Flying While Arab: Lessons from the Racial Profiling Controversy

By Harris, David | Civil Rights Journal, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Flying While Arab: Lessons from the Racial Profiling Controversy


Harris, David, Civil Rights Journal


In the aftermath of the September 11 tragedies in New York and Washington, DC, we Americans have heard countless times that our country has "changed forever." In many ways, especially in terms of national and personal security, this is quite true. Americans have always assumed that terrorism and other violent manifestations of the world's problems did not and would never happen here, that our geographic isolation by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans protected us. Indeed, since the Civil War, the United States has experienced no sustained violence or war on its own soil. Sadly, we know now that we are vulnerable, and that like countries all over the world, we must take steps to protect ourselves.

This is the new reality that Americans find themselves adjusting to: searches and inspections of ourselves and our belongings when we enter public buildings and areas, such as government offices, sports stadiums, and airport concourses; increased presence of law enforcement and even military personnel; enhanced police powers and curtailed civil liberties; and new powers and tactics our government will use to deal more strictly with foreigners and immigrants. While some of these changes amount to little more than inconveniences, others--particularly changes in the law that limit individual freedom while expanding government power--are in fact major changes in our way of life and the core values and meaning of American society. The U.S. Congress has already passed a sweeping piece of legislation, increasing government power over everything from wiretaps, e-mail, formerly secret grand jury information, to the detention and trial of noncitizens.

We know that the United States is a nation of immigrants--that, in many ways, immigrants built our great nation. We know that the immigrant experience has, in many ways, been at the core of the American experience, along with the experiences of African Americans liberated from slavery. The diversity and energy that immigrants have brought to our country has been, and continues to be, one of our greatest strengths. But, we also know that we have sometimes dealt harshly and unfairly with immigrants and noncitizen residents, especially in times of national emergency and crisis. Thus, it is critical that we try to understand the implications of the changes that have taken place and will continue because of the events of September 11--changes in the very idea of what America is, and in what it will be in the future.

One of these changes has been particularly noticeable--both because it represents a radical shift in what we did prior to September 11, and because it also continues a public discussion that was taking place in our country before that terrible day. Racial profiling--the use of race or ethnic appearance as a factor in deciding who merits police attention as a suspicious person--has undergone a sudden and almost complete rehabilitation. Prior to September 11, many Americans had recognized racial profiling for what it is--a form of institutional discrimination that had gone unquestioned for too long. Thirteen states had passed anti-profiling bills of one type or another, and hundreds of police departments around the country had begun to collect data on all traffic stops, in order to facilitate better, unbiased practices. On the federal level, Congressman John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan and Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin had introduced the End Racial Profiling Act of 2001, a bill aimed at directly confronting and reducing racially biased traffic stops through a comprehensive, management-based, carrot-and-stick approach.

September 11 dramatically recast the issue of racial profiling. Suddenly, racial profiling was not a discredited law enforcement tactic that alienated and injured citizens while it did little to combat crime and drugs; instead, it became a vital tool to assure national security, especially in airports. …

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