Racial profiling refers to governmental surveillance directed at a suspect group on the basis of certain physical characteristics. This practice of selective targeting currently occupies center stage in debates over national security in post 9/11 America and the curbing of illegal immigration. Most recently, it is discussed in relation to the controversial Arizona immigration law. Hotly debated, the law allows police to check the immigration status of people who are lawfully stopped and deemed “reasonably suspicious” for being illegal. Physical characteristics, according to legal experts, enter as a factor in this process.
A section of the public supports racial profiling as a statistically effective tool to safeguard security and punish illegality. Critics on the other hand, have strongly argued that racial profiling cannot solve the nation’s problems. For example, the fact that Arab Americans and Muslims constitute a greatly diverse population (which includes “whites” and African Americans among others) makes racial profiling unenforceable. Regarding illegal immigration and terrorism, racial profiling is seen as a solution, yet it cannot take the place of systemic solutions to the crisis of porous borders.
Debates about racial profiling as a rational response to terrorism and illegality overlook an acute moral problem. In marking certain groups as a source of threat, racial profiling puts innocent citizens, residents, and immigrants under pervasive scrutiny. As a result it produces a sense of exclusion, alienation, and fear among members of the targeted group. It also diminishes the trust in law enforcement among law-abiding citizens.
In a fundamental sense, racial profiling defines certain Americans of the “wrong look” as not fully American. Or, to put it differently, it puts them on continuous trial. It is a menacing force, causing devastating psychological and physical harm to those targeted. It must be unequivocally rejected as morally wrong. Moreover, it is bad for America.
Feeding popular suspicions toward the targeted groups, racial profiling also involves the public, not only the government. It alerts otherwise well-meaning citizens that certain people who look or dress in particular ways are potential enemies. And it emboldens a race-centered harassment of immigrants and minorities. This exclusionary impulse is far from marginal in the country. The fact that a book advocating a racially homogeneous America–Peter Brimelow’s national bestseller Alien Nation: Common Sense about America’s Immigration Disaster (1995)–enjoyed such great popularity speaks volumes of the power nativist arguments have on the contemporary imagination even in groups that have suffered prejudice in the recent past.
Racial profiling intensifies, therefore, the monitoring, the fearing, and even despising of certain peoples in all aspects of public life. Lawful citizens who fit the profile are seen as not fully American, as aliens in their own neighborhood, schools, or workplace. No wonder innocent Muslim, Arab, or Hispanic Americans experience a profound sense of alienation. Stigmatization functions as a constant reminder of being considered second-class citizens, not fully belonging to the nation. The American decree of equal inclusion irrespectively of ancestry is violated, producing anger and humiliation.
Those who argue that lawful inhabitants of the country have nothing to fear trivialize the ways stigmatization damages the soul and offends one’s civil sensibilities. Individuals singled out because of their appearance offer testimonies of harrowing experiences. As reported in the media, books, as well as formal and informal discussions, they live in a state of siege, being closely watched while flying, subjected to constant suspicion and intrusive searches, showered by ethnic slurs, and being harassed in their own communities. Racial profiling holds a significant population of lawful individuals as hostages. Designating certain Americans as potentially hostile alien, it marks them as lesser Americans.
In addition to psychological horror, physical harm is integral to racial profiling. This is because racial profiling sanctions all kinds of extralegal violence. Having the “wrong look” could be a matter of life or death, particularly during times of crisis. In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attack for instance, over 1,000 incidents of hate crime were reported against individuals who “looked” in the eyes of the vigilantes as Middle Eastern and Muslim. The fact that some of the victims were Sikh, mistakenly thought to be Arabs, sent shock waves across a rainbow spectrum of Americans who looked “south Asian,” including Caribbean Americans. In the aftermath of the disaster many Americans of the “wrong look” feared to go to their work and send their children to school. “Non-whites” are a fair game in the “all seeing” and at the same time blind force of racial profiling.
Numerous examples of Greek immigrants victimized by racial profiling in the past bring this point close to home. In the infamous 1909 Omaha riot as well as the 1918 anti-Greek riots in Toronto, Greek residences and businesses were razed to the ground. No wonder communities scorched by racial profiling drape themselves in the American flag as the ultimate line of defense.
Supporters of racial profiling wrongly assure the public that racial profiling is not random; that it is based on behavioral cues legitimizing suspicions of illegality. This position entirely misses the point that “suspicion” is a socially constituted experience. It is well known that an innocent activity such as riding a bike in the white suburbs may raise suspicion if the biker is of a “certain look or color.” Or consider the horrifying incident in Pirtleville, Arizona, when Border Patrol Agents opened fire on thirteen-year old Rosita Gonzales. Rosita was playing in a tent set in the backyard of their house, when, startled by strange noises she heard, ran toward her home. The Agents fired, misrecognizing her as a fleeing illegal immigrant.
There is yet another moral dimension in racial profiling, an aspect rarely if ever explicitly acknowledged by the public. Racial profiling associates illegal aliens with non-whiteness. This is a false connection, obscuring two interrelated phenomena: The existence of undocumented European immigrants and the preferential treatment they have often received in relation to their Latin American counterparts.
Take the case of the thousands, as many as 30,000, of Irish who overstayed their visas remaining in the United States illegally. This was in the 1980s when, not unlike today, the nation was alarmed over an illegal immigration crisis. Yet those so-called “new Irish” were not subjected to the public hostility that is commonly reserved toward non-white undocumented aliens. The new Irish are “Illegal but not Alien” an article in The New York Times proclaimed. And Boston’s Mayor unflinchingly extended “the welcom[ing] mat,” creating an office to provide legal aid to this group.
I cite this example not to single out the Irish, obviously, but to illustrate that racial profiling creates hierarchies among illegal immigrants. This raises a deeper issue: Racial profiling grants unearned privileges to those who most closely approximate a “white phenotype.” This is morally wrong as it conflates illegality with non-white status. In this arrangement “non-white” Americans are called to keep proving their national belonging, a surveillance to which their white counterparts are for the most part spared.
Let us face it: Racial profiling divides the country into “good white” and potentially “bad brown” Americans.
Supporters of racial profiling would have the public believe that this practice entails an inconvenient interlude in otherwise normal lives. I have shown why this is not the case. Racial profiling forces millions of Americans to painfully adjust their everyday lives to address its pernicious effects. It is deeply harmful, extracting immense human cost. Racial profiling is bad for America.
The nation must collectively invest in strategies to combat terrorism and illegality without resort to racial discrimination.