From: The Ethics of Ethnic Profiling

The Ethics of Ethnic Profiling

Funny, You Don't Look Waspish

by Matthew Hogan

Here's a secret: ethnic profiling is actually not always a bad thing when done right and sensibly. But it usually isn't, and that's why it is a problem. Mostly it is done out of ignorance, and carried out in a manner that reeks of bigotry.

But technically, ethnic profiling has a certain neutral logic. If you are looking for a criminal and the criminal is likely to be found among a certain ethnic or other group that is relatively conspicuous in the population, it is only rational that such a person will be the focus of interest.

But if it is done, it should be practiced openly.

"Excuse me, sir, but persons of Near Eastern background like yourself are entering the country for purposes of inflicting severe harm, so we ask if you could come inside and answer a few questions and indulge us in a little extra rigorous search of your shoes before boarding the aircraft."

"Excuse me, sir, but African-Americans driving cross country are often found transporting illegal narcotics, so we followed you until you did something wrong so we could pull you over."

"Excuse me, ma'am, but African-Americans cause a disproportionate number of crimes, so our mall security guard will watch you closely."

Now some or all of the above will offend. Some or all perhaps really should offend deeply, but the openness will set up a debate on the wisdom and parameters of the ethics of ethnic profiling and the injuries it is supposed to protect us from.

More important to consider, though, is the real reason that ethnic profiling is a problem:

Nobody likes to be made to feel as if they are untrustworthy in the community. That makes one feel as if one is an object of public contempt, a freak as it were, a reject -- a horrible place to be in. And the even deeper truth is that groups that tend to get profiled are groups already held in an irrational and bigoted contempt.

A true story: An Irish-American I know once got "profiled" many years back as a suspect airline traveler in Britain. Britain had been having problems with Irish terrorists, interrelated with a strong history of British anti-Irish bigotry. My friend, however, was more amused than upset. Why? Because here in America, he did not grow up with a feeling that being tribally Irish made him a natural-born suspect and social oddity, and therefore he lacked the well-honed chip on the shoulder to get angry.

But imagine the uproar to announcements like these:

** "All corporate personnel of Hispanic origin, please report to the personnel office as reports of employee Immigration fraud are rampant." ** "All corporate personnel of Irish origin, please report to the Alcohol Abuse Center, as we have renewed concern of employee substance abuse."

** "All corporate personnel of Jewish origin, please report to the accounting office as we have discovered financial irregularities."

** "All corporate personnel of Gypsy/Roma origin, please report to the Security Officer as there has been a rash of theft." ** "All corporate personnel of African-American origin, please report to the personnel office for counseling on sexual harassment and assault."

Now add to that:

** "All corporate personnel of Arab origin, please report to the Terrorism Investigation officer."

Would that include Jacques Nasser, CEO of Ford (until recently)? Would Casey Kasem (born Kamal Amin Kassem) have to pass an extra metal detector at American Top Forty? Would most of the Board of Directors of St Jude Children's Hospital aka American Syrian-Lebanese Associated Charities have to be strip-searched before visiting cancer-afflicted kids?

(I would, however, gladly personally frisk actress Shannon Elizabeth, whose ancestors are Arab.)

We should in fact recognize that in the particular case of Arab or Muslim profiling, the reason for the resentment derives primarily from the reasons the corporate announcements I made up above would be found offensive. Arabs and Muslims have long been portrayed in the media merely as terrorists, in a deeply offensive, bigoted, and distorted manner, and the association brings up knee-jerk feelings of resentment.

But the extremes do not provide the answer. Hard cases make bad law. Hard reality makes bad principle. The fact is, if one physically looks like a suspect, and the resemblance is based on a rare characteristic in the society, like a rare ethnicity, or an odd religious sect, or a limp, or having one-arm, it is only logical to expect focus. It will happen no matter how officially banned it is. The basis for the focus may be greatly bigoted in origin, but it is inevitable in times of stress and when enforcers are enforcers of rigor.

So instead of totally ruling ethnic profiling out in all contexts, it may be wiser for now to reverse course and insist that it be done openly but apologetically, in order to best arrive at how it is to be done, if it should at at all.