Racial Profiling Revisited

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While hunting around for some old references on racial profiling, I came across James Forman Jr.’s essay in the New Republic, “Why Conservatives Should Oppose Racial Profiling,” that came out rather fortuitously—or not—on September 10, 2001. It’s really quite good, making the case that, right or wrong, racial profiling creates all sorts of practical problems that make it unwise as a crime-control policy. But I’m not sure all of Forman’s arguments generalize to a blanket objection against racial profiling in the “war on terror”—or whatever it’s being called today—as advocated, for instance, by Paul Sperry in the New York Times today.

After all, racial profiling in conventional crime-control risks inflaming—or does inflame, I should say—a large swathe of people precisely because this sort of racial profiling goes on everywhere, from Washington D.C. to Topeka, Kansas. By contrast, racial profiling for terrorism would in theory target a much smaller subset of the population. Police officers watching out for shifty-eyed Arabs in airports and mass transit areas simply wouldn’t be as ubiquitous as highway patrol officers pulling over black drivers or police who target minorities playing in the park or whatever. (Only about 14 million Americans use public transportation, after all, and an even smaller percentage fly.) So the possibility that racial profiling would radicalize the Arab population in the United States seems much smaller—although obviously I wouldn’t bet on this question.

One convincing counterargument here is that racial grievances could likely spread beyond those directly affected. Even if a particular Arab never rode the mass transit, he would realize that if he wanted to do so, he would very likely be searched, and that thought in itself could lead to real resentment. Moreover, it’s hard to expect police officers to remain courteous and non-racist if they are explicitly instructed to use race as a factor in their surveillance. It’s also very hard to argue that telling commuters to be aware of young Arab or South Asian men could possibly avoid exacerbating racial tensions in general. Another more practical problem is that the police could miss out on other terrorist threats that aren’t so swarthy. White-skinned terrorists are as old as the republic itself; check out this list, for instance. Nor is too outlandish to think that, say, al-Qaeda could start using Uzbek or Chechen terrorists, demographic groups that might well slip under the radar if the obsessive focus is on, say, Arabs. Meanwhile, as with all race-based discrimination, our Constitution requires “strict scrutiny” for these sorts of actions. If authorities can find another way to achieve similar levels of enforcement, they should make every effort to do so.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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