The Effects of Race on Undergraduate Students and Their Perception of Police

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1. Abstract

This paper explores the question of whether people’s ethnicity can affect undergraduate students’ perception of police effectiveness today. I hypothesized that a majority of young people would find the police to be less effective and less trustworthy, regardless of their race, but especially among ethnic minorities, specifically African Americans, that police have historically targeted. I also predicted that more people would be distrustful of the police if they or someone they knew have been arrested before. In order to test this hypothesis, I surveyed undergraduate students on campus regarding their perceptions of police.

2. Introduction

The effectiveness of the police force in America has been a problematic subject for decades. Since the police act as an extension of the American justice system, some communities have come into conflict with the police in problematic eras such as the civil rights movement, where African Americans fought to overturn the existing racist legislation. Police have also been frequently accused of racial profiling, which involves targeting and questioning suspects unnecessarily based on their perceived race. Because of this, people of historically underserved or targeted communities in the United States are less likely to trust the police or think that they are effective.

The problem of racial profiling affects ethnic communities in different ways. The police beatings of Rodney King have not been forgotten by African Americans, for example, and more recently in Arizona, Arizona SB 1070 was an anti-immigration law in 2010 that allowed police officers to detain those with reasonable suspicion to be illegal immigrants, a measure which especially targets the Mexican community in Arizona. These cases have happened at different points in time, and it is therefore important to study this topic today in order to understand whether times are changing and whether public perception of the police among youth today is improving or worsening.

3. Literature Review

The problem of racial profiling in the police force is so pertinent that the U.S. Department of Justice released a resource guide to help police with traffic-stop data collection. As Ramirez et al. point out, “when law enforcement practices are perceived to be biased, unfair, or disrespectful, communities of color are less willing to trust and confide in police officers, report crimes, participate in problem-solving activities, be witnesses at trials, or serve on juries” (Ramirez et al., 2000). The authors prescribe data collection on racial and gender breakdown of traffic stops in order to see how racial profiling affects police practices.

Research conducted by Scaglion and Condon (1980) showed that “personal contact (particularly respondents’ perceptions of the way in which specific officers have related to them personally in previous encounters) is a more significant determinant of general attitudes towards police than are major socioeconomic variables such as race and income” (Scaglion & Condon, 1980). The findings support the idea that police interactions conducted in a “positive manner may generate positive support for police and may also generate public assistance in crime control efforts” (Scaglion & Condon, 1980).

Smith et al. (1984) research the likelihood for racial bias in police decisions to make arrests. While the authors found “very little evidence of suspect-directed racial bias” their statistics did show that “police are more responsive to white victims of crimes” (Smith et al., 1984). Plant & Peruche, on the other hand, found that undergraduates playing a police officer computer simulation were statistically more likely to mistakenly shoot a black suspect than a white suspect, but with “repeated exposure to stimuli in which race is unrelated to the presence of a gun” this bias can actually be eliminated in as little as 24 hours (Plant & Peruche, 2005). Durlauf (2006) claims that the supposed benefits from racial profiling for police action and crime prevention are inconclusive, and that past studies on racial profiling underestimate the “psychological harm” possible for African Americans in profiling situations (Durlauf 409). From an ethical perspective, Bou-Habib talks about two accounts of psychological harm that are brought about by racial profiling: the responsibility-based account, where racial profiling becomes worse when resulting from social injustice at the hands of other ethnic groups, and the expressive harm-based account, where racial profiling evokes past social injustices against an ethnicity. Bou-Habib proposes a third, humiliation-based account where “individuals who are subjected to racial profiling in a context of background injustice are placed in a situation in which they cannot prevent appearing to onlookers in a demeaning way” (Bou-Habib, 2011).

Tuch and Weitzer’s 1997 survey found that public “attitudes are strongly affected by celebrated, well-publicized incidents of police brutality” and results in “an erosion of support for the police at both the local level…and the national level” (Tuch & Weitzer, 1997). The writers found that while these incidents in the news adversely affected the public opinion of police in both blacks and white communities, the magnitude and longevity of that adverse effect was greater for the black community. Attitudinal recovery from a massive drop in public perception is “partly due to a general tendency for attitudes to rebound to some ‘normal’ level as an incident recedes in the collective memory” (Tuch & Weitzer, 1997). This slow rebound in public opinion about the police probably reflects past grievances the African American community has against the police and a community-wide reluctance to forgive them for it. While the data on Latinos was admittedly limited, it showed the surveyed members of the community to fall between the white and black opinions.

4. Procedures

a. My study aims to discover whether racial identification still affects youths’ perception of law enforcement today. Within this study, the independent variable is the subjects’ race, while the dependent variable is the subjects’ perception of police.

b. To better understand this question, I am conducting a survey of 20 randomly selected undergraduate students. Undergraduate students will be targeted because they represent an educated part of the younger generation. Undergraduates will have had enough life experience as young adults to ideally have encountered police at some point, yet still are connected to the youth today. Undergraduates are also expected to have a similar educational foundation, more than a random selection of people on the street and are readily available on campus. Within the selection of 20 undergraduates I choose, I hope to create a group of at least five white people, five black people, five Latino people, and five people from other races. This way, I can expand on the surveyed groups in Tuch and Weitzer’s (1997) study even more. Since the question is partly about racial perception and profiling, I think that it is not necessary to make sure there are exact numbers of every represented race, and I will try to approximate and profile as a police officer would.

c. This survey aims to measure race and how that influences interactions and perceptions of police effectiveness. The conceptual definition of race is a collection of distinctive physical, cultural and historical attributes held by a group of people. The operational definition of race, for the purposes of this study, is the ethnic identity of a person as it relates to his or her outward appearance. What race a person identifies with—and for the purposes of this study, what race a person looks like—relates to historical treatment of this race by the law and by the police. By conceptual definition effectiveness is how well something or someone works, while the operational definition is how well a police officer fulfills his job requirements and serves the people.

d. To measure this, I will conduct a survey of 20 undergraduates. This will ensure I get responses from a larger body of people. In this survey I will mostly ask yes or no questions in order to polarize the responses and make them easier to measure.

5. Discussion

The survey I conducted showed a variety of responses, interactions and attitudes regarding the police. Of the surveyed students, eight had been pulled over while driving, five had been approached on foot, and two had been personally searched at airport security. These are common sites for police intervention and racial profiling. Only four people felt they were genuinely at fault when these interactions took place. Seven people had known people who had been arrested or convicted before, while only one had a criminal record of any kind. Four out of twenty people claimed that they had lied to the police before, and when asked why, each person provided a different answer. For example, one student was driving without her license, and lied to an officer saying that she had forgotten it at home. Another was pulled over at night and lied to an officer about him drinking earlier that night. When asked about greater perceptions about the police force at large, fourteen students said they did not feel the police were there to help them, and seventeen said they did not feel the police treated everyone equally in our country. When asked whether the police served people of their race well, twelve said yes and eight said no. In total, there were 20 people surveyed where 6 identified as White, 5 as African American, 3 as Latino, 2 as Asian, 2 as Middle Eastern, and 2 as Other.

I found that a majority of surveyed undergraduates were distrustful of the police, regardless of whether they had ever interacted with them or not. This may be because of the visibility racial profiling and police brutality has in the news. In keeping with my hypothesis, all of the people that indicated they knew someone who had been arrested also indicated that they did not feel the police were there to help them. Also, in keeping with my hypothesis, all surveyed people who had indicated they were African American responded negatively to questions about police being there to help, treating everyone equally, and serving their race well.

7. Policy Implications

This survey implies that law enforcement could do better at improving its image among youth in order to encourage them to cooperate in future measures. Like Tuch and Weitzer’s (1997) findings about African Americans, my findings indicate that the youth today may experience less attitudinal recovery than hoped or expected. Feelings of suspicion, distrust and righteous anger on behalf of their race or other races may discourage youth from cooperating with police or being interested in police work, which may hurt hiring practices in the future. Furthermore, law enforcement may benefit from implementing workshops and other measures that prevent police officers from abusing their power or racially profiling.

8. Limitations

One possible limitation of this study is the fact that it targets both the surveyed people’s “interactions” and “perceptions” with the police. These are two different, but linked aspects of how ordinary people relate to the police. If this survey could be made longer, it should ideally be split into two sections and ask more in-depth questions about interactions with the police and perceptions of the police, separately. Another limitation may be the diverse ethnicities of people in the survey. Future studies could be targeted at a specific ethnicity within the city in order to better see where opinions fall.

9. Future Research

For future studies, I recommend that researchers focus on a particular ethnic group in order to see how opinions are or have changed. Focusing on more recently targeted groups such as Middle Eastern people may offer enlightening insight on recent events and public opinion of police. Further research could also be done on the impact of media coverage on youth’s perceptions of police.


Bou-Habib, P. (March/June 2011). Racial Profiling and Background Injustice. The Journal of Ethics 15(1/2), 33-46.

Durlauf, S. (November 2006). Assessing Racial Profiling. The Economic Journal 116, F402-426.

Peruche, B. and Plant, E. (March 2005). The Consequences of Race for Police Officers' Responses to Criminal Suspects. Psychological Science 16(3), 180-183.

Ramirez, D., McDevitt, J. and Farrell, A. (November 2000). A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned.

Scaglion, R. and Condon, R. (1980). Determinants of attitudes towards city police. Criminology 17(4), 485-494.

Smith, D., Visher, C. and Davidson, L. (1984). Equity and discretionary justice: The influence of race on police arrest decisions. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 75(1), 234-249.

Tuch, S. and Weizer, R. (Winter 1997). Racial differences in attitudes towards police. The Public Opinion Quarterly 61(4), 642-663.