Beyond Profiling: Race, Policing, and the Drug War

33 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2003


This Article aims to recast debate about race, policing, and the drug war by critically examining its central features. There are numerous efforts to identify and eliminate racial profiling, which is frequently depicted as an important cause of the widespread investigation and mistreatment of innocent blacks and Latinos.

My argument, in brief, is that policymakers should abandon efforts to ferret out and eliminate racial profiling. This conclusion rests on three observations. First, efforts to prove racial profiling often will founder on empirical findings that invite contrary interpretations. Second, if officers engage in racial profiling because it helps them to apprehend drug traffickers, then efforts to eliminate the practice without altering drug policy may be futile or counterproductive. Finally, the problems most commonly associated with racial profiling do not necessarily turn on whether officers actually engage in racial profiling. These problems could persist in the absence of racial profiling or be meaningfully addressed without actually eliminating racial profiling.

Instead, policy reform should address the race-related consequences of the drug war, particularly the high level of incarceration of racial minorities. The racial concentration of incarceration poses issues of distributional fairness and may also increase aggregate social costs.

The strategic brilliance of the campaign against racial profiling is that it reduces complex issues to the simple and arresting image of the irrational and racially discriminatory investigation of innocent people. Yet, in doing so it may obscure, rather than identify, remedies for the problems that arise at the intersection of race, policing, and the drug war.

Suggested Citation

Banks, R. Richard, Beyond Profiling: Race, Policing, and the Drug War. Stanford Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: or

R. Richard Banks (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-6591 (Phone)
650-725-4607 (Fax)

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