This a devil's advocate question, because I don't know of a study/data to directly answer this comment on skeptics. However, I cannot reraise that as a question there because I can't find any notable source making such a claim.

Off the top of my head, it seems a bit silly to assume that police can more easily identify someone's socioeconomic status (SES) than his skin color, but there may be other mediating factors at play, such as neighborhood etc. There is in fact one hypothetical story on Gawker that seems to follow the same line of reasoning, even if just implictly:

Let’s say you’re a teenaged black male living in public housing in an impoverished neighborhood. Your local public schools are far inferior to those in wealthy neighborhoods, and you’re financially cut off from private schooling. Without a good education, your opportunities for economic betterment are few, so you turn to selling drugs. Because drug enforcement across the country favors arrests in poor and nonwhite communities, you’re arrested outside your apartment. You become one of the 30 percent. [...] Eventually, you go back to jail, and as a repeat offender your chances of a felony conviction are higher. The process repeats itself.

Meanwhile, the white college senior across town has been selling coke to partygoers for his entire four-year tenure. The cops don’t patrol his dorm building like they do your housing project, and they don’t make Terry stops in his upscale neighborhood like they do in your ghetto. You’ve committed the same crimes, but he never encounters the police, never gets wrapped up in the criminal justice system. You are one of the 30 percent. He is not. He goes on to become a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, a cop.

So perhaps the question whether racial profiling is better explained by the SES of the suspect deserves a more serious look/answer.

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    It could be, but note that part of the issue is that that are strong correlations between race and socioeconomic status. Regardless of the reason (skin color, vs. socioeconomic status), it's profiling, and being done disproportionately to those groups despite that fact that they aren't necessarily finding more violations. Example: news.stanford.edu/2016/06/28/…
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 22:09
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    Wealthy blacks (with expensive cars) are more likely to get pulled over as it's assumed by some law enforcement think it might've been stolen.
    – Noah
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 22:36
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    It does look however that in some US cities the police is also targeting the poor reason.com/archives/2014/01/08/… Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 22:51
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    Trevor Noah (TV show host that went to the USA as a host, meaning that he was well off from the beginning) explains that in 6 years he has been stopped by the police 8 times... youtu.be/aufMdURbitU?t=41. Anyway, I think the question would be better suited for law.se, where they can answer the criteria to define discrimination by race, "by proxy", and if the later is allowed.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 0:11
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    @jamesqf but he was not a poor young guy when this happened (that is the point, he went to the USA in hist thirties with a good paying job from day one), and in the video (just after the point I selected) he talks about how he believed it was normal until he talked to white people in his environment and found that it was not normal to them.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 0:40

2 Answers 2


One of the problems theorists have in addressing and explaining large-scale inequity is that people tend to think in linear (or sometimes planar) terms. One-dimensional reasoning (e.g., the Left-Right spectrum) is natural, two-dimensional reasoning (e.g., Game Theory matrices) is common, three-dimensional reasoning is rare... But this tendency to break things down into one or two simple causal forces or factors usually creates a poor model of complex systems of interaction (like societies), and often becomes a focus for argumentative rhetoric.

Put simply, it's like the Three Body Problem in physics. The interaction between two people (like two orbiting bodies) can be quite predictable, but toss in a third and predictions go out the window. Toss a large, large number of people into a proverbial box (like thousands of pool balls rolling across a table) and patterns will emerge (the way patterns emerge from any non-linear dynamic system), but those patterns won't easily be connected to any single factor.

One has to reason about systems if one wants to understand society. But systems are tough to get a handle on.

The immediate problem with substituting socioeconomic status (SES) for race — i.e., SES profiling instead of racial profiling — is that any sharp thinker will turn around and ask: "So then why is it that blacks have such a comparatively low SES?". This instantly shifts the issue of profiling from police to the society as a whole, where society implicitly 'profiles' blacks into low-paying jobs and low-income communities, and then asks police to monitor those communities more stringently. SES profiling merely turns into second-order racial profiling. It's not an idea that can gain a lot of traction unless one engages in studied ignorance, refusing to accept second-order reasoning as meaningful. Which (unfortunately) seems to be a common practice in the US.

If you want to go the SES route, it's worth thinking about Immanuel Wallerstein's theory on the issue. Wallerstein placed the blame for what we now call profiling on the capitalist system, to wit:

  • Capitalism as a system must enrich some at the expense of others; it's a system where some people win and some lose.
  • This causes cognitive dissonance. It's difficult to look at an impoverished person and think: "That person is impoverished because I have wealth". It's even worse in the reverse: "That person has wealth because I am impoverished". The first leads to a pervasive sense of guilt, the second to a pervasive sense of anger.
  • To ease that guilt/anger, a society will push an easily identifiable group into poverty. Then it associates poverty with that group, and all cognitive tensions subside because it's that group's fault they are poor, not our fault. They did it to themselves.

That way, instead of thinking "He's poor because I'm wealthy", we can think "He's poor because he's [X]", where X might be 'black', 'Mexican', 'Arab', etc. And the same works is reverse: instead of thinking "I'm poor because he's wealthy" we think "I'm poor because he's [Y]", where Y might be 'Jewish', 'white', 'Liberal', or any other group that can be identified as a nefarious oppressor. We lump groups into these social roles because it gives us an obvious external focus on which we can dump any sense of guilt or responsibility, making it their problem, not ours; we do this so that we can avoid criticizing (or even thinking about) the capitalist system that drives the whole process.

Racism then becomes a natural and mostly unavoidable expression of adventure capitalism; if we had no racial divisions before capitalism came to the fore, capitalism would have been forced to create racial divisions, else it would implode under a pervasive sense of unfairness. Remember that slavery itself was first and foremost and economic activity...

So, when try to wrestle with the question of whether police profile on the basis of racial characteristics (skin color, facial features, etc) or SES characteristics (clothing choice, apparent value of car, neighborhood, etc), the answer will almost always be 'Yes' to both. Our social system has arranged things so that the observable characteristics of race and SES correlate, and it has done that to protect the underlying system that causes inequity from any criticism or revision. Some cops are racist, some are classist, some are just bullies (and most are none of those), but that hardly matters. Cops don't serve justice, they serve the system, and the system depends on injustice for its survival.

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    I think it should be also noted there are examples of profiling where there is evidence of high social economic standing as well.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 17:06
  • Well said. When I talk with people about this topic I bring up Britain and Chavs - a non-racially-grouped "socioeconomic" group that higher SES brits consider(ed) in a similar way that many countries would consider minorities whom that country had historically boxed into lower SES groups
    – Gramatik
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 19:30

I found something satisfactory in a paper titled "Explaining Discrepancies in Arrest Rates Between Black and White Male Juveniles":

A higher incidence of early risk factors accounted for racial differences related to any juvenile arrest, as well as differences in violence- and theft-related arrests. However, increased exposure to early risk factors did not explain race differences in drug-related arrests.

In particular, SES explained theft but not other arrests.


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