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Racial Profiling Post 9/11 – Still a Bad Idea

Racial profiling is never justifiable because it is far more harmful than many people realize, and it is basically ineffective as a law enforcement tool.

Published: November 5, 2002

Racial Profiling Post 9/11 – Still a Bad Idea
By Prof. Angela J. Davis
American University Washington College of Law

Since September 11th, some Americans defend the racial profiling of Arab-Americans and describe this practice as a small price to pay and a mere inconvenience to assure safety and security. I disagree. Racial profiling is never justifiable because it is far more harmful than many people realize, and it is basically ineffective as a law enforcement tool.

When I have been stopped and searched in airports over the years, what has hurt most is the offensive notion that law enforcement agents presume that I’m a drug dealer just because I’m African American. The personal inconvenience and embarrassment are upsetting, but secondary. I can only imagine what it must feel like to have others believe that I am implicated through guilt-by-racial-association with the unthinkably horrible acts of September 11th solely because of my appearance, my religion, or my place of birth.

Most Americans, including people of color, care more about catching terrorists than they do about the harms caused by racial profiling. But racial profiling isn’t the best way to catch terrorists. One important lesson of the War on Drugs is that focusing on race rather than behavior causes law enforcement officials to miss a lot of criminals. While police officers are busy stopping me and other innocent African Americans in airports, on highways, and on the streets, they are not focusing on the people who are actually transporting and selling drugs. The most reliable statistics tell us that most of these people are white. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that 77% of monthly drug users are white, and according to former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, most drug users report buying drugs from people of their own race.

Likewise, focusing on Arab Americans and/or Muslims is not the most effective way to fight terrorism. It is likely that anyone capable of orchestrating four simultaneous and deadly highjackings will be able to get around racial profiling. The next attack probably won’t be committed on an airplane by someone with what most Americans consider an Arab appearance. How difficult would it be to recruit a compatriot with a “non-Arab” appearance or plant a weapon in the bag of someone who doesn’t fit the profile? Racial profiling invites a dangerous complacency.

What does a terrorist look like anyway? Everyone acknowledges that terrorist cells – whether or not they are connected to Osama bin Laden – exist all over the world. Just as there are fundamentalist, extremist Christians of all races (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have African American followers), it is likely that there are religious extremists in the Muslim world of all races and ethnic backgrounds. One of the suspected compatriots of the highjackers currently detained in Minnesota could very well have been identified as African American. His Arabic name proves nothing – many non-Muslim African Americans (including my daughter) have Arabic names.

Let’s not forget that a white male with a crew cut, who was formerly a member of the U.S. army, committed the worst terrorist act in American history prior to September 11th. After the Murrah Building was bombed in Oklahoma City, law enforcement officials immediately focused on Arab Americans. What if their racial profiling had blinded them to reality? Interestingly, after Timothy McVeigh was identified as the perpetrator, there was no profiling of young white male veterans. I suppose then society would have understood the harm and recognized that it would be a totally ineffective way of rooting out terrorists.

The recent capture of John Walker Lindh provides further evidence of the ineffectiveness of the racial profiling of Arab Americans. John Walker Lindh is a young, white American from an upper middle class family who traveled to Afghanistan and was ultimately captured by American soldiers in a prison fortress. He had joined Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers in the war against the United States. Lindh reportedly has made statements supporting the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11th. John Walker Lindh would not have been stopped or detained through racial profiling. He doesn’t fit the profile. The government reports that there are at least two additional men found with the Taliban fighters who claim to be American citizens.

So how do we provide security without profiling? Well, we simply search for people based not on their appearance, but on evidence that they may be terrorists. And unfortunately, at least for the time being, we stop and search everyone who boards an airplane. Until we are confident that terrorism is no longer a threat, everyone should suffer the same inconvenience and embarrassment of having their bags searched and their underwear and other belongings handled by strangers. Though not ideal, this solution is fair and far more effective than trafficking in dangerous notions of collective guilt.

Professor Angela J. Davis is Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law