Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2001 / 18 Tishrei 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Look who's 'profiling' now -- IF you think, as some social commentators have opined, that the age of irony ended with recent terrorist attacks, consider this:

Two major polls find that African-Americans are more likely than other racial groups to favor profiling and extra-thorough airport checks for Arabs and Arab-Americans.

Since it was black Americans like me whose criticisms of the criminal justice system gave rise to such phrases as "racial profiling" and "DWB - driving while black," I was surprised by the polling result, but, sadly, I was not shocked.

We're not proud of it, but black people profile, too. We are no less prone to judge by appearances, as long as the person being judged is not us.

In cities where blacks live with or near substantial Arab populations like Chicago, Detroit and New York, I have seen many unfortunate tensions as well as warm friendships arise between members of both groups.

As one black professional woman I know responded to the polls, "Arab taxi drivers have passed me by too many times for me to feel much sympathy for them. Let them find out how it feels to be profiled."

She's far from alone in her feelings. The Boston Globe reports that 71 percent of black respondents to a Gallup Poll said they would favor more intensive security checks for Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, before they boarded airplanes.

A smaller majority of whites, 57 percent, said they would favor such a policy and, while there was no specific category for Hispanics and Asians, 63 percent of nonwhites said they, too, would favor it.

A separate Zogby International poll revealed similar results, although with a narrower margin between the races. It found 54 percent of blacks favored singling out Arab-Americans for special scrutiny at airport check-ins while 63 percent of Hispanics and 53 percent of whites opposed it.

Even more disturbing in the Gallup Poll was the 64 percent of blacks and 56 percent of other nonwhites who favored requiring Arabs, including U.S. citizens, to carry special identification as a means of preventing terrorist attacks. Forty-eight percent of whites opposed such a drastic move.

Say, didn't a lot of us Americans recently criticize the Taliban for reports, later denied by the Taliban, that they would require Hindus in Afghanistan to wear yellow ribbons on their chests? Didn't it remind a lot of us of Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews? Americans haven't gone nearly that far in profiling Arabs, but watch out. The slope is slippery.

Fortunately, all of the news is not bad on this front. Many black Americans have joined others in letting their Arab and Muslim neighbors know they do not stand alone in this time of international crisis.

A recent Congressional Black Caucus seminar, attended by James Zogby, who heads the Arab American Institute and is the brother of the pollster, recently denounced discrimination of all sorts against Arabs and Muslims. So have President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and numerous governors and mayors.

"That poll actually contradicts my experience," said my friend Ray Hanania, a Chicago author, public relations executive and child of Palestinian Arabs. "I hear more sympathy from blacks than I do from whites."

He can use it. Hanania self-published a witty 1996 memoir about his experiences being profiled titled, "I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America."

Still he does not oppose all profiling. "Hey, I don't want to get hijacked, either," he said, "whether it's by an Arab or anyone else."

Me, neither. But there's smart profiling and stupid profiling. Smart profiling looks at more than just ethnic or racial features, especially when we know from FBI reports the Sept. 11 terrorists were instructed to "look" as inconspicuously "American" as possible.

If airlines and the government want to make passengers feel safer, they should install proper security measures in airports and on planes, not take the cheap route of racial prejudices.

Hanania doesn't think black Americans who favor profiling "have really thought it through." Neither do I. The first casualty of war is often rational thinking.

Stupid profiling can alienate entire communities when their cooperation is needed for effective law enforcement. If anyone should know that lesson, it is us black Americans. It is not going to be easy for us to argue against the unfair profiling of blacks if most of us favor the unfair profiling of Arabs.

It also helps terrorist goons like Osama bin Laden sell the lie that America is waging war against Arabs and Muslims, not just terrorists. Let's prove him wrong.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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