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Three Reasons Racial Profiling Will Make Us Less Safe

There is no evidence that racial or ethnic profiling decreases terrorism. Instead, it alienates the very constituencies that are needed to prevail against terrorist plots.

We're all familiar by now with the theme song, even if this year it's being sung in a different key: an attempt at terrorism thwarted; calls for racial profiling go up.

Despite castigation from the right for being too soft on Muslims, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) installed new search rules in late December for travelers from 14 mostly Muslim countries. Just as after September 11, the attempted bombing by Richard Reid and the 2006 arrests of more than 20 men allegedly involved in a transatlantic bombing conspiracy in the United Kingdom, blatant racial and religious profiling at our airports and borders seems just a question of time.

The use of racial or ethnic profiling is, in fact, nothing new in the United States. The earliest significant federal use of racial profiling was the 1882 Chinese Immigration Act, which dramatically constricted labor flows from Asia, as well as imposing harsh restrictions upon Chinese already in the United States. Indeed, some of the U.S. Supreme Court’s earliest decisions on race under the Equal Protection Clause were responses to overt anti-Asian bigotry.  

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act then imposed national origin quotas designed to preserve the Caucasian tincture of the day. And in 2002, the so-called “ special registration ” program -- an administrative venture the Bush-era INS imposed before any congressional authorization occurred -- singled out citizens of majority Muslim countries (and, just for larks, North Korea) for special scrutiny.

This year's racial profiling model is but the most recent in a long line of immigration measures grounded in dubious intelligence all too often based on ethnic and racial stereotypes.  

It would be a mistake, though, to think that race only enters the equation through formal rules and directives. Last year, the San Francisco-based organization Muslim Advocates published an important study of Muslim Americans' experience with invasive and inappropriate questioning about faith and personal politics as they entered the U.S. As Sen. Russ Feingold has pointedly noted in Senate questioning of TSA staff , American Muslims are often targeted for discriminatory searches of laptops and other personal property.

The new TSA rules, then, must be seen against the backdrop of an air travel security system that is already deeply racialized.

None of this will especially surprise readers who have experienced first-hand mistreatment while traveling. It is, indeed, easy to despair that even eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we are still having the same conversation about race, security and justice. Yet progressives should not lose hope. In the last eight years, scholars and advocates have identified an increasing volume of evidence of profiling’s failure -- and, indeed, its harms to security goals. The Christmas day bombing attempt on an airplane traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit provides an opportunity to brush up on those arguments.  

Profiling can actually increase terrorism.

There is no evidence that racial or ethnic profiling decreases the net amount of terrorism. To the contrary, studies of airline security measures imposed after a wave of hijackings in the 1970s suggest that it has the perverse effect of increasing terrorism. In one of the best of these studies, Walter Enders and Todd Sandler found in 1993 that although new mandatory screening procedures decreased the number of hijackings, they coincided with an increase in other forms of terrorism, such as kidnappings and attacks on stationary targets.

The facts of 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab 's attempt, moreover, should count against profiling. Recall that after 2001, "special registration" used racial criteria to identify purportedly high-risk migrants. Predictably, the government's list was comprised of largely Arab countries. Nigeria was not among them.  

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