HKS Authors

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Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


Racial profiling is a matter of considerable concern in the U.S., and []mutatis mutandis[] in other countries. Yet, perhaps because of its sensitive nature, there is almost no philosophical reflection on this subject. This essay provides a normative assessment of racial profiling and invites more philosophical discussion of this subject. Our argument rests on two assumptions about the productivity of profiling in curbing crime. First, we posit that there is a significant correlation between membership in certain racial groups and the propensity to commit certain crimes. Second, we assume that given such a propensity, to stop, search, or investigate members of such groups differentially will help curb crime. That is, we assume that such measures eliminate more crime than other measures for equivalent expenditures of resources and disruption. If these assumptions fail (which may well be the case), the question addressed in this paper no longer arises. If our assumptions hold, we argue, police and security measures making race an important characteristic in deciding whom to stop, search, or investigate are morally justified in a broad range of cases, including many cases that tend to be controversial. Most discussions of "racial profiling" do not distinguish between the use of race in police tactics and some other subjects, in particular police abuse. Such abuse is a serious problem that must be eliminated wherever it occurs. However, we claim that it is indeed a separable problem, that there can be appropriate use of race in police tacts without abuse, and that the discussion would benefit substantially if these matters were kept apart.


Risse, Mathias, and Richard Zeckhauser. "Racial Profiling." KSG Faculty Research Working Papers Series RWP03-021, March 2003.