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April 10, 2002
The Case Against Racial Profiling

By Sameer Aly


The weeks and months following September 11 have spawned a spate of articles highlighting the case both for and against racial profiling. Following September 11 there was a brief period during which it was taboo, in certain circles, to advocate racial or ethnic profiling of any kind, in any place, ever. This seeming political correctness was in direct correlation to bigots harassing and violently attacking Arab-Americans and those appearing to be of Arab descent. However, as hysteria gradually took hold, owing to the enormity of what had just happened sinking in, any such taboos were instantly displaced and racial profiling became an integral component of every domestic and international airport within the United States.

Advocates of racial profiling at airports dismiss the alleged costs to civil liberty by pointing out that the benefits to safety are not illusory. They do so not by providing factual accounts but mostly by engaging in scare mongering. Stuart Taylor Jr, a legal affairs correspondent for The Atlantic, puts forth the following 'thought example' (his words, not mine):

Racial profiling of people boarding airliners - done politely and respectfully - may be an essential component (at least for now) of the effort to ensure that we see no more mass-murder-suicide hijackings. If you doubt this, please try a thought experiment: A few weeks hence, or a year hence, you are about to board a cross-country flight. Glancing around the departure lounge, you notice lots of white men and women; some black men and women; four young, casually dressed Latino-looking men; and three young, well-dressed Arab-looking men.

Would your next thought be, "I sure do hope that the people who let me through security without patting me down didn't violate Ashcroft's policy by frisking any of those three guys"? Or more like, "I hope somebody gave those three a good frisking to make sure they didn't have box cutters"? If the former, perhaps you care less than I do about staying alive. If the latter, you favor racial profiling - at least of Arab-looking men boarding airliners.

Taylor appears to suggest that what is racial profiling to one person is basic prudence to another. However, he goes forth to qualify his comments by quickly saying that he does not condone the special scrutiny given to African-Americans and others of dark skin in other law enforcement situations. Such racial profiling is hard to distinguish from - and sometimes involves - plain old racist harassment of groups that have long experienced discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice process. Still … Taylor may be interested to note that the phrase DWB (driving while black), coined by civil rights advocates to describe racial profiling of African-Americans, has a new counterpart. Put simply, its FWA flying while Arab. Since the attacks of Sept 11 over 40 persons of Arab descent/appearance have been refused entry onto domestic/international flights on request by pilots and/or security personnel.

In a Sept 16, 2001 interview FBI Director Robert Mueller was quoted as saying "We do not, have not, will not target people based solely on their ethnicity. Period." Advocates of racial profiling seized upon the "solely" aspect and phrased the debate as:

"The question is not whether Arab-looking people should be stopped, questioned, and searched based solely on their ethnicity. The question is whether airport security people should be allowed to consider ethnicity at all." Stuart Taylor Jr.

Well, this sounds nice in theory but does it work in practice? Not really. Akilah Monifa, a regular contributor to AlterNet (www.alternet.com) wrote a piece on a journey she made from the West Coast to the East Coast just nine days post Sept 11. She spoke of subjection to greater scrutiny simply due to her "darker hue" and of overhearing "white folks in airports talking about how they didn't look like terrorists, but "those" people did". Those words are akin to saying that face(s) of terrorism are tantamount to Muslim and Arab faces or that all folks of Italian descent are members of the Mafia. Guess we'll all just think twice about heading to Norton Street for late night gelato or grabbing a kebab in Surrey Hills after getting pissed off our faces.

What's even more interesting is that the American Constitution contains an Equal Protection Clause which calls for each citizen to be treated as an individual. However, laws cease to be commonplace in times of war. During World War II, the US placed more than 100,000 people in internment camps because of Japanese ancestry. In 1988, Congress apologized for this "fundamental injustice." The 1944 Supreme Court case approving the action, Korematsu v. United States, is deemed to be one of the most shameful in the Court's history. An article by Peter Rubin - We can enhance security and preserve rights (available www.csmonitor.com/2001/1005/p11s3-coop.html) gives a brief run down of how this Constitutional principle is loosened up in respect of airport security.

Racial profiling may well have been one of the only viable measures capable of dousing the fears of the American majority. However, it comes at a considerable cost. Once removed from the bottle the "racial profiling genie" is virtually impossible to shove back in. Hazim Bitar, of the Human Rights Institute in Alexandra, stated his thoughts as follows:

"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 distinction between racial profiling and abusive behaviour can get rather thin even at the best of times. One seemingly innocuous example which comes to mind occurred last Christmas when a secret service agent, of Middle Eastern descent, was barred from boarding a flight at Washington International Airport despite having all requisite papers/documentation verifying his position. An air hostess allegedly caught sight of a book he was reading - "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" by Amin Maalouf - and immediately entered panic mode by alerting the pilot. Less light hearted examples include an African American woman being arrested simply on account of wearing a turban and various Pakistani businessmen being refused boarding altogether. These are examples of regulated racial profiling going awry. When Joe Blow from the street engages in racial profiling the results can be devastating.

Here's a disturbing scenario of racial profiling gone wrong. Approximately two years ago a pregnant black woman was detained at O'Hare airport for suspicion of carrying drugs. The woman was taken to the hospital and given a sonogram to see if she was pregnant. After the test showed she was pregnant, authorities believed she had swallowed drugs and made her take a harsh laxative. Nothing was ever found, and the woman later gave birth prematurely. The New York Customs Department, for example, has been sued thousands of times for strip-searching African-American women twice as much as white men and women.

We only need to concentrate on racial profiling in the Australian context to see its ramifications in the wider community. By this stage most have concluded that Howard's success to date has been largely attributable to his scare mongering, especially in respect refugees/asylum seekers etc. It came as no surprise to many that those aboard The Tampa were chiefly from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is, countries with predominantly Muslim populations. Warning bells started ringing everywhere. What if there were potential terrorists amongst those harbouring on the Norwegian vessel? Entirely feasible but not very likely.

In touting national security as a key concern the government immediately justified what would otherwise be perceived as a draconian, autocratic, disproportionate, inflexible and callous policy stance.

Joe Blow, in engaging his own racial profiling, can wreck great distress on particular members of society through either violent actions or merely an accusatory glance. Consider the most likely targets. Muslim women wearing "hijabs" or head scarves. During the Gulf Conflict I saw many such women walking with their heads down barely looking up to meet the gazes of passer-bys. It's a terrifying ordeal for anyone to be put through . to be the subject of such apprehension and often derision. To those unfamiliar with what it feels like to be subjected to such abject scrutiny the emotions are difficult to explain. Picture walking into your favourite store only to be tailed by a jittery looking sales assistant. Hmmmm .. not quite what I had in mind but close. OK maybe if this hypothetical sales assistant had the power to carry out body cavity searches we'd get close.

Additionally, just how effective is racial profiling in correctly identifying the targeted groups?? Bear in mind that, despite the 20th century's tragic attempts at refining eugenics, eyeballing races isn't exactly a science. According to the Arab American Institute, "Arabs may have white skin and blue eyes, olive or dark skin and brown eyes." Even if you focus on olive skin and dark hair, can you tell a Pashtun from a Tajik from an Uzbek from a Hindu from a Turk from a Sikh from a Sephardic Jew from a Persian from an Arab? Or, for that matter, how quickly can you tell an Arab from an Hispanic-American, an Italian-American, or a Native American?

Bush has been vocal in denouncing attacks against Arab-Americans but actions speak louder than words. Attacks are not limited to physical beatings. They can come through in the form of a request from a flight attendant to be seated in economy despite having paid for a first class ticket. Or a cancelled interview from an employer stating "We're not hiring persons from that region." On that note most firms can afford to discriminate without offering a reason. For those with Middle Eastern names there may always be questions raised upon receipt of yet another rejection letter.

There is a documentary playing on SBS this Tuesday evening titled "Jane Elliott - The Australian Eye" in which Australian subjects are exposed to the harrowing effects of racism by experiencing, through a simple exercise, how it feels to be alienated by virtue of a physical characteristic. I, for one, have highlighted it in my trusty TV Guide.

Oh well, whatever we might think racial profiling will remain for quite some time, along with all the stereotypes and prejudices which flow from it. As is customary with those who are incapable of saying anything overtly memorable I'll leave you all with a quote from a third party, namely Rev. Martin Niemoller:

"First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me."

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