News & Politics

‘Let Us Not Be Suckers for Anybody’


Only a sick few might have imagined invoking the name of Timothy McVeigh before September 11. Yet since that apocalyptic day, people the executed white rightist might have spat on have uttered his name in desperation. “After Oklahoma, the FBI didn’t go out and round up all the sociopathic white men fitting the McVeigh profile,” said one frustrated racial justice activist last week. But following the latest round of terrorism on U.S. soil—initiated, according to the fortuitous videotape, by Osama bin Laden—racial profiling in law enforcement has gained momentum and lost much of its popular stigma. Ironically, though, the events of September 11 have only heightened the dangers of racial profiling—even for those safe from being profiled—and made rolling it back more important.

The question today isn’t whether law enforcement is engaging in racial profiling, it’s how much. By all indications, a lot. The FBI and INS have targeted over a thousand people based on their national origin and locked them up for immigration technicalities or sometimes for nothing at all. The Justice Department has tagged 5000 young men, also based on nationality, for voluntary interviews that are not entirely free of coercion or consequences and therefore not entirely voluntary. Muslim names prompt airport security checks—getting “wanded” is a part of the customer service experience for certain travelers. No space where police or federal agents patrol is free for those who appear Middle Eastern.

As for the rhetoric of righteousness dispensed from on high, a December 17 San Jose Mercury News editorial had this observation: “Americans want a thorough, professional and intelligent investigation. . . . Instead, the Justice Department has substituted breadth for depth. . . . President Bush . . . encourages Americans not to vilify people by race or religion. Yet his administration’s deeds speak differently.”

What is officially sanctioned becomes the broader norm. Government-sponsored racial profiling has coincided with unprecedented levels of popular violence toward and harassment of those who appear Muslim or Middle Eastern. Between early September and late November, the Council on American-Islamic Relations recorded 1452 hate incidents—compared to 630 in all of 2000. That’s not counting incidents reported to other organizations and those not reported to anyone. Emira Habiby Browne, executive director of Brooklyn’s Arab-American Family Support Center, says slurs on the street, workplace discrimination, and harassment of schoolchildren are commonplace but rarely reported, since victims have little reason to expect support from the authorities.

The post-September 11 anti-immigrant trend in law enforcement has meant those who have the least recourse are the most profiled. Noncitizens are easier to lock up and have a tougher time defending themselves, because the nation’s laws grant them lesser rights. Xenophobia, a phenomenon as American as apple pie, makes official persecution easy. Civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel has noticed a remarkable surge in anti-immigrant attitudes in his chats with community groups across the city. “It’s telling when people use the word ‘alien’ to describe undocumented immigrants, people who live in their neighborhoods,” he says. What it tells is that some people are considered human, and some might as well be from Mars.

The justification for all of this is, of course, terrorism—extraordinary times. “If I tried to come up with the strongest hypothetical in favor of racial profiling, what better incident could I have come up with,” says David Harris, professor of law and values at the University of Toledo College of Law. But, he and other profiling opponents warn, there is always a “good” reason.

“Once the majority of people sign off on racial profiling of people of Middle Eastern descent, all arguments against the racial profiling of blacks and Latinos will be bowled over,” says Van Jones, a longtime anti-police-brutality activist and director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco. “Just like with Middle Easterners,” he says, law enforcement could make the argument that “we have to profile these angry, inner-city black folks” because they are a danger to society.

Issuing the most basic appeal to communities of color, Jones says, “Every African American and Latino either does look like somebody from the Middle East or has a cousin that does. So on the level of self-interest, you don’t want to be signing off on these tactics. You’re signing off on your own family being profiled. Let us not be suckers for anybody.”

!= The sucker part goes for everyone. For those who couldn’t care less about racial justice, profiling’s opponents have another, more objective, point: Policing based on race or national origin is not just wrong, it’s unsafe.

“This isn’t just a matter of political correctness or hurt feelings,” says law professor Harris, who has written a book about the inefficacy of racial profiling. Law enforcement initiatives like the Justice Department’s effort to interview 5000 Middle Eastern men work against the goal of increased public safety, he says, because “at the same time as it gets no results, you alienate everyone in the community.” By burning bridges, investigators hamper “good intelligence and information,” says Harris, which are one of the “pillars” of good police work.

Indeed, says Arab American advocate Habiby Browne, “Some are reacting [to law enforcement’s focus] with fear, some are totally withdrawing, and certainly some are very angry. Even for a traffic ticket, something benign, people don’t want to deal with the authorities in any way.”

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.

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—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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