2001 Thinking through Profiling


Thinking through Profiling

by Jerry Kang
v2.0 (c) revised Nov. 13, 2001

After the heinous attacks of Sept. 11, how should Americans of good conscience think through the issue of racial profiling?

First, demand good data.

What data might justify special searches of anyone who looks “Arab” at an airport? There are up to 7 million Arab Americans in the united states. If we add all those South Asians (1.6 million), Latinos and African Americans who might “appear” Arab, we have a ballpark figure of at least 10 million folks.

How many of these are bona fide terrorists? Let’s say 100. That amounts to 0.001 percent.

As a very rough comparison, consider that in 1999 alone, roughly 350,000 men were arrested for violent crimes. There are about 135 million men alive in America. That is a percentage of 0.26 percent. Does this mean that we should stop and search all men because they may act violently?

Second, parse the data correctly.

Humans are notoriously bad with probabilities. For instance, the fact that 100 percent of the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks were Arab-looking men does not mean that 100 percent of Arab-looking men are terrorists.
We also fixate on relative probabilities instead of absolute ones. So, even if the Arab-looking man seated to your left is 100 times more likely to be a terrorist than the Aryan-looking man seated to your right, 100 times a number essentially zero is still near zero.

Third, do not overestimate the benefit.

Is racial profiling really that effective? There will surely be “false negatives,” those who turn out to be terrorists but do not fit the profile. Recall that many of the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks hardly behaved as fundamentalist Muslims: they drank alcohol and got lap dances. And shrewd terrorists will respond to Arab-based profiling by sending different types of people, who look East Asian or even pass for White.

We may also waste valuable resources on “false positives,” those who fit the profile but who are not terrorists. That is the lesson of scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was scapegoated as the “spy” who leaked nuclear secrets to China.

And if profiling is being justified in cold, cost-benefit terms, how many lives are we actually saving? Don’t you think we could save far more by mandating head-curtain airbags, reducing the national speed limit (which would also decrease our dependence on Middle Eastern oil), discouraging smoking and encouraging exercise?

Fourth, do not underestimate the harm.

Just as it is easy to spend other people’s money, it is easy to burden other people’s liberties — especially racial and ethnic minorities. Just ask a young Black man profiled as a rapist, a Black woman profiled as a drug mule, a Latino profiled as an illegal immigrant, a Japanese American survivor of the internment profiled as a traitor.

How much would you have to be paid before you would agree to live the life of a “false positive,” stopped at airports, bus stops, stadiums, skyscrapers, malls? Think about the time, the inconvenience, the insult to dignity. Think about trying to calm your children bewildered by armed men. Now think about this happening every day of your life.

Fifth, gauge long-term, big-picture consequences. Even if “rational” here-and-now, does relegating Arab Americans into second-class status make strategic sense when we are desperate for human intelligence? Will it fuel propaganda that America represses Islam?

Only after these steps are taken can any profiling policy be justified on the numbers. And maybe it can. But even then, moral principles embedded in our Constitution can trump utilitarian calculations. Isn’t this precisely what the U.S. Supreme court claimed to be doing when it struck down useful affirmative-action programs because they allegedly violated the rights of innocent Whites? Let’s hold the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to his word: “In the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American…”

Of course, many will pooh-pooh my call for careful, public deliberation with shibboleths heard during all wars: We have a “fighting constitution,” which is not a “suicide pact.”

I am no fan of weakness or suicide. But I do not delude myself into thinking that the Constitution in itself makes us strong. It merely makes us worthy of our strength.