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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