What's wrong with Racial Profiling?
June 10, 2005 9:17 AM   Subscribe

Help me convince a Republican that Racial Profiling is Not Good (tm).

Yesterday after going through airport security, a co-worker of mine brought up airport security in Israel. According to him, Israel is known to have the "best" airport security (however you define that), because they openly engage in "racial profiling" when choosing passengers to be searched (I'm interested in whether this statement is true, by the way). He further indicated that our airports (in the United States) will never be safe because of "people like the ACLU" and "rights people think they have."

His argument: "We know who the terrorists are, and what they look like, why shouldn't we search them? Instead, because of people like the ACLU, we're searching 60-year-old grandmothers in wheelchairs to be all 'P.C.'"

I can see the rationale in this line of thinking, but what are some concrete arguments for why racial profiling is, among other things, not more effective, and an invasion of privacy?

I'm interested in opening a dialogue with people that share this coworker's position by focusing on issues that realistically affect their lives, so while philosophical positions are appreciated, I'd especially like to hear about real-world examples of racial profiling gone wrong, and particular legal positions concerning racial profiling in real situations.
posted by odinsdream to Human Relations (33 answers total)
Well, one problem with racial profiling is that it's easy to beat. If you're a terrorist, and you know that all of the security scrutiny will be directed at (for the sake of argument) arabs, you just work hard to recruit someone outside of the target ethnic group to carry a bomb.
posted by COBRA! at 9:23 AM on June 10, 2005

If I was a terror group leader and knew there was profiling, I would send the person that looks the most white and middle class. Profiling would only really succeed in catching stupid terrorists.
posted by drezdn at 9:23 AM on June 10, 2005

Well, one problem with racial profiling is that if you ignore the proverbial 60-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair, you leave that avenue open for exploitation. All that enterprising terrorists would have to do is find a 60-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair and pay/dupe her into carrying something through security for them.

(on preview - sigh.)
posted by nixxon at 9:26 AM on June 10, 2005

Well, for one thing, you can remind him that before 9/11 the worst terrorist attack on US soil was the Oklahoma City bombing- an attack committed by an American citizen. So for him to say, "We know who the terrorists are, and what they look like," isn't necessarily true at all.
posted by baphomet at 9:31 AM on June 10, 2005

A WHITE American citizen, I should probably add (since it's directly relevant).
posted by baphomet at 9:31 AM on June 10, 2005

Also, from what I've heard, El-Al does *not* engage in racial profiling because of exactly the problems that the previous comments have pointed out. Instead they rely on well trained staff who actually give a shit about what they're doing.
posted by bshort at 9:31 AM on June 10, 2005

Yeah, I had heard that their security works because they have trained staff that actually talks to all (or most) passengers -- they pick people out as suspicious not because of what they look like but because of what they say (nervous, inconsistent story, etc.).
posted by occhiblu at 9:36 AM on June 10, 2005

Racial profiling by itself, is probably not a good idea... although I can see why it happens and why some people think it's the best approach. But profiling, in general, is a good idea and quite necessary in my opinion. Sometimes race is part of that profile, but it shouldn't be the only defining characteristic.
posted by Witty at 9:36 AM on June 10, 2005

Unfriendly skies are no match for El Al

Examining each stamp in my passport, she froze at a page with Arabic lettering.

"Where's this for?" she asked. "Syria," I said — one of Israel's bitterest enemies. I hurriedly explained: "I'm a journalist. I went there for the president's funeral."

She summoned a muscular male colleague.

"You traveling alone?" he asked. I replied I was.

"But I saw you talking to someone in line," he said. "Who is he?"

Indeed, to pass the time, I had exchanged a few words with a passenger standing behind me in the long security line about five minutes before. I barely remembered the exchange.

But like everything else when flying El Al, my idle chatter had not gone unnoticed.

So it goes when traveling with the world's most security-conscious airline.

posted by mlis at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2005

ALL profiling leads to sloppy police work--if one looks at airline security as a police power, profiling then will signpost a loophole to be exploited. relying only on the profile will dull the senses which are needed to spot signals of "danger".

however, in my experience, profiling also directs limited resources away from useless effort. there is some truth to the assumptions which underlie most police work. people just aren't that complicated. i can't point to studies or some exciting case of the person who fit the profile being innocent because in the cases i've handled, the person who fit the profile is usually the guilty party. that's where the profile came from in the first place.

now, i could jump up on my naked for justice public interest lawyer soapbox and talk about all the people i've represented on appeal who were convicted because they matched the profile, not because the evidence warranted conviction, but that's 99.99% of convictions in this country. like i was telling my dad last night: it may be a good thing that a guilty person was convicted, even on bad evidence or prejudice, but it's never Justice.

i think that's probably true in some part for security profiling. it may work, but it's not Just.

but it's hardly an invasion of privacy, as the color of a person's skin is not private, nor, according to Am. jurisprudence, is the display of physical characteristics contrary to the right against self-incrimination. that's just the way it is. basing a stop or a search or denying passge to a person based on racial characteristics may raise some constitutional issues, but it does not impact the bizarrely-seated "right" to privacy.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2005

Ask him if he would like to be pulled over simply because he has an NRA sticker on his car, because afterall, there's too much gun crime so any gun owner is suspect.
posted by Doohickie at 9:54 AM on June 10, 2005

Israeli airport security is not successful because of racial profiling, it relies on humans detecting unusual patterns in other humans. Here's an article that talks a bit about how the Israeli practices. From the article:
...racial profiling does not serve airport security goals. Ben Gurion Airport security personnel have long faced accusations of racial profiling. Critics argue that many more Arab people are questioned than other ethnic groups. Ron denies the profiling charge. “Speaking from a security point of view, it would be professionally stupid to divert attention from non-Arab people,” he says. “For example, the worst attack on Ben Gurion was carried out by Japanese in 1972. If we focus on ethnic groups, we will miss what the enemy already understands: using a non-Arab person to carry out an attack might succeed.”
Back in 2002 a couple of grad students at MIT demonstrated that random checks are a better approach than the proposed CAPS system. CAPS was designed to be more sophistocated than simple racial profiling, taking a variety of profile factors into account to identify potential threats.

As the previous posters have mentioned, racial profiling leaves a big hole that smart terrorists can exploit -- use people (either wittingly or unwittingly) who are not members of the target race.

Your co-worker may also be underestimating the number of members of the target race and overestimating the percentage of potential offenders in the target race (he probably doesn't see to many of "them" and feels "they" are less distinct from each other than "we" are from one another).

If I were trying to convice someone like your coworker, I'd probably give more emphasis to the Misses that would occur (e.g., Timothy McVeigh) than the False Alarms (e.g., some poor Arab guy is denied boarding incorrectly). My bet is that the "better safe than sorry" mindset will make it hard for him to see the problems with systematically harassing (or worse) innocent members of another race.
posted by i love cheese at 9:55 AM on June 10, 2005

As has already been pointed out, we certainly don't know what terrorists look like: Tim McVeigh is a tragic example of this. What's unfortunate is that an enormous percentage of the American populace has been sold on the idea that we can identify threatening persons by their physical appearance. This makes the "war on terror" much easier to quantify. It allows for the identification of a specific group of others where no such group actually exists.

All this aside, however, profiling denies persons the right to be treated as an individual. This is the essence of racism and discrimination. To support racial profiling amounts to a tacit support of segregated drinking fountains and internment camps. This position seems quite incompatible with a political ideology that claims ethical and moral superiority.

But most who support this practice would claim that the ends justify the means. This attitude is so irrational that it's difficult to argue against. One's best bet is to point out the many atrocities based on the same logic.
posted by aladfar at 9:59 AM on June 10, 2005

i love cheese makes an excellent point about forgetting that in parts of the world other than the US, racial mix in any given crowd is likely to be quite different than it is even in an international airport in the US.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:00 AM on June 10, 2005

For no particular reason, I'm going to point out that the woman that screened me on my way out through Ben Gurion was a) extremely sharp-eyed and direct, but in a detached, professional fashion, and b) totally teh HAWT! I wanted to flirt, but...points for style, maybe, but the atmosphere did not lend itself.

Oh, and I never got the feeling that there was any particular emphasis on race or anything else. Everybody got screened, and everybody got very, very carefully observed before getting through the checkpoint.
posted by dragstroke at 10:09 AM on June 10, 2005

Simple game theory to the rescue.

Pure, firm racial profiling -- where you search every Arab-looking young man and nobody else -- is not part of a sustainable equilibrium. Which is technical for "only a dumbass, or someone actually irrational, would do that."

The basic notion of equilibrium is that I'm doing the best I can, given what you're doing, and you're doing the best you can, given what I'm doing. This one-sentence idea has enough implications to have won the Nobel prize for John Nash (mostly because every game has at least one eq of this type).

If the FBI does pure, firm profiling, then the best response of the terrorists is to use other people. But then the best response of the FBI to that is to abandon profiling, but then the best response of the terrorists to that, in turn, is to go back to their base of pissed-off young Arab men, but then the FBI should profile...

The long term equilibrium would have each side playing with probabilities. From the FBI side, everyone would have some chance of being searched, but (most likely) young Arab men would be more likely to be searched. The terrorists would continue to mostly use foolish young men as their kamikazes, but with some other people thrown into the mix. The technical term for this is a mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium.

The basic notion is to do enough "unexpected" things to keep the other side "honest." It's hard/impossible to say, ex ante, whether the FBI has chosen theright probability mix.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:09 AM on June 10, 2005

(McVeigh Problem and Get Someone Else to Carry The Bomb problem already well-covered.)

Not to mention that racial profiling, as a blunt instrument, doesn't even necessarily do a good job of identifying the supposedly profiled people. And who are we profiling on what criteria? Just muslims of Middle Eastern descent? Are we including black Muslims in our profiling?

And then the problem of actually profiling. Who's going to educate security in understanding that there are Christian Arabs? And Hindus and Sikhs. What about other Mediterranean folks who might look a little bit Arab? Before long, you're just letting all the lilly-white folks (I'm in this category, BTW) through, and questioning all the...darker people. Egads.

(I have an acquaintance who is a Indian-born US-raised Hindu. Somehow, his name got on The List. He flies as little as possible, but when he does, he gets to the airport at least three hours early ready with all documents to deal with the questioning, and has still been prevented from boarding a flight. Sigh.)
posted by desuetude at 10:26 AM on June 10, 2005

I'm assuming that your co-worker is a middle-aged white male. I think the majority of child molestors are middle-aged white males. You might want to make this point to him in a constructive, non-aggressive way. Would he like to be profiled every time he enters a Chuck E. Cheese, or a toy store, or a recreational park? Bonus points if he has kids.
posted by crapulent at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2005

I think crapulent has an excellent point, ask him exactly what crimes he thinks there should be profiling for, certainly there would be a whole lot for which HE would be a prime profile.

Seriously though, if he can't see that Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kozinski, etc are a complete dismatling of his theory your not likely to get anywhere with him.

It's been said time and again but it's true: you can't use logic to get someone out of a position they didn't use logic to get into.
posted by Cosine at 11:35 AM on June 10, 2005

On this question I'm all with Hitchens who says that routine airport security won't thwart jihadists, that it "maintains the illusion of safety and the delusion that the state is protecting its citizens." I'm not sure racial profiling would improve things.
posted by Panfilo at 11:39 AM on June 10, 2005

The USA Today article about El Al also has this bit, about how they do use ethnic profiling:
Despite their current anxieties, Americans also might balk at El Al-style ethnic profiling. Staff scrutinize the passengers' names, dividing them into low-risk (Israeli or foreign Jews), medium-risk (non-Jewish foreigners) and extremely high-risk travelers (anyone with an Arabic name). These people automatically are taken into a room for body and baggage checks and lengthy interrogation. Single women also are considered high-risk, for fear they might be used by Palestinian lovers to carry bombs.

To sift out who is who, screeners usually begin by asking passengers whether they understand any Hebrew, which most Jews do. Officials argue that such blatant discrimination is necessary.
posted by smackfu at 11:58 AM on June 10, 2005

It doesn't work because the more predictable your system is, the easier is is to game. Read Homeland Insecurity; which was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly and has a really good discussion with Bruce Schneier about how "security" often fails.
posted by stefanie at 12:08 PM on June 10, 2005

Your conservative friend's error is assuming that "common sense" can solve this problem. The obvious strategy is not always the correct strategy. Buy your friend a Chinese finger trap.
posted by elderling at 1:46 PM on June 10, 2005


One of my very good friends and one of the nicest people I've every known was named Christopher Beck. He was a devout Muslim and of Syrian descent. He was white, blond, and had blue eyes. He spoke perfect English, with a slight New Jersey accent. He was an American citizen.

Many people from Syria and Iraq have blond hair and blue eyes. Some give their kids American names when they migrate to this country. Take a look at this picture of Heather Raffo. She's Iraqi.

I know a Bosnian family too, but they have Muslim (first) names, though their last name sounds Polish. They could pass for WASPs.
posted by exhilaration at 2:17 PM on June 10, 2005

I'm assuming that your co-worker is a middle-aged white male. I think the majority of child molestors are middle-aged white males. You might want to make this point to him in a constructive, non-aggressive way. Would he like to be profiled every time he enters a Chuck E. Cheese, or a toy store, or a recreational park? Bonus points if he has kids.
posted by crapulent at 10:55 AM PST on June 10 [!]

Isn't this example in support of racial profiling? In the case of the middle-aged white molester, we know who the odds teach us not to look for. The molester can't use the 'send someone else in' method. Isn't it just a numbers/probability game? If the stats truly say that middle-aged white men are much more likely to molest, an investigation, with limited resourses, shouldn't spend as much time on middle-aged asian men.
posted by jikel_morten at 2:28 PM on June 10, 2005

I understand what you're saying, jikel_morten, but the point is that it's not an investigation. Profiling is preliminary. If we were to profile men at a toy store, we would be looking for men who are look likely to kidnap, molest, etc. a child. Just as profiling people at the airport is supposedly to identify suspicious persons who are "more likely" to commit such-and-such crime.

These people have committed no crimes. An investigation occurs after the crime.

What I am trying to say is that we could all be profiled for something. We all fit into one or more groups of people who are "more likely" to do this or that.
posted by crapulent at 2:45 PM on June 10, 2005

The problem I run into is one of feeling like, if I want to argue with his position at all, I may very well end up insulting him a lot, or find myself in need of at least a full hour of expository work to even get the discussion on an appropriate level, for instance, by examining his fear of other people, which is probably based at least somewhat in racism, to figuring out his philosophy of personal rights and freedoms. I end up feeling exasperated just thinking about getting into an argument that obviously is already so horribly misunderstood on his part as to be hopeless.

But, I'm sure that's nothing new. I almost feel like printing out little booklets for these situations, like having one with head-shots of foreigners that don't look foreign, in this case, and in the case of other political situations, source documents showing concrete factual evidence for my position. Otherwise, it just devolves into a shouting match and everyone goes away feeling un-good.

Thanks everyone for the comments, some very good ideas here that I'll take into consideration for the next time I run into this situation, or something like it.
posted by odinsdream at 4:01 PM on June 10, 2005

I have flown through Israel many, many times. Racial profiling is absolutely a huge part of their tactics. It's cut and dry, if you are a Jewish Israeli and can speak Hebrew, you go in one line. If you are a non-Israeli Jew and speak Hebrew, you can also go in that line most of the time. If you are not Jewish or Israeli, you go into the search line, and if you are Arab, or even mention that you were visiting an Arab, you go into the serious search line. Then they filter you again based on questions they ask you.

After having observed this many times, and talking to people, I think the #1 thing that the Israelis do is to screen all luggage with machines. No one, regardless of where they are from, gets a "free" pass. The racial profiling has more to do with internal information gathering and asserting control then it does actually making flights safer.
posted by chaz at 4:26 PM on June 10, 2005

Odinsdream, the main point is that racial profiling is not fool-proof. Sure, you should say, extra attention should be placed on people who have recently been to countries known to export terrorism. But that alone is a "feel good" program that doesn't actual help the situation. The only good solution is a combination of factors, and then absolutely screening all luggage.
posted by chaz at 4:27 PM on June 10, 2005

exhilaration: Per the link you provided, Heather Raffo is an American citizen born and raised in Michigan. Her father is originally from Iraq and her mother is American.
posted by mlis at 4:31 PM on June 10, 2005

I think the stronger argument lies with an appeal to the definition of individual civil rights.

This is a vague memory of a 60 minutes segment in the 80's, but I think it was proven a statistically valid practice for FL state police to pull over dark-skinned, young men, travelling in pairs, in late model sedans, driving north on I95, moving slightly above the speed limit, for transporting drugs. When used in conjunction with behavioural markers, racial profiling can be effective.

I think you need to argue racial profiling wrong because it's wrong, not because it's necessarily ineffective. The secondary argument should be that it's presently implemented poorly.
posted by klarck at 5:20 PM on June 10, 2005

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Muslims actually pose the greatest threat to American security. What proportion of the Muslims going through American airports are actually terrorists? Surely anyone would admit that it's a very, very small percentage.

So who are the rest of the Muslims? They range from active malcontents to the most patriotic Americans. They're members of Muslim mosques and communities throughout the world. They are the people most likely to know the Muslim terrorists, to interact with them, to speak their language and know their goals. Are you sure you want to harass, discriminate against, and alienate these folks? These are the people most likely to help American's struggle to stay safe--they have inside info and contacts.

If we all bore the burden of airport security equally, it would take a little longer to get to your plane. Weigh those extra minutes against the costs of endorsing a racist system, feeding anger against America, and pissing off our potentially most valuable allies, and a clear answer emerges.

Also, Israel's security works so well, in large part, because of choices they've made that have nothing to do with profiling. The El Al pilot cabins are not connected to the main cabins, for example--they have completely separate entrances, so there's no way a terrorist could burst in and wave a gun at the pilot. These kinds of solutions don't impose costs on anyone other than some small construction costs for the airlines. Why would we jump to racist policies when great technological solutions are available?
posted by equipoise at 7:48 AM on June 11, 2005

We know that all KKK members are (ostensibly) white. Why shouldn't we stop every white person and interrogate them about their potential membership in the Klan?
posted by softlord at 6:23 AM on June 14, 2005

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