A confluence of unrelated events -- New York City's mayoral election, NYC Police Commish Ray Kelly being floated as a potential Dept. of Homeland Security Chief, a big judicial ruling -- have put stop-and-frisk policies under the microscope. (Also, let's not forget Joan from the Upper West Side.)

Much has been written about the negative impact such policies have on Black and Hispanic communities. And much has been written about the constitutionality of randomly searching people on the street. But how does stop-and-frisk affect those who aren't being stopped or frisked. Or as they like to say in the halls of the Capitol, "how does this policy affect White people?" 

A new study set to be published in Law and Human Behavior suggests that racial profiling makes white people more likely to engage in illicit behavior. The study, which was led by Georgia Southern's Amy Hackney, used an experimental setting in which groups composed of White and Black students were tested on their ability to complete difficult anagrams. Students had access to an answer key and graded their own exams, and so they had ample opportunity to cheat. The manipulation occurred right before the test began, when the experimenter stared directly at two students and explained that cheating would not be tolerated. He then asked both students to move their desks closer to the front of the room. In one condition the two students were Black. In another condition the two students were White. A third condition with no profiling functioned as a control.

Examining two types of students (White and Black) in three different conditions produced produced six measurements of cheating frequency. They were all fairly similar, but there was one exception. White students cheated more when they saw Black students being profiled. They cheated at a higher rate than black students who saw Whites profiled, Whites who saw Whites profiled, or either group when there was no profiling.

We theorized that heightened surveillance of members of a minority group would increase illicit activity in the majority group—that it would have a reverse deterrent effect. We found that White participants in the Black-profiled condition cheated more than participants in any other condition. Although cheating on a test of this sort is not a crime, it is a dishonest behavior that is a particularly serious transgression in academic settings. These results indicate that racial profiling could increase crime among nonprofiled groups, having a counterproductive effect.

Hackney reasoned that seeing others get profiled increases your feeling of impunity, but there doesn't have to be an overwhelming feeling of impunity for profiling to affect non-profiled groups. Even if people aren't thinking, "I'm white, therefore I can get away with this," they still may come to believe their actions are more justifiable. Eventually a bar fight becomes mischief rather than assault, or stealing that piece of art your friend will love is an act of kindness rather than breaking and entering. Perhaps you manage to rationalize stealing a marble rye from an old lady.

When talking about stop-and-frisk it's easy to get caught up in the intricacies of crime statistics and constitutional law. But it's important to remember that these policies influence social norms and the way people see themselves. When people of different races are treated differently based on conjecture -- even when that conjecture is based on cursory data -- it has an impact on the way people see the world. Ending stop-and-frisk might not fix our culture of white crime, but it would create an image of society that's marginally more conducive to social progress.

(cross-posted at Peer-reviewed By My Neurons)


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About the Author

Eric Horowitz

Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher.

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