VI. Racial Profiling and September 11th

Prior to September 11th, most people acknowledged that racial profiling was wrong if it took place, but public discourse denied its occurrence. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that “[t]here should be no loopholes or safe harbors for racial profiling. Official discrimination of this sort is wrong and unconstitutional no matter what the context.” Since September 11th, public sentiment has changed concerning racial profiling--at least when it comes to Arab Americans. In a recent Gallup Poll, fifty-eight percent of the respondents said that they supported “requiring Arabs, including those who are United States citizens, to undergo special, more intensive security checks before boarding planes in the United States.” Many commentators also changed their minds and were more hesitant about prohibiting racial profiling. Some commentators now suggest that racial profiling is a legitimate police tactic. Some have said that random checking is “neither efficient nor effective.” Instead, they advocate a “focused system of profiling passengers who are deemed likelier to pose risk, using screeners trained to scrutinize travelers and their behavior.”

Since September 11th, the Middle Eastern terrorist stereotype has completely overpowered the oil millionaire stereotype. As a result, Arabs have been “darkened” in the mind of American public. In fact, since many white Americans often are unable to distinguish between people of color of different racial and ethnic ancestries, this terrorist stereotype has even expanded to include Southeast Asians of Indian and Pakistani ethnicity. Therefore, these groups have metamorphosed from so-called oil millionaires and model minorities into being Arab terrorists.

Airline officials and law enforcement officials have racially profiled some African American men as possible Middle Eastern terrorists. A federal investigation of possible terrorist cells in the Pacific Northwest is focused on a group of African American converts to Islam. Federal authorities charged six individuals in Portland, Oregon with conspiring to join al Qaeda and the Taliban, despite the fact that none of the six had ever traveled to Afghanistan. Five of the six individuals are American-born African Americans. In addition, law enforcement officials have stated that they believe that the next al Qaeda terrorists are likely to come from Africa or Asia. Some African American men have reported that they believe that they are being profiled as Middle Eastern terrorists. Abdullah Abu Kusomo, an African American man, reported that he “is almost always searched when he travels” because of his name.

The recent link between the drug trade and terrorism provides other opportunities for law enforcement authorities to profile African Americans. Almost one-third (twelve of twenty-eight) of the groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States Department of State allegedly traffic in illegal drugs. The drug money reportedly funds terrorist organizations. Attorney General John Ashcroft stated: “[f]ollowing extraordinary collaboration and information-sharing between agencies, this list has been developed, and what it reveals is shocking.” Ashcroft indicated that al Qaeda was on this list. Moreover, the link between terrorism and the drug trade is being etched in the public mind. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a series of advertisements that link illicit drugs to terrorism. This link between terrorism and drug use is worrisome because the war on drugs has often been a war against poor people and African Americans. African Americans are a small minority of illegal drug users, but a large majority of people sentenced for drug offenses.

Since September 11th, racial profiling has been the subject of jokes. For instance, shortly after September 11th, the Doonesbury comic strip ran a series of strips highlighting America's anxiety about racial profiling of Arab Americans. In one strip, the title character Mike Doonesbury is seated in an airplane next to an Arab American passenger. While waiting for takeoff, the Arab American passenger talks on his cell phone “praising Allah,” stating that he “used the cash sent,” and discussing his car rental and motel. Doonesbury “profiles” the Arab American passenger and panics. Once he learns that his fellow passenger is actually just a guy who sells palm pilots from Tacoma, Washington, Doonesbury relaxes. In another strip, an African American passenger on the same plane asks Doonesbury: “Hey, buddy. What's the story on the guy you're sitting with?” Doonesbury responds: “He's a salesman from Tacoma. He's flying home to see his mother.” The African American passenger responds: “Oh . . . that's a relief! Well, not exactly a relief, just . . . well you know.” Doonesbury responds to the African American passenger: “Okay, so this must be weird for you.” The African American passenger finally responds: “Yeah, I don't need this kind of irony in my life.” Saturday Night Live ran a weekend update segment in which cast member Tracy Morgan, who is black, pleaded to the police to “Shake me down! Shake me down!”

Some of the humor is designed to defuse a difficult issue, but some of it is designed to suggest that racial profiling is acceptable and that African Americans no longer have to worry about it. People of African descent must to be wary of these blandishments for several reasons. First, profiling of people of African descent has now probably expanded to include crimes of terror. Zacarius Moussaoui has more of an African appearance than the nineteen alleged perpetrators, and he was the only person apprehended prior to the September 11th attacks, even though there were significant bad acts by the nineteen alleged perpetrators to make others suspicious. Second, since September 11th, the first persons captured for suspected terrorist plots in the United States are members of racial groups that have a long been the targets of racial profiling--a Puerto Rican, Jose Padilla, and a person of African descent, Richard Reid.

American citizens have been deputized to help ferret out future terrorist activities. Since September 11th, the United States has constantly been on alert. The Director of Homeland Security developed a color coding system to alert Americans to dangers and the nation has been at code yellow for high risk ever since. Americans have received unspecified warnings of possible attacks. Americans have been told that the next attack could be on the United States coasts, that tractor-trailer trucks could be involved, and that terrorists might rent apartments for the purpose of conducting terrorist attacks. Further, Americans were told that the July 4th holiday might precipitate more attacks. Yet, the authorities have not told Americans when, where, or how a future attack is supposed to take place. The purpose of the warnings is to put us on alert so that the public can help identify suspicious individuals or circumstances. Notwithstanding the vagueness of these warnings, all Americans are supposed to remain vigilant and on guard.

The deputizing of the American public will lead to further racial profiling. Since the American public generally believes that those with dark skin are more likely to be violent than whites, they are likely to look upon anyone with non-white skin as a possible terrorist.

Some have argued that, since all of the September 11th hijackers were Arabs, racial profiling of this group would aid in the finding of future terrorists. However, more than three million Arab-Americans live in the United States. If all 1,200 persons detainees were terrorists and they were the only terrorists, then less than a fraction of one percent of Arab Americans are terrorists while the other ninety-nine percent of all Arab Americans are not terrorists. But of the 1,200 suspected al Qaeda sympathizers rounded up by the FBI after September 11th, all but seventy-four were released. Of the seventy-four, thirty-eight are likely to be deported for immigration violations and criminal offenses not related to terrorism. By using race as the sole criteria, law enforcement officials detained many innocent people, and so far have failed to find many so-called sleeper agents.

According to the guidelines of the Transportation Security Administration, detailed searches are conducted at random. The random screenings take place at the security checkpoint and, later, at the gate. An additional level of scrutiny is geared specifically to the passenger's actions. For example, did the passenger buy a one-way ticket? Did the passenger pay for her ticket in cash? Did the passenger change her itinerary within seventy-two hours of flight? Law enforcement officials say that profiling of individuals based on their race or country of origin is prohibited. But Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, has said that he believes ethnic profiling is taking place. He said that he has asked the Federal government to collect statistics on the number of Arabs being searched under its current policy, and it has declined.

Unlike the case with profiling of African Americans, many white Americans are now willing to admit that they engage in racial profiling of Arab Americans. Since we are all deputized, some profiling is taking place by average everyday citizens. In Newsweek's My Turn column, author Lori Hope reported that, while her plane was waiting on the tarmac for take off, she noticed a suspicious-looking man. She described the man as “olive-skinned, black-haired, and clean shaven, with a blanket covering his legs and feet.” She reported that she thought his use of a blanket “was strange because I felt so warm. No one else was using a blanket.” Ms. Hope then reported the “suspicious-looking” man to the flight attendants. The head flight attendant told the author that the suspicious passenger was removed from the plane, that “he seemed depressed, but also very nervous.” Finally the head flight attendant told her: “You did the right thing. Once we're in the air, it's too late.” Understandably, Americans are frightened and anxious about future terrorist activities, but there are lots of reasons the “suspicious-looking” man may have needed a blanket. One might ask whether she would have done the same thing if a white man had his legs covered with a blanket?

Airline personnel, not working in a law enforcement capacity, are also profiling passengers. On Christmas Day, an Arab American secret service agent, Walied Shater, was scheduled to fly from Baltimore to Dallas for his assignment protecting President Bush. As a federal agent carrying a gun, Shater completed the required E2 form, necessary for him to carry a gun onto the plane. However, the secret service agent's original flight was canceled. Unable to find a blank E2 form, the gate agent crossed out the flight and seat number from the canceled flight and inserted those for the rebooked flight. While Shater was asked to leave the plane for additional security clearance, the flight attendant discovered a book entitled “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” that Shater left in his seat. The flight attendants told the pilot that they were “concerned” about the passenger and his book with “Arabic-style print.” The pilot found the E2 form incomplete and illegible. He went to talk to the passenger who allegedly made “loud [and] abusive comments.” The pilot telephoned airline security to have the secret service agent removed from the plane. The pilot said in a statement: “With the lives of the . . . passengers and crew [at stake], I . . . edge[d] toward the side of safety.”

The government is also profiling individuals of Middle Eastern ancestry. In November 2001, the Department of Justice started to interview “more than 5,000 people nationwide--the majority Middle Eastern men ages eighteen to thirty-three years old who came here within the last two years on nonimmigrant visas in search of information on terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.” In March of 2002, the Justice Department decided to interview 3,000 additional men, ages eighteen to forty-six, who also entered the United States on nonimmigrant visas, between October 2001 and February 2002, from countries with an al Qaeda presence. Although the Justice Department said that these men were not suspected of crimes, they “might, either wittingly or unwittingly, be in the same circles, communities, or social groups as those engaged in terrorist activities.” The local United States Attorney sent letters to these individuals that stated:

Your name was brought to our attention because, among other things, you came to Michigan on a visa from a country where there are groups that support, advocate, or finance international terrorism. We have no reason to believe that you are, in any way, associated with terrorist activities. Nevertheless, you may know something that could be helpful in our efforts.

The interviews are described as voluntary, but an Immigration and Naturalization Service memorandum suggests that some of those interviewed might be kept in custody without bond if the “investigators [develop] an interest in them.” Some police departments refused to assist the Department of Justice in this endeavor because they believed that it was illegal racial profiling. However, seventy-nine percent of the American public approved this program. Some commentators have been equivocal concerning whether the policy is illegal racial profiling.