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The Return of Racial Profiling

 

Racial profiling is back. Not that it ever left. But for a time it was unacceptable for commentators to argue that law enforcement should target suspects based on skin color. Today, it’s the edgy thing to advocate. This isn’t racism, the claim goes, but expediency in the post-911 world.

Of course, it’s always the appeal to higher values that allows racism to flourish. Prior to the civil rights movement, for example, many advocates of segregation claimed it was in the best interests of everyone. Blacks benefited from and wanted the system, it was argued. And today, it’s easy to see the comparable argument about universal benefits for racial profiling of, say, airline passengers: everyone, even those targeted, is safer when those who fit the profile of a terrorist are subject to increased search.

The argument was cogently summed up by Rudy Maxa, the travel expert in residence on the public radio program Marketplace, August 11, 2004:

“No subject is more controversial right now than racial or ethnic profiling. Paying special attention to passengers of Middle East descent can get an airline in trouble. Pull more than two such passengers aside per flight for special scrutiny, and an airline risks a lawsuit. But captured al Qaeda documents show that Arab men are probing for weaknesses in U.S. security. So, is secondary profiling at airports a civil rights violation? I say no. Not if done efficiently and with respect and courtesy. Political correctness mustn’t get in the way of security”

It’s a compelling argument-but it’s flawed, and we may discover that flaw to be a fatal one. Once again we are imposing burdens on people of color to make life easier for whites. It’s tempting to distance the old racism from the new pragmatism. The old arguments were moral reasons often claiming to be grounded in religious scripture. The new ones are simply a matter of statistics; it’s more likely that a terrorist is from the Middle East and has a swarthy complexion.

Not so fast. The old racism used science too. The argument for segregation rested on science-we had to keep the races from mixing in order to prevent blacks from dragging down the superior brilliance of white folk. Today, thanks in part to Stephen Jay Gould’s classic, The Mismeasure of Man which debunked the claim that whites had bigger brains, we understand that science to have been hopelessly warped by the culture of the times, a fig leaf to hide racism, and flat out wrong. Gould demonstrated that scientists of the day literally mismeasured brain casings to get data that helped justify the dominance of whites. When Gould measured the space inside the same skulls, he got different results that destroyed the claims supported by earlier data. Researchers of the day, Gould suggests, weren’t rigging the data, but were so much a product of their culture that even the collection of data could be distorted.

Today’s appeal to statistics as a justification for racial and ethnic profiling is also constrained by cultural values, racist and totally wrong. We live in a culture ruled by the twin values of convenience and cost effectiveness. Profiling is convenient because it makes life easier for the large segment of travelers who can avoid the hassle. In an airport, this is an important customer service function: escalating hassle works against the desire to travel, potentially dampening sales of tickets, at least to those traveling for pleasure. Second, profiling reins in costs by keeping the intensive searches down to a selective few. The government, or the airlines, or whoever is paying the security costs pay less.

Because racial profiling happens not only to be convenient and cost effective but also based on statistical data, we tend to see it not as racist, but as scientific. That’s exactly the trap that scientists of earlier days fell into when measuring brain sizes of the various races. Far from being reassuring, the support that science seems to lend to racism ought to raise that age old caveat: is this deal too good to be true? Do we really see the data clearly, or are our cultural values playing tricks on us?

It isn’t that the need for security is a myth. Airport security is a serious concern, brought on by the fact that the U.S. is killing civilians around the world (last count over 3,000 in Afghanistan and10,000 to 37,000 in Iraq, just to cite two examples), as well as financing and training dictators. It’s no mystery that the number of people organizing to strike back at us is probably growing. Their violence is reprehensible, just as ours is. But if we’re going to insist on empire, then heightened airport security is part of the cost of doing our grisly business.

Giving up on empire, on the interventions we undertake to accomplish it and turning instead to support international law to resolve conflicts might be the best means of assuring safety. By making the world a safer place we could not only reduce war, we might also reduce the need for high security measures. These measures are not only costly but are a threat to liberty themselves. Because they rely on intensive data collection, their potential for abuse by authorities has civil libertarians rightly worried. In early August 2004, it was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security had been given detailed location and national-origin data on Arab Americans. Census data has already been used to round up American citizens and throw them in camps. Last time it was those of Japanese origin in World War II. Dismissing concerns about the potential for abuse as little more than whinings about “political correctness” ignores the unpleasant lessons of U.S. history: It could happen again. Whether it is done “efficiently and with respect and courtesy,” isn’t the point.

Assuming we aren’t going to forego empire, people will continue clamoring for just this sort of information gathering, all too happy to swap a vague threat of abuse for security against the terrorism we have experienced as a nation.
But how could the simple scientific assumption that we can use statistics of racial profiling to ferret out terrorists be wrong?

As Maxa notes, terrorists are constantly looking for weaknesses in the security system that they can exploit. And the 911 terrorists adeptly exploited loopholes of the time by not fitting the profile of terrorists of the day-they had no guns or bombs, just box cutters that could be passed under the nose of security agents without raising alarm.

Racial profiling could become the new loophole. Terrorists groups, by keeping their more swarthy comrades in background support roles, could use lighter skinned people in the more public roles to actually carry out the terrorism. To further evade racial profiling, such a group could be heavily comprised of women. As the U.S. persists in its bellicosity, there’s no telling who might resist by joining such groups. The profiling markers of nationality, race and religion could become irrelevant-and by skillful evasion of them could be used to cover terrorist plans.

In order to prevent terrorists from exploiting the loophole provided by the science of racial profiling, we must abandon those values of cost effectiveness, customer service-and racism-in favor of screening everyone to an equal level. Racial and ethnic profiling must go.

GREG BATES is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case For Joining Nader’s Rebellion. He can be reached at: gbates@commoncouragepress.com

 

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