Is the “online you” creating your racial profile?

By: Ryan Logan

Have you ever bought a car? A house? Maybe even a boat? Did you walk away from the deal thinking, “I definitely got the best price I could have.” If you’re like the rest of us, you probably have some regret that you didn’t save that extra one, two, or three hundred dollars. Everyone wants to save money, but not everyone is given the chance to.

Recent studies have continuously shown that employers, lenders, and other merchants target certain racial groups and charge them more. One such study showed that when a first time homebuyers of white and nonwhite disposition tried to secure a loan, the nonwhite individuals experienced less favorable treatments. This type of discrimination has expanded beyond in-person interactions. With the increase of internet sales, online discrimination based on race has become more prevalent.

You would be surprised what you could find out about yourself online. Through various free, public search engines, someone may be able to find your educational background, state financial data, and even your recent purchases online. From that information, what if someone denied you for a loan based on what type of music you buy or books you order? The evidence is there that racial targeting (through advertisements and e-mail) is already happening based on what you’ve already purchased. It’s affecting what you can buy, the types of loans you can secure, and establishing your “online racial profile,” for good or for bad.

Thus, the question remains: is it fair to racially profile someone, if you’ve never met them, based on a few purchases they’ve made? The next time you order something online, and they have a “people who ordered this also liked this” section, look to see if that would really be something you’d buy. If it is, great, but is it something you’d actually like, or something that a certain “type” of person would like based on social and racial trends?




Margery Turner, et al., U.S. Dep’t of Hous. & Urban Dev., All Other Things Being Equal: A Paired Testing Study of Mortgage Lending Institutions (April 2002) available at

Nathan Newman, The Cost of Lost Privacy: Consumer Harm and Rising Economic Inequality in the Age of Google, 40 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. 849, 877-79 (2014).

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