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Dealing with racial profiling
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Forsyth County News
There is no place for racial profiling in civilized society.

The ACLU defines “racial profiling” as “the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.”

But what does this mean, and how does one define the use of the word “discriminatory.”

One of the clearest and most regrettable instances of official government racial profiling in our history was what happened to Americans of Japanese descent during the WWII period. Hopefully, we will never see internment camps of this nature again, but the clear indication of the racial nature of this action can be seen by contrast with the treatment of Americans of German descent.

It was a terrible error, but despite the treatment of their loved ones, many members of the community went to fight valiantly for this nation. What we learned we should never forget.

Mankind seems to have an almost universal problem of accepting anyone who is “different.” First reactions tend to be negative and prejudices, once formed, take long periods of time (in many cases, generations) to dissipate. And when some negative behavior is associated with a significant number of people from a given group, the tendency is to regard the entire group with suspicion or more.

The issues are extremely complex. Let’s look at two of the most critical challenges in this regard that we face today: terrorists and illegal immigrants.

Let’s start with an extreme case.

The world, a la H G Wells, is suddenly under attack from green Martians. It’s unlikely that anyone would hesitate to use all available force to repel that attack, and it would be directed at anything green that moved on its own volition – despite the fact that there might be Martians who opposed the war.

This is a form of racial profiling, but the situation is relatively clear. There are no green humans and green is a clearly identified threat.

But let’s look at terrorism today. Almost, but not, all the terrorist acts have been committed by individuals who fit an ethnic profile. Should this be ignored? Should it be ignored by the other members of that profile group who are just as much at risk as everyone else?

The problem is how to separate the small number of terrorists or potential terrorists from the much larger group whose primary problem is sharing that same profile, at least on the surface.

It would be simple if there was a world law requiring that every terrorist wear an identifying sign. Then there would be neither need nor justification whatsoever for profiling. You just go after the people with signs.

This is not as facetious as it may sound. For centuries, that’s the way the world functioned. Countries put together armies, armies donned uniforms and then they went to battle. Soldiers knew, by the uniforms, who to attack and who not to and they could separate (in most cases, and if they wished to) the combatants from the civilians.

That’s no longer the case.

Everyone knows that the probability of a 75 year-old lady from Vermont committing a terrorist act is very, very low, although not zero. The probability of a Muslim young male committing a terrorist act is also very, very low, since the number of active terrorists is very low compared to the population.

But the probability that the next terrorist act will be committed by some young Muslim male is very, very high. And for those serving in the armed forces in Iraq, there is a constant fear that the young woman walking down the street has a bomb strapped around her waist. The probability may be low, but one mistake can be fatal. Now what do we do with that data?

The difference between discriminatory action, or racial profiling, and reasonable action should rest with the concept of “probable cause.” I think few people would disagree.

But the problem is that the concept of “probable cause” is one of judgment, and human judgment is often clouded by human emotion – read that as “prejudice.” Keeping prejudice out of the equation is the key.

We have a similar problem when it comes to illegal immigration.

In 2008, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that there were 11 million illegals in this country, down from 12 million the year before.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that of this total, 81% were Latino (57% from Mexico), 9% Asian, 6% European and 4% other. If one looks at the states that border with Mexico, the Latino and Mexican percentages are likely to be much higher.

We have laws that prohibit illegal immigration and provide procedures for people to come to the United States to obtain work or seek citizenship.

Like any other laws, if they are just, they need be enforced or if they are not, they need to be changed. The federal government has been terribly remiss in the way it has not dealt with the situation. The burden on state and local government, as a consequence, has been horrendous. Arizona has taken the step to enforce the law. But, as one would suspect from the numbers, the vast majority of law-breakers are Latinos. Once again, the racial profiling issue comes to the fore.

Where do you find terrorists? Where do you find for illegals?

Obviously, the highest probability is to look within the groups to which they belong. Greater vigilance is required with respect to someone who fits the profile. But how does one remove the prejudicial emotion and substitute the rationality of probable cause?

It is much easier to raise questions such as these than to provide answers. But there is one way that may set us on the right path – and that is action by those groups themselves.

The communities from which terrorists and illegal immigrants come need to take strong stands against these practices. For that to happen the first steps must be taken by government - particularly law-enforcement authorities who must forge close and supportive bonds – to turn the prejudice into cooperative efforts. People who work together on common goals usually develop mutual respect and understanding.

Racial profiling is wrong.

But for the security and well-being of all, we can’t ignore the linkages. To do so would be to the detriment of all and will undermine society as we know it today.

The solutions lie in working together to eliminate the root causes and to assure that those who violate the laws are not tolerated by any element of society.
Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at