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Racial Profiling: Justice for All?

By Ajai Bharadwaj

Growing up in an all- white suburb of Milwaukee, the second most racially segregated city in the United States, I always felt a little different because of my ethnicity. In a high school of 800, I was the only Indian. Some of my classmates thought I was an Arab, and used racial slurs of that nature. My friends, however, never treated me any differently. Thinking back, I do recall often driving around the neighborhood at night and noticing that the majority of people pulled over by the cops were not white. It’s easy to remember, especially because each time, my friends and I would sarcastically comment, “Oh, they must have been driving while black.” Things like that, at some level, made me feel that being colored put me at a disadvantage.

The law enforcement community has been put in the spotlight recently due to such “racial profiling.” Racial profiling is generally defined as any police-initiated action (e.g., detainment, arrests, searches) that is solely based on the suspect’s race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than their behavior or any information that may lead police to believe they have been engaged in criminal activity. The recent trend has been to use the term “racially based policing,” which takes into account policing actions that may involve racial bias coupled with some other factor (such as race and the neighborhood in which the action occurs). This new terminology seems like an attempt to mask the fact that minorities are still being singled out solely based on their race.

Racial profiling has been around for quite a long time, no doubt since the times when slavery was legal. In the “melting pot” of America, however, racism has become more than just a black and white issue. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, many people have begun to realize that the problem is bigger than they thought, myself included.

I have been detained at airport security checkpoints numerous times since Sept. 11, including three times during one trip in early 2002. Just because my skin is brown and I have black hair, why should it automatically be assumed that I am much more likely to be an international terrorist? Prior to Sept. 11, I had never been detained at a security checkpoint in my life.

Turban-wearing Sikhs have been especially discriminated against since the attacks. Does the simple fact that someone wears a turban and has a beard make that person automatically more likely to be a terrorist? No.

Even more outrageous are the stories we hear about people being removed from airplanes. In June 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union filed five lawsuits against four major airlines whose pilots removed people from their flights based on race or ethnicity. In one case, a man (a U.S. citizen) sitting in the first class section of the plane noticed an elderly woman glaring at him and several other passengers. He then allegedly heard the woman tell the captain, “Those brown-skinned men are behaving suspiciously.” Minutes later, he and two other men were removed from the plane and put on a later flight.

In all the cases, the men were of Middle Eastern or Asian descent, and all had passed rigorous security checks and were cleared to board. They were only taken off the plane because someone felt “uncomfortable” with them on board. Most of the terrorists in recent year who have acted out against this country have been non-minorities. And yet, would the woman on the plane have felt as “uncomfortable” if a John Walker Lindh, Timothy McVeigh, or a Ted Kaczynski had sat next to her on the plane? The fact is that anyone can be a terrorist.

Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry, you ask? To quote ACLU National Staff Attorney Reginald Shuford, “Absolutely. All of us want to be safe. But...what happened to these men had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with bias.”

Isn’t it a little unpatriotic to complain about a minor inconvenience such as this, given the legitimate need to combat terrorism? According to Shuford, “There is nothing patriotic about discrimination, nor is there any honor in suffering it in silence. To the contrary, allowing it to go on unchallenged seriously undermines fundamental American values that we fought so hard to achieve.”

Racial profiling threatens to undermine the very fabric of American society today by providing a means through which racism is allowed to continue in this country. Where does one draw the line between “racial profiling” and racism? Don’t you find it interesting that the term “racial profiling” does not have an immediately negative connotation like “racism” does? Getting past the politically correct terminology and putting it bluntly, racial profiling is simply racism in the name of security. Profiling people via ethnicity-based stereotypes and generalizations is the same as being a racist and judging someone on their color. I, for one, am sick of walking into a convenience store and being quietly watched as I walk up and down the aisles.

Racial profiling, racism, and other forms of prejudice all stem from a fear of the unknown. The only way to combat prejudice is to face it head on. Every person in the world lives in their own unique little sphere of existence, and very few of us make the effort to venture outside of it. I implore everyone to explore the unknown. Get to know a black man, a white girl, someone from the Middle East, someone from China, an Indian, a Hispanic person. Leave your little cave behind and see the world through the eyes of others -- you might be surprised at what you will see.