Culture and ethnic profiling

By Hugo van Lent

Nathan Nunn argues how cultural norms and values have to be taken into account when studying institutional development in time. Different cultures, which are essentially different heuristics or rules of thumb, may therefore be used to explain institutional divergence in time.

Racial or ethnic profiling – singling-out individuals on the basis of their skin colour – is a widespread and institutionalised practice in the United States; the American police is often accused of racism and many consider racial profiling a violation of human rights if not of the American constitution. Others, however, argue that, because African-Americans have a higher-than-average crime rate, racial profiling is simply the most effective way to reduce crime, and that reasonable suspicion might be warranted when one sees a black man stalk one’s car at night. In any case, American popular support for racial profiling tends to be high.

In Germany, on the other hand, racial profiling as a policy is not as widespread and often disputed; in fact, racial profiling was declared unlawful in 2006. Instead of in the United States, where racial profiling is used often and is even defended by officials as if it were official policy, ethnic profiling in Germany is considered improper. Indeed, comparing such policy to that of the SS was decided legal.

The latter ruling is key; it explains why racial profiling is not institutionalised in Germany, even though it would arguably be more effective there than in the US, which have a much larger population of non-whites. Unlike in Germany, because of how blacks were traditionally disadvantaged in the US, being black has been associated with poverty and crime as a heuristic – a rule of thumb. Instead, Germans have a heuristic tendency to associate profiling with their national-socialism because of their past and are therefore vehemently opposed to it. Hence this example of institutional divergence can be understood as the product of cultural differences rather than efficiency.