Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

Is Stop-and-Frisk Racial Discrimination Against Latinos?

Stop-and-frisk targets Latinos disproportionately, but is the abuse racial?

Posted Nov 12, 2013

Protest march against NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy

Despite other controversies surrounding the ruling, discussions of stop-and-frisk have generally sidestepped Americans’ confusion about the concept of race. While my recent e-book and paperback, The Myth of Race, discusses various aspects of the race concept in depth—including the biology of human variation, cultural differences in conceptions of race, the race-IQ debate, and the treatment of race in the census—I will limit myself here to pointing out some of the paradoxes and confusions about race implicit in the discussions of stop-and-frisk.

Most Americans would say that discrimination against Latinos is racial discrimination, implying that Latinos are a race. However, the 2010 census says that Latinos can be of any race. Hence, we have the hierarchical paradox that Latinos are a race that can be any race.

Latin American countries have varied histories of indigenous populations, European conquest, and the importation of slaves from Africa. As a result, the majority of Latin Americans are of mixed ancestry, though each culture uses a different system of racial labels to classify people. Anthropologists call these sets of categories folk taxonomies.

None of these folk taxonomies is similar to the American one. Americans assume that race is a biological entity, and use the folk term blood (meaning ancestry) to describe it. To Americans, Latinos are a race because of their Latino ancestry. However, people in Latin America have no such concept, any more than people in the United States—with all our diversity of ancestry and visible features—think of ourselves as constituting an American race.

The census says that people can only be of one race, so the U. S. government treats the mixed race category as a contradiction in terms. This creates a problem for Latinos, and is a main reason that other is the most rapidly growing race in the census. 

In fact, there has been a generational shift in the ways Americans think about people of mixed ancestry. People born in the first half of the twentieth century would say that someone with any black ancestry is black, and young people would say that someone with white and black parents is mixed. Many Americans still believe that a white woman can give birth to a black person (e.g., President Obama), but that a black woman cannot give birth to a white person. Having lived in Brazil, I can assure you that such people would unequivocally be considered white there—but in the United States, if they claimed to be white, many would still say that they are really black, but “passing for white.” So another possible race for Latinos is mixed race, though they could be any of several mixtures, including white and Latino; white and black; black and Latino; and white, black, and Latino, depending on their appearance, ancestry, and the cultural categories used by the classifier.

What does all this mean? It means that the categories of race used in discussions of stop-and-frisk appear to be biological but are really cultural. They point up Americans’ confusion about race and show a lack of understanding of the variety of alternative conceptions that exist throughout Latin America.


Image source:

Thomas Good (Wikimedia Commons) 17 June 2012

Protesters marching through Harlem on Father's Day, 2012. The silent march was held to protest against the NYPD's "Stop And Frisk" policy which critics charge is racial profiling.

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Friend/Like me on Facebook:

Follow me on Twitter:

Visit my website: