Kinsley on Racial Profiling

The attack and murder of over 6,000 people at the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia have come collectively to known as “September 11′ or “911” for short. The shock of it has forced us to reconsider and rethink some collective assumptions. In particular, we are now confronted with the question of “racial profiling” in an effort to identify potential terrorists. Michael Kinsley the liberal editor of Slate Magazine is considered a thoughtful commentator, but fell flat on his face in a recent article when he endeavored to determine “When is Racial Profiling Okay?”

Kinsley defines racial profiling as acting with respect to individuals on “statistically valid but morally offensive” assumptions groups. It implies, “rational discrimination: racial discrimination with non-racist rationale.” Kinsley identifies bad racial profiling as making decisions that generally disfavor historically disadvantaged groups and good racial profiling as arising from benign and altruistic motives.

Recent polls suggest that Americans, by a small majority, would support the use of racial profiling against Middle Easterners. It is ironic that African-Americans, who have been victims of such profiling in the past, support such a policy at higher rates than other Americans. It is doubly ironic when a Detroit Free Press poll found that Arab-Americans support racial profiling to search for potential terrorists by a 2-to-1 margin.

Kinsley admits that “affirmative action” is indeed a form of racial profiling. As he explains, “You can believe (as I [Michael Kinsley] do) that affirmative actions is often a justifiable form of discrimination, but you cannot sensibly believe that it isn’t discrimination as all.” However, since it arises out of a commitment to advancing minority groups, it is a dangerous, but useful form of discrimination. For Kinsley, this form racial profiling is “Okay.”

In our current situation, we ask whether additional attention by security agents in public places should be paid to people, particularly men, with an obvious Middle Eastern ancestry. Only a minute fraction of Middle Easterners are terrorists, but at least recently, all terrorists have been from the Middle East.

Somewhere between ignoring the appearance and citizenship of people as they pass through security check points at airports and devoting more scrutiny solely to those with a similar background to the 911 terrorists lies a reasonable compromise. However, the reason that such special attention might be warranted has to do with more than just benign motives on the part of security agents. In National Review, Robert Levy suggests a framework where ethnic heritage should only be considered in conjunction with other factors and only if such “profiling” could demonstrate empirical success in locating potential terrorists.

In 1993, Jessie Jackson explained “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” This observation by Jackson suggests that avoiding the obvious statistical correlations about groups is not easy. It also demonstrates that noting such correlations does not necessarily imply mean-spirited bigotry.

The difference between Jackson’s experience or security situations and affirmative action has to due with how much time and information are available for judgment. Late at night, Jackson must make an instant surmise lacking additional information to make a complete judgment. At an airport, a “suspicious” appearance of a non-citizen might suggest further investigation. Statistical correlations there are used as an opportunity to gather further information before formal judgments are made. No serious person would argue that all Muslim citizens of Middle Eastern countries in the United States should be automatically arrested.

Affirmative action is radically different. There is ample time in admissions or employment decisions to be thoughtful; and deliberate at to consider far more than just the race of an applicant. A rational use of race in admissions or employment might be to identify people who might deserve a second look. However, race or ethnicity ought not be used as a definitive factor in admissions no matter how benign or sainted the intentions.

Recent events forced Kinsley to re-consider what might constitute a rational policy for security in public places. Unfortunately, in trying to arrive at a general rule about when racial profiling is “Okay” he appears not to understand the issue and falls sadly very short.

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