Minority Majority

Whenever I hear someone advocate racial profiling as part of national security — singling out people who look Middle Eastern for special attention — I think of the 1987 film “Born in East L.A.”

In this film Cheech Marin (who was also the writer and director) plays Rudy, a native-born east Angeleno who got caught in an INS raid without his wallet (and ID) and deported to Mexico. Denied re-entry to the U.S., Rudy spends most of the film scheming to get himself smuggled across the border, and getting mixed up with some con artists, hustlers, and the inevitable pretty girl along the way. If you’ve never seen it, rent it sometime; it’s a hoot.

Anyway, in one particularly brilliant segment Rudy is given the task of teaching English to a group of men planning to enter the U.S. illegally. The men turn out to be Chinese. Instead of English, Rudy teaches them how to pass for Latinos — how to walk, dress, watch girls, etc. And the funny thing is that it works; the Chinese fugitives are transformed into completely believable Latinos.

Years ago a Chicano friend (whose grandmother was Huichol) complained he often was mistaken for an east Indian by east Indians. And a Filipino co-worker once showed me a photograph of himself costumed in a Mongol-style helmet and chain mail. You would have sworn he was Genghis Khan.

Remember Jean Charles de Menezes? He was the Brazilian shot and killed on July 7 last year because London police mistook him for a Middle Eastern terrorist.

I bring this up because today the righties are cheering the mostly British passengers of Monarch Airlines Flight ZB 613 — departing Malaga, Spain, and flying to Manchester, UK — who mutinied because two (presumed) Arabic men were boarding. Passengers walked off the plane or refused to board entirely. Police eventually removed the two men so that the flight could take off (three hours late) without them. A security sweep of the plane found nothing amiss, and the two men eventually were cleared by security and flown to Manchester in another plane.

Captain Ed:

The incident shows that citizens will start imposing their own solutions to flight safety in the absence of demonstrably intelligent security while attempts at attacks continue … the unwillingness of the governments in both the UK and the US to provide systems of screening that instill confidence in the flying public has led to these incidents. They will continue and increase while screening systems insist on playing political correctness games instead of focusing on real threats as the Israelis have done for decades.

Other righties point out that the passengers were alarmed by the two men’s behavior, not their race, which was the same thing the London police said last year about Jean Charles de Menezes. This odd behavior was that they were speaking a foreign language (presumed Arabic, but the Daily Mail doesn’t say for sure) and wearing leather jackets in summer (London police also claimed Jean Charles de Menezes was wearing an “unseasonably thick jacket,” like the one I wish I had when I was riding around London on the top deck of a sightseeing bus last August; I was freezing). And the two guys were checking their watches. Like no law-abiding citizen ever checks his watch while waiting to board a plane.

So to those passengers who claim they were judging the men entirely by their behavior, I say: Sure you were.

A few days ago I wrote some posts about James Fallows’s new article about U.S. security in the current issue of Atlantic Online, in which he wrote:

“The patriotism of the American Muslim community has been grossly underreported,” says Marc Sageman, who has studied the process by which people decide to join or leave terrorist networks. According to Daniel Benjamin, a former official on the National Security Council and coauthor of The Next Attack, Muslims in America “have been our first line of defense.” Even though many have been “unnerved by a law-enforcement approach that might have been inevitable but was still disturbing,” the community has been “pretty much immune to the jihadist virus.”

Something about the Arab and Muslim immigrants who have come to America, or about their absorption here, has made them basically similar to other well-assimilated American ethnic groups–and basically different from the estranged Muslim underclass of much of Europe. … most measures of Muslim disaffection or upheaval in Europe–arrests, riots, violence based on religion–show it to be ten to fifty times worse than here.

See also this article in the National Catholic Reporter of January 14, 2005, that says American Muslims are remarkably law-abiding and are not providing a base of support for jihadists.

Muslims in Europe are another matter. Back to James Fallows:

The difference between the European and American assimilation of Muslims becomes most apparent in the second generation, when American Muslims are culturally and economically Americanized and many European Muslims often develop a sharper sense of alienation. “If you ask a second-generation American Muslim,” says Robert Leiken, author of Bearers of Global Jihad: Immigration and National Security After 9/11, “he will say, ‘I’m an American and a Muslim.” A second-generation Turk in Germany is a Turk, and a French Moroccan doesn’t know what he is.”

Alex Massie writes for The New Republic online:

The challenge of assimilation in Great Britain is daunting. A recent opinion survey of Muslims carried out by Channel 4 News concluded that just 44 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds feel Britain is their country, and 51 percent of them believe September 11 was the result of an American-Israeli conspiracy. Furthermore, 30 percent of British Muslims would like to live under sharia law, and 28 percent would like Great Britain to become an Islamic state. These findings, alas, cannot be considered the result of a rogue poll. A Pew Research Center survey this year found that 81 percent of British Muslims consider themselves Muslim first and British second. As Timothy Garton Ash noted in a prescient piece in Thursday’s Guardian, “This is a higher proportion than in Jordan, Egypt or Turkey, and exceeded only by that in Pakistan (87%).” No wonder the Channel 4 pollsters concluded that nearly one in ten British Muslims “can be classified as ‘Hardcore Islamists’ who are unconcerned by trifles like freedom of speech.”

What’s baffling about the alienation of British Muslims is that the British government has done more than most European governments to help Muslims assimilate. Further, British Muslims enjoy greater economic and educational opportunity than in some other European countries. Yet, as noted in the Guardian article, not only are British Muslims alienated, young British Muslims born in Britain seem more alienated than their immigrant parents.

The writer of the Guardian article, Timothy Garton Ash, speculates that, maybe, it has something to do with the fact that most British Muslims trace their origins to Pakistan. Maybe it’s Tony Blair’s support for George Bush. Maybe it’s the libidinous nature of British society (more so than the rest of Europe?). Maybe it’s all of those factors.

What Ash doesn’t say, but which the killing of Mr. de Menezes and the mutiny on Flight 613 reveal, is that British Muslims may be swimming against a strong but unacknowledged current of bigotry. Go here for more examples. The Brits may have entered into an unfortunate spiral in which terrorist acts of a small minority of Muslims incite bigoted reactions from “native” Brits, which in turn causes British Muslim youth to feel more alienated and more likely to be radicalized.

I say that if we listen to the hysterics and hate-mongering from the Right, we could find ourselves traveling down that same spiral.

One hears calls for “Israeli-style profiling.” I’m no expert, but it’s my understanding that Israeli-style profiling is more psychological profiling than ethnic profiling. According to this guy:

El Al’s passenger screening system, established in the early 1970s, relies on psychological profiling techniques backed up with high-technology equipment. This system has been highly effective: the last successful hijacking of an El Al jet was in 1968, when Palestinian terrorists diverted a flight from Rome to Algiers.34 Whereas the United States gives priority to screening baggage rather than people, Israel’s security model aims at ferreting out individuals with terrorist intentions. This profiling process relies on access to intelligence and careful observation of would-be passengers.

Note that these observations are made by people trained to catch revealing behaviors; not by bigoted passengers who panic when a man speaks Arabic (maybe) and checks his watch. And it would be pretty futile to single out ethnic Middle Easterners when you’re in the Middle East, I suspect.

I also agree with this blogger:

Israeli profiling is the very last line of defense. The first line of defense is a well-run intelligence service that has been penetrating Palestinian militant groups for years. Second is a series of checkpoints, roadblocks, and a wall. Finally, there’s a broad set of people trained to look for suicide bombers.

The blogger is not confident that U.S. airport personnel would be competent to carry out psychological profiling, and profiling done by improperly trained people is nothing but “security theater.” There are a great many other things we should be doing to improve airport security, he says, before we start profiling.

Every now and then some rightie will wonder why New York subway security doesn’t single out Middle Eastern persons for backpack searches. I always want to take the rightie by the hand and gently lead him to, say, some high-traffic spot in the Union Square subway station, and tell him to point out all the subway passengers who might be Middle Eastern. Eventually it should dawn even on the densest of righties that a majority of the thousands of people he sees might be Middle Eastern. It would be a lot easier to single out those passengers who definitely are not Middle Eastern, and even then he most likely would make some mistakes.

And if your purpose is to identify Muslims, don’t forget there are African Muslims and Asian Muslims, and the occasional person of European ancestry who converts to Islam.

If airport and other security were to put people wearing Muslim dress through special security, it wouldn’t take long for the enterprising terrorist to figure out how to dress and act so as not to arouse suspicion that he is Muslim. He might even rent “Born in East L.A.” and get tips on passing as Latino. If Chinese can do it, becoming Latinized should be a snap for a Pakistani.

Update: See Glenn Greenwald.

The blame lies not with those who entertain such fears, but with those who allow those fears to govern their conduct, and more so, those who purposely stoke and exaggerate those fears due either to their own fears and/or because doing so is to their advantage.

Update update: See also Scott Lemieux.

Shorter various blogospheric wingnuts: the government’s appalling lack of racism gives people no recourse but to take racism into their own hands.

Also also: Dave Johnson.

53 thoughts on “Minority Majority

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  2. Racial profiling is absolutely necessary and it is absurd to try to argue against it. Your argument is one of “abuses” in racial profiling – not of the proper exercise of such (e.g., the “Born in East LA” illustration and the passengers leaving the flight). In reality, before deporting Cheech, American law enforcement would have given him the opportunity to demonstrate his citizenship.

    But, it’s not just racial profiling; there are other factors involved.

    How many 80 year old caucasian ladies have blown themselves up to kill innocent victims? Compare that to the number of Middle-Eastern Muslim men who have done this? As a percentage, it’s pretty close to zero for the old lady.

    If there were a similar percentage of native, caucasian Americans or Brits committing these acts of terror – then racial profiling would be flawed and problematic.

    The reverse is true as well – if the vast majority of acts of terror in the world were being committed by white, caucasian, American males between the ages of 30 and 50, then I’d be a prime suspect. And, as unfortunate as it would be, I would understand the hassle. Further, I’d be vigorously and publicly condemning these actions.

    One clear fact in both America and Britain is that the Muslims who are not terrorists are extraordinarily quiet in their condemnation of the radical jihadists. Not until they speak out vociferously against such will they garner respect from those outside their own religious and racial groups.

  3. Jeff — in future, read the post all the way through (including the last three paragraphs) before commenting on it, so you don’t look like so much of an ass.This is for your own sake. Thanks much.

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