Texas DPS Wants You to Solve Their Racial Identification Problem

Good news if you're Rachel Dolezal or Navin Johnson. State troopers, at the direction of the Texas Department of Public Safety, are now going to classify you as being a part of whatever race you tell them you are. The change comes after an Austin TV (KXAN) station discovered that troopers have commonly misidentified non-white people getting pulled over as white. (The second most common surname for "white" people getting ticketed by DPS is "Garcia," for whatever that's worth.)

Texas' racial profiling data comes from the racial or ethnic — Texas law considers the terms synonymous — information supplied by officers when they make a traffic stop. When the KXAN report came out, multiple lawmakers equated the misidentifications with the officers cooking the books.

"We've got to stop playing these kinds of games," state Senator Jose Rodriguez told KXAN. "I mean, people want to know why are Hispanics being singled out? That's a simple question, and you can't go around saying, well, they're white."

Last week, two weeks after the report came out, DPS Director Steve McCraw told a state legislative committee that his department had to more accurately reflect the ethnicities of the people it pulled over and issued tickets to or arrested.

“[Identification of Latinos] should have been done better, and we’ve got an obligation to fix that,” McCraw said.

McCraw's idea to fix the problem, the one that will be carried out by state troopers, will have officers ask people they interact with for their race. If you say you're white, then you're white. If you say you're something else, then you're something else.

Jack Glaser, an associate dean at the Richard & Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, is an expert in racial profiling by law enforcement. He sees two big issues with the state's new plan. First, it isn't the actual race or ethnicity of those being stopped by police that's important, it's the race the officer perceives the person being pulled over to be. (In other words, a racist is still a racist even if the people he hates say they are white.) Second, it's a pretty significant invasion of privacy for an officer to ask someone to self-report his race after a stop.

"It's like any good thorny policy problem. You have to decide what it is you want to measure. If you want to measure what drivers self-identify as, then this would be a good way to do it," Glaser says. "If you're really interested in what officers are doing and why they're doing it, then it probably makes more sense to go with their perception."

There is at least one potential positive outcome from the policy change, according to Glaser. If drivers getting pulled over consistently self-report, it will lessen the chance that any troopers purposefully misrecord drivers' races in order to change their racial profiling statistics.

On the other hand, if everyone tells the trooper they're some race or ethnicity they're not, this could really jack with what is, let's face it, a pretty dumb idea, plus provide a small measure of payback for being pulled over on the freeway. Not that we here at the Observer are suggesting you should lie (unless you want to). No way. Fully 100 percent of our staff takes pride in being scrupulously honest. It's part of our cultural heritage as Inuit.