Gendering Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops


By Jeremy Briggs, PhD candidate at Kansas State University

Racial profiling by police on the nation's streets and highways has attracted significant social, political and legal attention over the past two decades. Despite the proliferation of research on the issue, many questions remain. The intersection of race and gender in traffic stop outcomes has been under analyzed in particular.

Using data from the Police-Public Contact Survey—a nationally representative survey on citizens' recent contact with the police— I analyzed predictors of several core traffic stop outcomes.  One of the strengths of this data set is its breadth of legal and extralegal information pertinent to police stops. In addition to driver race and sex, I was able to account for driving frequency, the legal reason for the stop (such as speeding, turn lane violation, stop sign/light violation, drunk driver check lane, faulty vehicle equipment and other reasons), size of place where the stop occurred, driver socioeconomic status estimates, driver age, officer race/ethnicity, and others.

Some of the clearest divisions in the data were between men and women and between white drivers and black and Hispanic drivers. Men were significantly more likely to experience more severe traffic stop outcomes (such as ticket, arrest or search) whereas women were more likely to experience more lenient traffic stop outcomes (such as a warning or no outcome at all) when stopped by the police. Black and Hispanic drivers were much more likely to be ticketed, arrested or searched compared to white drivers. While compelling, this is not the whole story. By combining data on driver race and sex, we get a more nuanced picture of what's really going on.

The apparent distinction between men's and women's traffic stop experiences is blurred substantially when considering driver race and sex together. For example, white women were the only group of women significantly less likely than men to be ticketed, arrested or searched. This is not the case for black and Hispanic women, whose likelihoods of experiencing a ticket, arrest or search were similar to those of white men. Black and Hispanic men were least likely to receive leniency when stopped by the police. Black men were 2.5 times more likely than white men to be arrested and twice as likely to be searched. Hispanic men were more than three times as likely to be searched. This is especially striking given that black and Hispanic men are no more likely than white men to be found carrying illegal evidence when searched by the police.

These findings suggest that we cannot make sense of racial disparities in traffic stops without also considering sex and gender. The two are linked in important ways.

As the Face the Truth campaign highlights, gendered and racially-biased policies and practices continue to be a potent and destructive force in society. Racial profiling is not only culturally divisive, but it ultimately undermines the goals of an effective and just law enforcement system. The persistence of racial and gender inequality suggests that equally persistent theoretical and empirical work is necessary to untangle the complex questions of race, gender and justice. To this end, gender must be a part of the larger racial profiling discussion.  The End Racial Profiling Act of 2011 (HR 3618) is an important step in this direction.

Jeremy Briggs is a PhD candidate at Kansas State University in sociology and an adjunct instructor of sociology at Friends University, Topeka, KS. His work focuses on gender and racial equality and policing.

The views expressed by our guest blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Rights Working Group.

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