US Politics

Racial Profiling: A Failed Idea Returns

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It has been a pretty remarkable day in the news today. It amazes me to see how coordinated the Republican response to issues like terrorist attacks often is. Today, the message is that we need to be willing to use profiling that is based on ethnicity and race (not to mention religion) to keep Americans safe. One GOP consultant went so far on MSNBC as to suggest that “these attacks are all from the same kind of people, and it would be absurd to ignore that.”

Unfortunately, the conservative response on this issue is wrong on almost every point. Profiling based on ethnicity and race has been an abject failure. Professor Deborah Hopes makes the point that profiling is ineffetive:

While no empirical data has been produced regarding the effectiveness of racial profiling in the post-September 11 era, both expert opinion and anecdotal evidence support the proposition that racial profiling is largely ineffective in identifying potential terrorists. Following the September attacks, five intelligence specialists for the nation’s leading law enforcement and terrorism agencies produced “Assessing Behaviors,” a memo warning against relying on race or national origin rather than behaviors to identify potential terrorists. n110 One of the specialists who drafted the confidential memo stated with certainty, “‘believing that you can achieve safety by looking at characteristics instead of behaviors is silly. If your goal is preventing attacks . . . you want your eyes and ears looking for pre-attack behaviors, not characteristics.'” n111 Another specialist added, “Why are we in the situation we are in [after the attacks]? We were paying attention to a set of characteristics, instead of a set of behaviors that launch an attack.” n112 In the end, “security lies in the hard work of watching for suspicious behavior, not for suspicious people.”

What’s more, the argument is premised on a racist construction of The Other, one that precludes the possibility that those who engage in terrorism can be of any race, any ethnicity. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t Arab, Eric Rudolph isn’t Muslim, and many of the people implicated in support of terrorism do not fit these narrow, racist definitions. Focusing our law enforcement energy on a small group of people will only make it likely that the terrorists will use other means.

When a society becomes willing to hand over its rights out of fear, the result is often that the weakest members of that society are the most impacted in the short term, with the whole society suffering in the long run. Arab and Muslim Americans, by far mostly law-abiding people, are perhaps the best ally the American government can have to fight homegrown Islamic terror. How can we expect those people to assist in these efforts when they are the targets of unfair scrutiny and racist attitudes?

As far-fetched as it may seem to us, we are at a dangerous crossroads, a road we have travelled before. As Fred Korematsu (a Japanese internee in World War II) said:

there are Arab-Americans today who are going through what Japanese Americans experienced years ago, and we can’t let that happen again.”

With 5,000 Arab and Muslim men already detained with access to lawyers, is it so hard to believe?

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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