But for every story that makes the news, there are countless others that don’t involve police. Black customers who get followed too closely by store employees. Hispanic students and Muslims who get asked if they’re really American.
This is everyday racial profiling – and it doesn’t just hurt the victims. It has an insidious ripple effect on the rest of society – in business, health and public safety.
It’s more common than people think
In just the past month, a golf course owner called police on black women because they were playing too slowly. A mom called police because two Native American students made her “nervous.” And a white student at Yale called police because a black student was napping in a dorm building.
Everyday racial profiling is “almost second nature now,” said Darren Martin, a 29-year-old black man.
Late last month, he was moving into his own New York apartment when a neighbor called police saying he was an armed burglar.
Martin still has no idea what his neighbor could have mistaken as a weapon.
“It could have been the TV, the couch, the pillows – I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a fear of black men that makes people see things. I didn’t have weapons. I just wanted to move home.”
For people of color, everyday racial profiling is one indignity piled atop another.
When he’s leaving a store, Martin often hears the same line: “Sir, can you please turn around and show me what’s in your pocket?”
“It’s dehumanizing,” he said.
The consequences can be dangerous
The day Martin moved in, about a half dozen New York police officers showed up under the impression he was armed. Had he made one wrong move, Martin said, he could have been killed.
But there’s a hidden and much more common danger to racial profiling – long-term health problems.
“There are enormous health consequences to those experiencing these everyday harms … because of the constancy of this stress,” said Rachel Godsil of the Perception Institute, a research group that helps organizations reduce discrimination.
Minority groups who endure everyday discrimination often suffer high rates of chronic diseases. And black, Latino and Asian customers get charged higher car interest rates than whites – even if they have similar credit histories.
Then there’s the impact on business. One study found that white job interviewers sat farther away from black applicants than from white applicants and ended the interviews 25% sooner.
Another study showed that résumés sent out with stereotypically white names, such as Emily and Greg, received 50% more callbacks than résumés with stereotypically black names, such as Lakisha and Jamal – even if they had similar qualifications. That study also found that “a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience.”
Racial profiling impacts white people, too
Godsil urges white people to think about what it must be like to live under a cloud of suspicion. “That’s something that those of us who are white never have to think about,” she said.
As director of research for the Perception Institute, Godsil said racial profiling has a broad ripple effect on everyone.
“Even if it happens to someone that doesn’t look like you, it’s a harm to the community,” she said.
For example, many calls about a “suspicious person” don’t really involve suspicious activity – just a person of color walking down the street.
This kind of racial bias wastes officers’ time and resources, which could be spent actually protecting communities.
On a more personal level, those holding racial biases are actually harming themselves, too.
When you start feeling anxiety about someone’s race, Godsil said, it triggers the amygdala – the part of the brain that’s activated by fear.
“That’s a higher level of stress on your body,” she said.
“In addition to reducing the harm of bias to those being stereotyped, de-linking races with negative stereotypes would be a physiological benefit to those holding the bias. … If people can begin to let go of the fear, it will benefit them personally as well.”