Racial profiling is not the answer to security concerns

This week, at an intersection in Boston, a 20 year-old man pulled another man from a car and beat him. The youth thought that the man in the car was of 'Middle Eastern descent.' Apparently this form of racial profiling justified, at least to him, the beating. But there was a flaw in his judgment -- the man he beat wasn't of Middle Eastern descent, he was Hispanic.

A few days ago, a group of Brazilian students from Boston University, who were speaking Portuguese, were accosted on the street because they looked "Middle Eastern" and were speaking in a strange language. But to people who practice 'racial profiling,' especially in extreme cases like this one, you can't take any chances. Basically, anybody who isn't white can't be trusted in this world view.

Of course, not all views of racial profiling are as blunt as these ones. For instance, take the defense of racial profiling on 'Arab-looking men' in advocated by columnist Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post the other day. Kinsley, who is one of my favorite columnists and someone with whom I agree about 95 percent of the time, posed the question: when is racial profiling okay?

"The tempting answer is never: Racial discrimination is wrong no matter what the rationale. Period," he wrote "But today we're at war with a terror network that just killed 6,000 innocents and has anonymous agents in our country planning more slaughter. Are we really supposed to ignore the one identifiable fact we know about them? That may be asking too much."

Kinsley then went on to defend his positon by saying that racial profiling and affirmative action (which he supports) are basically the same thing. His argument is much more nuanced than I can present in this space, and I would encourage you to read it. You can find it at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43845-2001Sep29.html

Well, Kinsley is wrong -- no matter how 'tempting' the answer may be, it's still the right one - racial discrimination is wrong, no matter what the reason.

Regardless of how we try to soft peddle it, the "inconvenient" forms of racial profiling advocated by Kinsley inevitably lead to the kind of racial profiling practiced by the thugs mentioned above. Kinsley argues in his piece that one is racism and the other is not: racial discrimination with a non-racist rationale, he writes. But try explaining that distinction to Arab-Americans -- or even people with 'swarthy complexions,' as one conservative columnist referred to anybody who is, well, not white enough.

Kinsley says that an Arab-looking male heading towards a plane is statistically more likely to be a terrorist. Really? Does that include Christian Arabs, who make up about half of Arab-Americans? Do we start asking people about religious beliefs as well? After all, these guys were Muslims -- we could narrow the profiling even more, make people feel safer. It's not really discrimination, right?

"I don't mind profiling as long as they don't do it on average people," said a young man in Colorado said in a recent New York Times article. "But on the surveillance, I don't want it to get like London, where they have cameras everywhere."

And there's the issue in a nutshell. Profiling is okay as long as it isn't "average" people. But if it touches the "average" person, then it's seen as an assault on civil rights. And we all know what "average" means, don't we.

Another problem with this approach is where does the profiling stop? It's fine to say, well, just at airports, but as Hazim Bitar, of the Human Rights Institute in Alexandra, Virginia wrote in a very thoughtful e-mail this week, that's never the case -- once you let it out, it is very hard to put the profiling genie back in the bottle.

"Arab-looking men who drive vans and trucks will be profiled as well as Arabs who access the Internet from public libraries; and those who buy fertilizer at the Home Depot for their backyards. As for Arab-looking men who decide to take flying lessons, they should forget about it."

The best way to protect against terrorist activities in the future is not to single out every person who even remotely looks 'Arab' or Muslim (Does that include Jews? Hispanics? Greeks?, Inuit?) but to increase security checks for everyone boarding a plane, period. After all, wouldn't this be a convenient time for some of our home grown terrorists to act, knowing people would immediately blame 'Arab-looking men.'

Or take the experience of the US Customs Service. A few years ago it was being flooed with lawsuits because of discrimination based on racial profiling. Under former Commissioner Ray Kelly, the agency changed to a profile based on behavior, not race. The number of searches dropped 68%, but the number of arrests rose 10%. Being Arab-American doesn't make you a terrorist. But someone who pays $14,000 for a one way ticket, with cash, as happened on September 11th, should be investigated.

It is never easy to ask people to put aside their fear after the kind of attacks that happened in Washington and New York. But if we allow fear to dictate our conduct, we will make enemies of friends, and create a climate of mistrust that will poison our nation.

When I read Kinsley's column, I thought of the woman I passed in a San Francisco street a few days ago. Her head covered in an Islamic scarf, she barely looked at those she passed. When she did look up at me, she looked terrified. She knew she was being "profiled" by every single person she passed in the street. That would have terrified me as well.

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