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The Good and Bad of Racial Profiling

By: Gopal Alankar, Ph.D.
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Views expressed here are author"s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.

(The writer is a retired freelancer. He holds a Ph.D. in Administration and Management in addition to degrees in engineering. He enjoys writing on community related issues.)

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a black Harvard University professor, went to Southern China to film a documentary. When he returned home in Cambridge, Mass, on July 16, 2009, he found his front door lock inoperable. Unable to open the front door, he took the help of his driver to force open the back door to enter the house. A good intentioned lady, Ms. Lucia Whalen, while passing by saw the forced entry. She dialed 911 to report the incident. When asked by the 911 operator about the ethnicity of the intruders, she indicated that one of the two men looked Hispanic and she was not sure of the other.

Cambridge Police officer, Sgt. James Crowley was sent to investigate the burglary. There were exchanges between the professor and the cop, and the professor was arrested for disorderly conduct. The incident aroused a national debate on racial profiling.

Against the above backdrop, in a Presidential press conference on Health Care Reform held on July 22, 2009, a journalist from the audience asked President Obama as to what he thought of the arrest of Henry. Henry is a good friend of President Obama, and the question unquestionably was very appropriate.

Obama"s uncanny answer that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Henry was seized by media to liken it to an instance of presidential naiveté and a case of erred statesmanship. Intellectuals alike would have viewed it no differently. Men of diplomatic prowess would have preferred that the President took a noncommittal stance or waited until the law took its full course.

Rules of good diplomacy call for a President to refrain from taking sides especially in matters that instigate religious or racial divide. A good president needs to be a good diplomat. A good diplomat will have all the skills necessary to turn an unfriendly encounter into a pleasant outcome. In Crowley"s case it is highly unlikely that racial profiling played any part at all because he was unaware of the ethnicity of Prof. Gates before he arrived at the site of the incident. Therefore, it seems that the President was way off the mark in what he said.

Nevertheless, President Obama is a sharp intellect and a sincere crusader for the welfare of the downtrodden. However, he suffers from one glaring weakness in that he tends to stick his foot in his mouth and say the most undiplomatic thing. Leaving aside the diplomacy, what he said perhaps would be emotionally correct. But emotions must rest outside the periphery of good diplomacy and as a President he should have been a thought more careful in what he said.

Tellingly, the Beer Summit turned out to be a brilliant stroke of President"s corrective diplomacy and it undid the damage done to him in the aftermath of the Press Conference. The plentiful chilled beer did have the cooling effect on the cop and the professor. The two seemed to have cooled a lot faster than the hot tempers radiated in the professor"s Cambridge house. Of course, the presence of the President and the Vice-President at the table certainly contributed to the desired result. But did the Summit really succeed in easing the debate on racial profiling? I think not.

Racial profiling has two sides to it - bright and dark. Peoples" outcry that Prof. Gates" arrest smacked of the dark side of racial profiling is difficult to substantiate in the context of what happened. Would we call it dark, if the professor were white?

What is exactly racial profiling? Wikipedia defines it as a method that uses racial or ethnic characteristics of a person to determine whether he or she is likely to commit a crime or an illegal act. It is in a way an extension of statistical inference, which, by the way, is as good as the data collected. Granting that the data are good and the statistical analysis of the data indicates that within a confidence level a terrorist is likely to be an Islamic fundamentalist, then it pays to use an adequate sample size to thoroughly security check the travelers from Islamic nations to identify probable terrorists. Bear in mind that a 100% check on all passengers is costly and time consuming and if enforced the planes would never leave or arrive on time.

Much of what we hear, read and see in the media on racial profiling is of the dark side. In some parts of the world bias and prejudices are willfully built into racial profiling to influence the outcome. This, I say, is manipulative profiling. Notorious are the European and Islamic countries against other races. Racial profiling, if misapplied, can bring humiliation and suffering to the countless hapless minority communities residing in unscrupulous countries. This is the crux of our current problem.

This is not to say that racial profiling is nonexistent in America. It is deeply entrenched as is in other countries in the world. Virginity tests on Indian brides at the airports in England were despicable acts and they sure had racial undertones. US Government in WW-II rounded up the US citizens of Japanese descent and put them in internment camps. The lengthy security checks on Khans of Bollywood at Newark airport did smell of racial profiling. Profiling of Chinese and Indians by Air France is a well known practice of mala fide intention. A news item published on June 29, 2009 in New York Times reveals that French police stop Blacks and Arabs for identity checks more than they stop others. Racial profiling in Germany goes back to the days of Adolf Hitler. Arab countries profile foreign workers on a regular basis in order to perpetrate false accusations in the name of undocumented labor.

Therefore, racial profiling does not specifically target Blacks. It includes all ethnicity. White profiling is also common. Profiling of Indians is widespread across the globe. In these days plagued with terrorism and suicide bombers, the brighter side of racial profiling can play a pivotal role in apprehending likely criminals. My experience with a foreign travel in the winter that followed 9/11 tragedy made me a believer in racial profiling out of a recalcitrant nonbeliever. Here is my story.

My family patiently waited in the security line at the Newark Airport, NJ to begin our meticulously planned vacation to Aruba. We were five and were all excited to see the journey begin, more so my children. When our turn came we were surprised to find that none of our pilot suite cases passed the security screening. For each one of us the walk-through scanner was a bad news. The officer checked us from toe to head. The suitcases were opened and screened thoroughly. Although nothing incriminating was found, it was a nightmarish episode. It took a long time for us to repack and put the things back in order in the suitcases. Make no mistake few others also went through the same trauma.

Finally we made a dash to the gate and waited for the boarding call. When the announcement was made, we made a beeline for the line. We paced slowly to the airline rep who politely signaled us to step aside for a fresh security check. At a minimum our pride was hurt; our children"s feelings were mortified; we could not stomach the fact that we became the objects of curiosity to all the passengers walking by. When it was all done, we were in no mood for any good words for the airline. We were the last to board.

As we entered the plane all eyes were turned to us. The atmosphere was somber. My children were puffing with fury. I pleaded with them to remain calm until we reached our destination for the fear of unwanted evidence that might get planted into our suitcases. Every two hours I would nervously ask the air-hostess if I could walk up and down the isle to stretch my sagging old legs.

Calm prevailed as the plane prepared for landing. As soon as it touched the runway there was a thunder of clapping and applause. Shouts of "Bravo pilot!" rent the air. Some thanked God for terror-free flight. We also joined the applause and cheers with a gusto of enthusiasm. It was a rare moment of ecstasy and joy for all passengers who were in a state of anxiety and fear all along the flight. When all said and done, the journey turned out to be one of our most memorable incidents of all time.

I realized then and there the importance of racial profiling. I would rather go through the tedious screening than let the plane take off without it. Mental peace of passengers outweighs the bitter inconvenience that a few of us suffer as a result of profiling.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson "The good of all must prevail over the comfort of a few."

Gopal Alankar, Ph.D.

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