Racial Profiling: For the People Who Don’t Look Like Us

By: Marc H. Morial
National Urban League

Many of us, still reeling physically and psychologically from the back-to-back battering of our Gulf coast by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the controversies the governmental responses have provoked, may momentarily find it difficult to recall the man-made tragedy that had consumed our attention for much of the summer.

It was the terrorist bombings that struck London in July.

In some ways, that moment now seems far away. But that feeling is an illusion we should not allow ourselves to hold too long. The London terror bombing will not be the last in the West; a future tragedy looms.
That craven attack proved once again that it is not only nature humankind must fear. Predictably, it also brought renewed calls from some quarters for authorities to use racial profiling in the war against global terrorism.

In this instance, proponents of racial profiling asserted that because the London terror bombers were people of color, authorities are justified in being suspicious of all people of color and singling individual people of color out for greater scrutiny simply because those individuals are people of color.

Writ large, this is the essence of the argument for racial profiling, whether it be for the war against terror, or the racial profiling some claim American law enforcement is justified in using to ferret out criminals in the U.S: race and/or ethnicity should be used as markers of suspicious individuals, and those individuals should be considered guilty until proven innocent.

But no matter how glib the words and how tortured the logic, the fundamental characteristic of racial profiling remains: its proponents always advocate its use against people who don't look like them.

That was so for the racial profiling that marked the early stages of the barbaric Nazi campaign against German Jews in 1930s Germany. That was the crux of the racist "logic" that led to the imprisoning of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in concentration camps in the U.S. during World War II. That is so for those who declare that African Americans' and Hispanic Americans' disproportionate involvement in street crime justifies the police racial profiling of individuals of both groups.

I don't recall anyone advocating the racial profiling of white men from the American heartland in the wake of the shocking 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, a crime for which Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were convicted—even though talk then was thick of "white militias" infesting rural America.

Nor do I recall calls for the racial profiling of certain kinds of white men during the years the anti-abortion bomber Eric Robert Rudolph was the object of a massive federal manhunt.

For me, however, the most conclusive proof of racial profiling's racism came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack—and, ironically, it came from African Americans.

In late September 2001 two national polls found that African Americans were more likely than other Americans to favor the racial profiling of Arab Americans and Arab nationals—findings which at first clearly dismayed leading African-American politicians, scholars and activists.

But, as Hugh B. Price, my predecessor as president and chief executive of the National Urban League, wrote at the time, black Americans' immediate response perhaps shouldn't have been all that surprising.

He cited the points made by Professor Alvin Poussaint, of Harvard Medical School, that the poll numbers showed how profoundly angered African Americans, whose deep-rooted patriotism is only rarely acknowledged, were by the attacks; and may also have reflected black Americans' historical, unshakable commitment to reforming America through nonviolent social and political means.

But Hugh Price also wrote that blacks' stance in the polls was "more evidence of the perniciousness of racial profiling itself … These polls' show that whenever people speak in favor of racial profiling, they always favor its use against some other group, not theirs.

"That said," Price continued, "for any African Americans, or anyone else, to think that a policy of racial profiling of those who "look" Arabic would be confined to those who are of Arabic descent, is ludicrous. [ There is plenty of] tragic evidence that many Americans, including some who are African-American, have trouble telling people of color apart. "

What Hugh Price wrote then remains true today. As we must take the strongest measures possible to guard against terrorism, we must also remain vigilant that we adhere to the standards of civil rights and civil liberties—and human decency—that makes our society worth saving.

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