'Let Us Not Be Suckers for Anybody'

Why People of All Colors Should (Still) Resist Racial Profiling

What's more, the dragnet approach of racial profiling drains limited law enforcement resources, says Harris, with little payoff. For his book, he analyzed police data from over half a dozen areas around the nation, including New York City, and found that "in every one of those cases, profiling was less effective" than police work based on suspicious behavior and probable cause. The "hit rate" for finding criminals when race was not used as the leading factor turned out to be higher than when it was.

Even in a case where all the terrorists appear to share racial qualities, says Harris, profiling in order to prevent further attacks isn't likely to work, because terrorists aren't dumb. "We don't know what the next terrorists are going to look like," he says. But if they know the type the government is looking for, they're liable to find ways to look different. Meanwhile the real bad guys—for instance "alienated former military types or right-wing nut jobs," says Harris—could slip right through the cracks. As with the war on drugs, where statistics show the focus on blacks and Latinos has not slowed overall use or trading, profiling in the war on terrorism will likely be counterproductive.

The inefficacy argument is based on cold, hard facts, which makes it the most useful one for anti-profiling activists. But those facts require a certain government willingness to collect and share policing data. The drawbacks and, indeed, existence of racial profiling "did not really start to hit home until we got some serious data-gathering. When I first started this, there was total denial," says Harris. He predicts such figures on post-September 11 investigations will be harder to come by, since the Justice Department can plead national security in keeping mum and will be less eager to share, as "it's really not going to have anything to show for [profiling]," says Harris.

Illustration: Nathan Fox

Besides the lack of access to information, racial profiling opponents are facing perhaps the most politically repressive climate in decades. Nancy Chang, a senior attorney with New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, says there is good reason the streets haven't been flooded with protesters. Her analysis of the USA PATRIOT Act—which she's put in a pamphlet called "The Silencing of Political Dissent" (at www.ccr-ny.org)—shows that the new, extremely broad definition of "domestic terrorism" could criminalize even the most common forms of protest. "We're now talking about a federal crime and a possible federal investigation of people who are suspected of these activities, and prosecution under federal law," she says.

But a subtler resistance does not mean a weaker one. In fact, Arab American advocate Habiby Browne manages to find a positive in the recent surge of anti-Muslim profiling. "It's so obvious now, it gives us an opportunity to speak out and get organized," she says, citing a new goal of building coalitions with other profiled communities to educate the public and stand up to authorities. Says anti-profiling activist Jones, "The system is not replacing one group of people of color for another, it's just expanding the group." And greater numbers make for a stronger front.

Yet success in rolling back increased profiling won't happen without addressing one major legacy of September 11—fear. Before then, national polls showed overwhelming public opposition to racial profiling of the Driving While Black variety, according to Michelle Alexander, director of the Racial Justice Project at the Northern California ACLU. "Tremendous ground had been gained," she says, "so much so that John Ashcroft and George Bush felt compelled to condemn it." What's different now is that "fear creates an incentive for people to support anything they believe will make them safer," Alexander says, even if the facts show it will not. And even if the people have otherwise enlightened politics.

"We have to pay attention to whether our commitment to civil rights and civil liberties is weakening in this period," she says of her anti-profiling compatriots. For safety or for justice, now is the time to think with cool heads—not act from the gut.

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