The Slippery Slope of Racial Profiling

By Nicole Davis Dec 15, 2001

"Before September 11 we had almost succeeded in eliminating racial profiling, After September 11, it’s a whole new world," says Michel Shehadeh of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in the western region. "One thousand Arab Americans have already been detained and we don’t know who they are or what charges have been brought against them."

Of those 1,147 Arabs and Arab Americans who have been detained, exactly zero have been charged with any formal offense in connection to the events of September 11. This, however, has not slowed the pace of the detentions. What it has done is give moral, political, and for the time being, legal sanction to stop, search, and detain anyone who appears to be Arab.

Prior to September 11, 80 percent of Americans opposed racial profiling. Since that day, "There has been an immediate reversal of public opinion," says Michelle Alexander of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. Polls now show that 70 percent of Americans believe that some form of racial profiling is necessary, and acceptable, to ensure public safety.

In the weeks following September 11, The New York Times, Newsweek, and other mainstream publications ran articles quoting scholars and average people alike saying that even though they were slightly embarrassed to admit it, they felt that racial profiling was acceptable. An ABC News/Washington Post poll on September 13 found that 43 percent of respondents were more likely to be suspicious of people who they ‘think are of Arab descent.’ In subsequent polls, 58 percent favored more intensive security checks for Arabs, and 49 percent favored special identification cards. Thirty-two percent supported "special surveillance." Alexander notes that, "What was most disturbing was that African Americans and Latinos agreed" that racial profiling in some form was okay. However, she also reminds us that few polls have been taken since the week of the attack, and wonders if those numbers have changed after some of the initial shock and fear subsided.

New Terrain of Racial Profiling

What gave the Driving While Black and Brown campaign immediate resonance with many supporters was that it sought to address the institutional aspects of racism. The goal wasn’t to fire individual police officers for unfairly targeting motorists because of their race, but rather to put an end to a whole system of law enforcement based on racial stereotypes. DWB’s success came in part because of its narrow focus on racial profiling while driving. This was a strategic decision to address the way that race was used by law enforcement ostensibly to fight the war on drugs. The war on terrorism is creating a similar dynamic. "The war rhetoric is giving license to law enforcement to engage in racial profiling, just as it did in the war on drugs. Both wars create a ‘by any means necessary’ attitude that encourages law enforcement to target people based on race," says Alexander. She also recognizes the need to consider broadening the DWB focus in light of the recent increase in profiling of those who appear to be Arab. "Many Arab American organizations were not involved in the fight against racial profiling as we defined it before September 11 because we were not addressing the form of profiling that effects those communities."

Michel Shehadeh was profiled recently on his way to Washington, D.C. He was pulled out of line at the Orange County, CA airport, questioned, and searched. "It was done in front of everyone’s staring eyes," he says. "That made it a humiliating experience. They want to give a message to non-Arab Americans, that they’re doing something about ‘it.’ This has nothing to do with security." Although both President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have publicly condemned hate crimes against those who appear to be Arab, the simultaneous hyperactivity surrounding national security has sanctioned racial profiling. Passengers who appear "Arab looking," which has included those who are South Asian and Latino, have been asked to leave airplanes because both fellow passengers and crew members refuse to fly with them. Sikh men have been denied the right to even board aircraft because they refuse to fly without their turbans, something Harmeet Dhillon, co-founder of the Sikh Communications Council, equates with asking a woman to fly without her skirt. "It’s humiliating and degrading," she says.

The profile of a terrorist is a man in his twenties or thirties who comes from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan. He probably lives in one of six states–Texas, New Jersey, California, New York, Michigan, or Florida. And he is likely to have engaged in some sort of suspicious activity, such as taking flying lessons, traveling, or getting a driver’s license. Meeting one of these profiles is enough to get you questioned. Meeting all three is likely to land you in jail. Darrell Issa fit the profile. He is Arab American, he is from California, and he was traveling to Saudi Arabia. The crew of his flight refused to allow him to board the plane. Representative Robert Walker (D-Florida) intervened on Issa’s behalf, but to no avail. Darrell Issa is a United States Congressman.

"Racial profiling hadn’t been an issue for me before September 11," says Dhillon. "Now I’m confident in saying that racial profiling of Sikhs is happening in every airport across the country." The Sikh Coalition has documented 173 cases of racial profiling or incidents against Sikhs since September 11.

The Profiling Paradox

The debates surrounding both the effectiveness and the moral sanctioning of racial profiling have created some dissonance for many communities of color. Kabzuag Vaj is an organizer with the Asian Freedom Project in Madison, Wisconsin. They have collected hundreds of accounts of racial profiling of Southeast Asian youth over the past year. "Talking to the mainstream about racial profiling is hard," says Vaj. "The excuse people give us is extreme times demand extreme measures, whatever is necessary to catch the terrorists." Organizers at People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO) face similar concerns. They recognize that although they are a multiracial organization, their campaign against racial profiling and police misconduct is inadequate to address the current political situation. "The fact that we have members from the Arab American community means we work in solidarity with that community, but our work is not set up right now specifically to meet the needs of that community," says Dawn Phillips, PUEBLO director.

The debates around racial profiling have also created tolerance in some unlikely places. Shehadeh does not believe that racial profiling is an effective way to stop crime, nor that it will prevent further attacks against the United States. Still, he believes that some form of racial profiling is understandable in the current political environment. "What we say is that racial profiling is not the answer. Security for all is what’s needed," says Shehadeh. "As Arab Americans, we are tolerant of this phenomena because we understand, because we’re sensitive. But just for now."

Like many Arab Americans, Shehadeh has felt an increased pressure to prove his patriotism in recent months, and is temporarily willing to put up with policies and actions that in the past have been unacceptable. But Shehadeh is not naïve about the root causes of recent U.S. domestic and foreign policy decisions. "The solutions of war and hate mongering tighten the grip of racism," he says. It remains to be seen how much tighter that grip will become, and what it will take to break it.

Nicole Davis is a senior program associate with the Applied Research Center.