driver and any passengers should speak politely, saying, for example, “Yes sir, officer” or “Yes, ma’am, officer.”

  8. 8. The driver and any passengers should be as calm and as polite as possible.

  9. 9. Neither the driver nor any passengers should argue, even if they are in the right. Allow the officer to write the citation and wait for the opportunity dispute the case in court.

  10. 10. The driver and any passengers should positively affirm that tomorrow will be a new day to challenge this incident (p. 355).

Ongoing topics led by the coalition can be youth leadership, training and jobs, citizens who are returning to the community after being incarcerated, active and healthy lifestyles, citizen patrol, mutual respect and responsibility, community fatherhood and mentoring, and neighborhood attachment. They can also conduct authentic dialogue circles that promote trust and transparency culture throughout the community. Additionally, these coalitions should listen to the voices of (especially black male) citizens about the black male experience.

Implications and Recommendations for Future Research and Practice

Future research for those seeking to investigate encounters with law enforcement and black males, as well as those social-justice advocates, practitioners, social workers, and researchers who wish to see a change in the relationship between these two groups, should consider the following suggestions:

  1. 1. The effects of cultural-sensitivity training on engagements with people of diverse backgrounds should be considered. The United States is becoming more diverse, and cultures are ever-changing and evolving. However, in many law-enforcement programs there are no multicultural or diversity courses offered or required (Stephenson, 2012; Werth, 2011). Currently, a “green” or “rookie” police officer can enter a community and engage with individuals about whom they have little to no cultural understanding (Stephenson, 2012; Taiping, 1997). If law-enforcement programs wish to affirm diversity, perhaps they should, at a minimum, consider making community-based diversity awareness internships a mandatory or capstone activity. When social workers and practitioners implement empowerment-based theories, systems can change and transformative practice can manifest (Brooks et al., 2016).

  2. 2. There is a need to secure more funding for youth violence-prevention initiatives as well as to enable agencies that already provide such services to expand operations into other communities and neighborhoods throughout cities.

  3. 3. The use of the sociological-ecological model should be further examined as a practical application tool for addressing youth violence, since this model incorporates societal, community relationships and individual factors that greatly influence the quality of life in neighborhoods and communities.

  4. 4. Local and county governments need to work in partnership with each other toward healthy and safer community agendas.

  5. 5. More educational programming in the schools can promote conflict resolution, coping techniques, and mediation training in order to teach youths how to resolve their differences and disputes in a constructive way without resorting to anger and violence.

  6. 6. Law-enforcement officers should receive additional and ongoing training so that they can establish and maintain cultural competency. Additionally, there needs to be an increase in the law-enforcement continuing education curriculum on protecting human rights and understanding implicit bias. A possible partnership among counseling, social work, and law enforcement could help establish this practice. Such diversity or multicultural coursework could encourage law enforcement to recognize biases, especially when policing black and brown males. Requiring ongoing continuing education on life stress, diversity and difference, and positive community engagement would likely keep officers current with and reflective about ever-changing cultural concerns in the United States and inform them of alternative methods of policing (Brooks et al., 2016).

  7. 7. The adoption of patrol vehicle and body cameras by officers is a positive step in bridging community-police relations, trust and transparency. However, mitigating factors include the effectiveness of the cameras on when officers are required to turn them on, whether the officers must review the video before they write incident reports, and whether the videos are released to people involved in an incident or to the public.

Considering these steps could lead to more effective race relations, better feelings of safety, healthy mental wellness and a higher quality of life for officers and the communities they serve and protect.

In Spirit of Justice

Racial disparities, social injustices, sexual-identity crises, and cultural clashes are all topics that can cause oppression and psychosocial stress for many groups (especially undocumented immigrants), but being a black male who feels targeted is a daily stressor that can affect one’s mental wellness and functioning, especially for those who reside in a distressed community. Culturally sensitive police officers and departments that view themselves as part of the community and as guardians (servants) compared to warriors (crime fighters) can help close the gap between hostility, ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination. Education and equality can hopefully help create both a more inclusive culture and society that benefits all and, more specifically, better community-police relations (specifically, between black men and police) that are based on mutual respect and understanding. The roles that social workers and practitioners play in advocating against hostile transgressions by police and in soothing racial-profiling fatigue warrants further discussion and engagement for the sake of safety, fairness, and justice in distressed, marginalized communities of color.

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