Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Close Encounters from a Distance

It is a common occurrence in the nightlife of U.S. cities, but also elsewhere. You see it in the limousines hired by youth, for instance, celebrating their prom. You cannot possibly miss it in restaurants either, most dramatically played out in fine dining establishments where the rules of polite conversation and discreet (or not so discreet) flirting reign.

It most lately commanded my sight in Xochimilco, Mexico City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A brigade of colorfully decorated trajineras, wooden boats propelled by a lone boatsman with a long wooden pole, awaits the visitor. Embarking a trajinera will take you on a slow-pace navigation of an extraordinary maze of ancient canals. A good two-hour tour costs 400 pesos (about U.S.$35.00), drinks not included; guidebooks mention that musicians–the iconic mariachis–are available for hire, though there were not any when I visited, a cloudy Sunday afternoon.

I was overtaken by the power of the canals as an engineering feat when a youth from a trajinera passing us by jolted me out of my reverie. "You look bored!" (estan aburridos) he shouted to our group, taunting us to join his party. His friends, beer in hand, almost all dancing, many intimately displaying "amor" (a public sight so common in Mexico), glittered in the spectacle of youthful abandon to good times. We got a good look at each other, as our respective trajineras kept drifting apart, a long pole push after another.

Here it is! It starkly asserts itself in the limousine, in the restaurant, in the trajinera. The close proximity of those in leisure and those who labor to fuel enjoyment. A class of people with purchasing power and a class of people in the service industry, often in dire need. Locked in their inequality, so near yet so afar.

It requires a particular angle, it seems, to frame this pair in its structural relationship. It takes a certain distancing from the immediacy of its interaction–the eye contact, the civil exchanges, the expression of friendliness (genuine or otherwise), all kinds of furtive glancing–to capture its objective dimension.

For, once inside the frame, once a party reveler in the limousine, a charmer in the restaurant, an enthralled traveler in the trajinera, the leisure class and the laborers–no matter how closely they get to see each other–they are positioned to look elsewhere, to look differently even at the objects their gaze may mutually desire.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Greek Americans (of Tarpon Springs) as the Past and the Future of the Greeks (I)

BBC discovered in America a politically self-innocuous explanation for the Greek economic crisis. The place was Tarpon Springs, Florida, and the sources were, well, local Greek Americans. A mere three individuals were interviewed, an old timer, a restaurant owner, and the local priest.

Here is the mini visual ethnography accompanied by a short commentary, entitled Greek Traditions Live on in Tarpon Springs. Let's take the time to watch the segment, all 5.10 minutes of it:


A disturbing element in this piece is its economy of scale. A few individuals produce grand claims. There is no effort to correct this imbalance of acute disproportion, as the reporter makes no attempt to identify alternative points of view; he shows no interest in scaling down the generality of the claims. What is elicited from the few conveniently passes as the inviolate truth that applies to the whole.

Additional elements cause further uneasiness. The conspicuous absence of analysis in this reportage is particularly troubling given the ideologically loaded commentaries of the interviewees. The points of view of the "natives" are treated as transparent truths, as authentic gems of knowledge that need no further contextualization. Thus the segment simply features a Greek American who orientalizes the Greeks, citing "Greek laziness" as the root cause of the Greek crisis.

It is not that Greek society does not have its share of blame for the crisis. But indicting the Greeks as lazy–and for that matter offering laziness as the explanation for the problem–is dead wrong, a testament of the power of Orientalism among some Greek Americans. In offering this simplistic culturalist explanation to a complicated political and economic issue of a global scale, unreflective Greek Americans join the western chorus of singling out the Greeks as the exclusive culprits in this disaster. The BBC segment conveniently makes no gesture to trouble this picture.

The "film" not only underwrites Orientalism but hints of the Greek Americans of Tarpon Springs as the model for the Greeks of tomorrow.

The story line is unambiguous. Greek America in this locality is construed along two temporalities. One the one hand, the community has been preserving its past intact as in a time-capsule; there is a fundamental sameness between the time of immigration, about a century ago, and the present. In experiencing the ethnic enclave today one experiences the Greece of the past. Time has stuck in the 1900s which is seen as the base line of a "real Greece," exclusively preserved in Tarpon Springs. It is this static view of culture allowing the statement, "Greeks from Greece come here and say that this is Greece not [what you find in] Greece."

On the other hand, the community always finds itself in tune with changes in the host society, readily responding to American modernity. Greek Americans' work ethic is a "distinctly modern" trait they picked up in America. Even traditionalist women embrace Obama politics.

There no intersection between the two temporalities. One Greek American male can be, say, a feminist American and at the same time a traditional patriarch; or an advocate of modernity and a devout traditionalist; all this with no trace of irony whatsoever.

Greek America is then simultaneously construed as a static entity encapsulating an essential Greekness and a dynamic one fully galloping through the contemporary western landscape to harvest its bounty. The hyphen is bifurcated: The Greek component directs itself toward the past, which comprises a set of eternal traditional values worth preserving. The American component is forward looking, introducing layers of modernity, improving the Greek, turning the ethnic into a contemporary subject.

This model of identity limits agency among the Greeks. It cannot account for a Greek identity acting upon tradition and reinventing it, mixing codes, or defining itself outside the contours of tradition. A Greek in this formulation is relegated to reproducing tradition, preserving intact what is already available. And, since Greek identity is inescapably defined by the past, a desirable contemporary Greek is one who imitates the West. A Greek needs a western hyphen in order to claim contemporaneity.

And in its conclusion the segment winks at the viewer, if Greece is necessarily heading toward change, couldn't it be that the Greek Americans so construed serve as a mirror for its future image? Couldn't it be that this Greek America embodies the past and future of tomorrow's Greece?

(To be continued)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Post Racial What? ... Codes, Language & a New Paradigm

(This article originally appeared at www.race-talk.org/?p=5262)

By John A. Powell

Why is it so hard to talk about race and why are these conversations so politically charged?

Historical roots notwithstanding, the Shirley Sherrod affair yet again points out that we’re addressing the wrong problem. President Obama offered that rationale in his now famous Philadelphia speech when he suggested that some of us were stuck in an old racial paradigm that no longer fits the national reality. He went further to insist the new paradigm was quickly moving to a post racial space where whites were less prejudice and could go beyond race to real problems like health care reform and economic recovery.

Coining this space as post racial is at best a reflection of hope that our nation has traveled past its intractable and tortured legacy. After a week of egg-on-the- face of venerable institutions ranging from the White House to civil rights organizations to cable news networks, who could deny that we remain locked in a racial space.

What President Obama got right is acknowledging a new racial reality. But he is not alone in his failure to come to terms with understanding the evolving, new order. It is not framed by a false either/or proposition that tracks between the Jim Crow edicts of the 1950’s or color blind enlightenment of the 21st Century. Even if the racial order of earlier decades is largely behind us, race as an issue remains salient and inescapable on the American landscape.

The old order is based on the notion of explicit racial hostility of individuals against other individuals, reflected in explicit institutional policies like segregation of schools and prohibition of interracial marriage. Because race was explicit and we could see its workings everywhere, we assume that if race were not deliberately injected into our policies the issue would be solved.

But what if racial arrangement could be driven by something other than explicit and conscious racial policies? We can tackle this by understanding the three parts to the new racial order.

One is that much of the work of sorting by race is done by policies and interactions of institutions. Take the resegregations of schools by race throughout the United States. This results from drawing school boundary lines and housing policies. The outcome is that children of color continue to be isolated, not just from white children but also from well-resourced, high performing schools. While this segregation happens by “race-neutral” policies, the outcomes, seemingly free of explicit racial hostility, are predictable, structural racialization.

The second aspect of the new racial order requires a different understanding of how the mind works. Many of our feelings and thoughts are affected by what happens at a subconscious level. This is not just true about race, but every human encounter. The vast majority of our cognitive and emotional processes are less than conscious. There is clear evidence that most of us have strong beliefs supporting both racial fairness and racial anxiety. It is not obvious which will be most dominant in a given situation. Negative stereotypes that permeate our culture make positive associations with racial minorities difficult, even when our conscious values are egalitarian. If we realize that we are experiencing racial anxiety, we can check ourselves and tap into our higher values.

There are ways to measure negative anxiety and support our more conscious values of racial fairness. In one test of implicit bias, respondents are more likely to see a smile on the face of a white person than a black person. This negative association can be shifted by positive images, stories and exemplars of black people.

The third realm of race awareness is through the conflict with our conscious value which can make it even more difficult to confront implicit feelings. One of the least effective ways to resolve this racial conflict is by denying to see it. Race conflict doesn’t go away, even if it is ignored.

The White House and many liberal pundits have been trapped by the false either/or paradigm that refuses to accept the new racial order. The net result is pandering and/or caving to the right-wings’ insistence that to notice race is itself racist. The default position for those embracing a “post racialism” is to retreat to simple platitudes that deny they see it.

Our unconscious bias and institutional policies cannot go it alone. We need to be fortified with a new racial language. The choice is to decode structural racialization and implicit bias or be consigned to a confused post racial world with no translation or escape.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Assimilation ... into What?

Johnny Otis' (1921–) autobiographical excerpt below reminds us that every time one speaks of assimilation one needs to answer the question, "assimilation into what"?

His confession brings home the deleterious effects of assimilating into whiteness:

"As a youngster in Berkeley I lived under constant pressure to abandon my social direction [interracial friendships and a propensity to connect with black culture] and become 'white.' I got this at school from teachers and counselors, from white friends, and especially from my mother. My father was not much concerned about race or color one way or another. Having come to America as an adult, he retained much of his European-Mideastern point of view and was basically uninfluenced by New World racism. My mother, on the other hand, had come here as a small child and was raised in this country; she was quite Americanized and held a more negative attitude. In spite of her Christian posture and her American moralistic convictions, she could not bring herself what she felt she believed. She was a wonderfully dedicated and loving mother in every way but one–the one that counted most to me.

There were eighteen long years between the time Phyllis [Walker, a black woman] and I were married and the day my mother was able to finally meet and accept her daughter-in-law" (xli)

Johnny Otis. 2009 [1968]. Listen to the Lambs. University of Minnesota Press.

Immigrant Fathers and their Sons

From Johnny Otis' (born John Veliotes, 1921–) newly reprinted autobiography (2009), Listen to the Lambs (University of Minnesota Press):

"'Please, Pa, please Pa ... Mr. Williams says I can have 'hem if you say okay!' Something about Mr. Williams' health demanded that he moves to Arizona. The pigeons were mine, fantails, satinettes, homers; all I needed was my father's permission. Papa grumbled and fused. 'In the middle of a Depression he wants to feed pigeons,' but even as he grumbled he was building the coop on top of our garage.

'You gonna pay for the feed from your paper route,' Papa declared in a loud voice. Then he added almost under his breath, "I sell it to you wholesale from the store.' I went through the motions of paying for the feed but Papa wouldn't take the money. He loved to holler and admonish but he was all bark. 'No, dolling, you don't have to pay ... what kind father am I to make my son pay for chicken feed?'" (108)

"Goodies in the Native Tongue...." – Food and Memory

From Johnny Otis' (born John Veliotes, 1921–) newly reprinted autobiography (2009), Listen to the Lambs (University of Minnesota Press):

"The night before I left Omaha we had a little farewell get-together in a little 24th Street restaurant. The proprietor, sensing that this was some kind of occasion, brought out some Near-Eastern delicacies.

'Here are some nice Greek sweets for your little party, boys,' he said. As he spread them out he began to explain what they were called in the native tongue.

Preston Love [a renowned alto saxophonist and songwriter (1921–2004)] looked at me and smiled. The old Greek [proprietor] didn't know it, but Preston knew that I could've identified them as well as he. The smells and tastes of the almond-sesame-honey goodies swept me back to when I was a little kid" (72)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Greek American Histories, Popular and Scholarly

The phenomenon of popular (non-professional) historians publishing books on Greek America's past continues unabated. A spate of recent monographs on community history testifies to the continuous vibrancy of this popular tradition, a tradition that heavily draws upon oral history, photography archives, and family lore among other documentary material.

Consider, for instance, the following sample of the most recent titles:

The Greek Community of Essex County, New Jersey (by John Antonakos, AuthorHouse 2010)

Greeks of Stark County (by William H. Samonides and Regine Johnson Samonides, Arcadia Publishing 2009)

Charleston's Greek Heritage (by George J. Morris, History Press 2008)

Greeks in Phoenix (by Holy Trinity Greek Historical Committee, Arcadia Publishing 2008)

This interest in writing local history further extends among Greek American academics whose professional expertise do not necessarily include history. Deno Trakas and Michael George Davos, for instance, are both professors of English who have ventured into historical research, producing Because Memory Isn't Internal: A Story of Greeks in Upstate South Carolina (Hub City Writers Project 2010) and Greeks in Chicago (Arcadia Publishing 2009) respectively.

How do popular histories represent the ethnic past? What are their sources and what kind of questions do their authors ask? Do they feature diverse perspectives, or do they privilege a particular point of view? In that case, who is excluded, and why?

I have a longstanding interest in this topic, which was the subject of my first book-length research project, Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America (see, www.ohioswallow.com/book/Contours+of+White+Ethnicity).

Given the powerful presence of popular history in the cultural landscape of Greek America I wish to reiterate the necessity of analyzing it. This is because the writing of history entails more than the mere stating of facts; more than producing documents about the past. Rather, in selecting what facts to feature and in interpreting these facts from a particular angle, history shapes our understanding of how society works. In turns, it shapes how individuals act upon society.

Take for example the historical question of why certain ethnicities managed to succeed socioeconomically. At stake in interpreting this phenomenon is our understanding of the causes of poverty, the workings of American society, and the significance of cultural values for a given ethnicity. History, in other words, powerfully shapes our understanding of the nation (is the nation meritocratic or does it discriminate?); narrates ethnic identity and community (what does the success or failure say about a group); and defines the identity of other ethnicities and racial groups (questions about the socioeconomic success of one particular ethnicity implicitly offers an explanation about the failure of others). In turn, this knowledge will be instrumental in the ways in which individuals will be predisposed to act (or abstain from acting) toward poverty plaguing Others.

The fact that history is implicated in contemporary political issues heightens the responsibility of writing history. This is why professional historians exhibit such remarkable reflexivity in the ways they represent the past.

What about the popular historians of Greek America? Are they conscious of the ideological operation of their work? And if critical reflexivity is too mush to ask from popular chroniclers, what is the responsibility of professional scholars in this process? Is there a space where popular and professional historians could enter into a constructive dialogue?

One thing is for certain. Written in a language accessible to the lay reader, and often featuring photographic material of particular interest to a multitude of individuals, families, and communities, popular histories are likely to be read widely. They are positioned therefore to crucially shape Greek America's understanding of itself, the nation, and Others.

Thus one would hope that professional researchers would engage with popular history. The topic certainly invites a multifaceted research project exploring issues of popular-history production, the relationship between popular and professional history, strategies for popularizing the latter, critical ethnic historiography, etc.

It is relevant to share here my closing thoughts from an article I published in 2008, where I discussed precisely this issue in reference to the work of Helen Papanikolas, a popular ethnographer and historian ["Research Frontiers, Academic Margins: Helen Papanikolas and the Authority to Represent the Immigrant Past." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol. 34 (1&2): 9–29. 2008]. My remarks below reiterate a number of points I made above while highlighting the vital importance of professional scholarship in producing local heritage:

"Undertaken as a life-long vocation, Papanikolas’ work produced a vast archive and brought high institutional visibility to the nascent field of Greek American studies. Her legacy lies in managing to tap into an emerging cultural zeitgeist–multiculturalism and its corollary discourse on roots–and in effectively undertaking long-standing research and cultural activism, as testified by the expansive dissemination of her work in numerous venues, including professional societies, scholarly journals, popular publications, library archives, public lectures, books, and the university classroom (see Anagnostou 2004/2005).

Significantly, there is yet another crucial component that layers the making of this archive. “[W]hen an article was published about an important event and did not include Greeks,” she writes, “I immediately researched the subject and wrote an essay to show their participation” (2001:20). At a time when academic Greek American Studies was still in its infancy, this investment returned high dividends, proving instrumental in advancing the field. This fundamental contribution explains the current tribute and intense scholarly interest extended to Papanikolas’ work.

I have dissected here the research politics that turned a popular folklorist into an institutionally recognized ethnographic authority. This analytical route illuminates at least two implications for contemporary scholarship on Greek America. First, the necessity arises for a reflexive Greek American historiography. Second, the need emerges for critical thinking about local Greek heritage production and the various components that contribute to its making (institutions, popular researchers, and academics among others).

My discussion demonstrates that the documentation of the past is never a straightforward enterprise, a mere collection of facts. It brings into focus the awareness that the past cannot possibly be approached as an aggregate of transparent facts, which are available for automatic retrieval. Instead, the past is best understood as a social construction framed by powerfully entrenched assumptions about proper methodologies of generating knowledge, rules of assessing its validity, the poetics and politics of its telling, as well as the ideological and institutional context within which research is produced and disseminated. This is to say that all sorts of archival material, including oral histories and scholarly interpretations of this archive, constitute representations that actively construct the past, not merely record it. In this respect, my analysis suggests interpretive caution when contemporary scholars of Greek America turn to the work of earlier historians, ethnographers, and folklorists to treat it as unmediated evidence.12

A critical approach to representations of the past matters because specific archives enable specific kinds of knowledge while they disable others. Analyzing the past as social construction inevitably sheds light to what has been omitted or marginalized. Reflexivity creates spaces to question established truths: what if immigrant culture was not as uniform as it has been represented to be? What if the vernacular never vanished? What if ethnographic nativity is but one among a variety of locations, each one offering a distinct (but not superior) source of knowledge? Mapping how we get to know the past only expands the territories of knowledge we have yet to explore, produce, and disseminate. It invites us to examine, for example, the ways in which individuals, families, and institutions reproduced, transformed, or radically altered the vernacular. Such critical scholarship holds the promise of undermining taken-for-granted narratives by asking questions never considered previously, and in turn producing alternative histories and cultures.

Finally, in making a bid for generating a denser field of Greek American ethnography and history, Papanikolas provides an indispensable compass, pointing to the value of studying ethnicity in specific regions, and to the importance of cultivating ties between researchers and local institutions. This crucial legacy urges us to reflect on how non-academic researchers negotiate their place in relation to those institutions, and, further, on the place of academics in this enterprise. Since the time when Papanikolas established productive relations with her city’s historical societies, universities, libraries, and museums, regional institutions have intensified their interest in ethnic heritage. Significantly, this takes place at a time when heritage production is increasingly generated by popular historians and ethnographers whose books, oral histories, and museums exhibits enjoy popular and institutional acclaim.13 What kinds of methodological assumptions inform these preservation projects? What ideologies do these narratives advance? Under what circumstances do institutions embrace popular heritage undertakings, and under what conditions do they reject them? Given that this process is heavily mediated, as my analysis demonstrates, scholars cannot afford to ignore the manner in which knowledge is produced every time popular research and institutions interface. Because representations of ethnicity matter, scholars must find ways to engage with these issues. Research on the making of local heritage offers itself as an obvious critical route. Participation in the social production of ethnicity is another, though this territory is uncharted to most scholars and therefore fraught with unfamiliar challenges.14 The question therefore is not whether we need to have our voice heard in the public construction of ethnicity, but how are we to position ourselves in the complex contours of this process. Helen Papanikolas’ legacy reminds us that no matter how wide we spread our research net we have much to gain in continuing to reflect on the potential, limits, and implications of local knowledge production.


12 For a detailed analysis of the ways in which professional and popular folklore construct Greek America see Anagnostou (2009)

13 Consider for example the complex intersections associated with the Newark Public Library exhibit Remembering Newark’s Greeks: An American Odyssey (2002-2003), which eventually led to the publication of a book with the same title (Lampros 2006). Initiated by Angelique Lampros and Peter Markos, both Newark-born teachers and administrators, this archival project points to the complex interfaces that may infuse or deny institutional life to popular heritage production. To begin with, The New Jersey Historical Society turned down a funding proposal for the project. On the other hand, the Hellenic Heritage Fund at the Newark Public Library made the exhibit possible, while The New Jersey Information Center and Newark Historical Society embraced it. But based on a disagreement with the author, Rutgers University Press rejected the proposal to turn the material into a book. Lampros envisioned a commemorative book that would “capture the words, the feelings and the images of the people themselves” (quoted in Karageorge 2007:7) while the Press, in contrast, pictured a book “written from the perspective of a historian” (6). It was ultimately Donning Publishers, a company specializing in commemorative volumes and pictorial histories, which published the book. A review in The National Herald portrays the book as “a delicious baklava of a book … capturing the warmth, beauty and uniqueness of that largely vanished world of Greek America” (Karageorge 2007:6). The critical approach I am proposing here would have raised different questions. One must examine for instance the reasons why the curator and author privileged the telling of the past through the voices of the people. What were the assumptions that led to her rejection of narrating the past from a historian’s perspective? Within this framework, one must also consider what kinds of perspectives are disabled once a historical account privileges oral testimonies at the expense of historical analysis. Ethnographers and heritage scholars will be well situated to explore these concerns.

14 Artemis Leontis (1997) introduces this mode of engagement in her discussion of “cultural activism” in Greek America. Given the vast investment in time and energy that “such an absorbing project” (85) demands, this commitment raises practical issues for academics. Scholars specializing in museum studies and ethnic preservation are best positioned to systematically participate in local heritage production.


ANAGNOSTOU, YIORGOS. Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009

––––––––. “Helen Papanikolas as a Humanist: Immigrants, ‘Contact Zones,’ and Empathy in the American West.” Modern Greek Studies YearBook 20/21 (2004/2005): 147-173.

KARAGEORGE, PENELOPE. “New Book Extols Legacy of Newark’s Greeks: Beautiful Evocation of Almost Vanished Immigrant Society.” Review of Remembering Newark’s Greeks: An American Odyssey. The National Herald, Book Supplement, May 26 (2007): 6-7.

LAMPROS, ANGELIQUE. Remembering Newark’s Greeks: An American Odyssey.Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company Publishers, 2006.

LEONTIS, ARTEMIS. “The Intellectual in Greek America.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 23.2 (1997): 85-109.

PAPANIKOLAS, HELEN Z. “The Time of the Little Black Bird.” Greek American Review 52.641 (2001): 17-20."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Racial Profiling is Morally Wrong and Bad for America

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.