Everybody’s against racial profiling, at least in theory. Especially when it happens far away, in Mississippi, say, or in other people’s neighborhoods. For years, nobody in social circles where people bathe would even try to defend the idea that anyone should be stopped by the cops, much less investigated, on the basis of skin color.
Why, even Grosse Pointe’s finest could come up with many other mysterious explanations for why, if you were a black male in an old car, your butt was sure to be pulled over within nanoseconds of crossing the Alter Road wall.
Then came Sept. 11. Suddenly, the world was filled with veteran progressives who wanted the feds to give a body-cavity search to any apparent Ay-rab, Muslim or swarthy person who came within five miles of the nearest airport. Even Ol’ Cynical Pants here (confession time) recalls apprehensively eyeing a couple Yemenis on a shuttle bus in Phoenix in October and hoping they weren’t on my flight.
Feelings like that were shared by tens of millions — and opened the door for people like the ruthless anti-civil-liberties religious nut John Ashcroft and his ilk, and for the improper detention of hundreds, many, it seems, on no evidence at all.
That isn’t nice, true. But really, don’t we all have to sacrifice a few freedoms for the duration of the war?
The answer, as far as racial profiling is concerned, is … no. Not just because it is a violation of our constitutional rights, but because we have hard evidence that racial profiling just doesn’t work. In fact, it often helps the real criminals get away.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo, of all places, has devoted much of his professional life to this issue, and has just come out with an important little book that every Dunkin’ Donuts in the nation should keep on hand for the cops. It’s called Profiles in Injustice (New Press, $24.95).
All of this started a dozen years ago, when Harris, a 44-year-old Chicago native, was working as a public defender in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. One day, during a quick pre-trial consultation, he asked a client why he’d been stopped.
“He looked at me like he was wondering what boat I’d just come in on,” Harris remembered. “Driving while black,” his client said.
That was the first time Harris had heard that term. Interested, he started studying. To his surprise, virtually every African-American he met had either had a DWB experience or a close friend or family member who had.
Profiles in Injustice tells many horrifying stories of highly successful African-Americans, from war heroes to big-city school superintendents, who have been publicly humiliated without reason, having their cars stripped and sometimes even torn apart. One stylish business executive from Chicago was made to take her tampon out at O’Hare International Airport in 1999 to prove she was having her period, not smuggling drugs.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Customs Service proved to be among the worst offenders. According to a government study, black women who were American citizens were nine times as likely to be X-rayed on suspicion of drug smuggling as white women. Hispanic women were four times as likely, based on what happened in 1998. Figures for minority males were along the same line.
But what did those searches yield? The relatively few searches of non-Hispanic whites turned up evidence far more often. In one recent year, almost half the white travelers searched had drugs or contraband. Fewer than one-fourth of the blacks searched had anything forbidden. And fewer than one-sixth of the Hispanics were packing forbidden fruit or powder!
Year after year, those percentages stayed relatively consistent, until an embarrassed Ray Kelly, U.S. Commissioner of Customs, ordered a reversal of policy.
But things are different now. Harris completed his book before Sept. 11, and though there is a short section on the harassment of Arab-appearing passengers in airports, on that front, Profiles in Injustice seems out-of-date.
The hijackers were Muslims from the Middle East. Doesn’t this change everything?
“Absolutely not,” Harris told me when I talked to him in St. Louis last week. “Look, the people running al Qaeda are highly sophisticated and highly intelligent. They aren’t going to try to take more planes.”
Not with Arab hijackers, at any rate. The bizarre shoe bomber was a Jamaican. “We know they had all sorts of people in those training camps, including Scandinavians.” If we spend all our time looking at people who fit some “Arab profile,” he added, that may make al Qaeda’s next mission from hell much easier to carry out.
“I can’t tell you how many good cops I’ve talked to who’ve said ‘look at the behavior,’ not the person. What we need is a multilayered approach that combines good intelligence work with good police work.”
If there indeed are al Qaeda “sleeper cells” among Arabs in this country, penetrating them will be almost impossible unless the community around them has some sympathy with our side. “But when we treat a whole community as suspect (as we are doing), if the people believe that if they come forward they may be deported, turning them around simply just isn’t going to happen. And we are dropping the ball.”
Profiles proves racial profiling is simply not an option. Now if we could only get someone to read this book to our attorney general, maybe all his ideas wouldn’t be so bad.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org