Flying in the Face of Racism

Editor's Notebook

For 38 percent of New Jersey blacks, racial profiling must not be so bad. After all, that many agree that airport security should react with “more suspicion” to Middle Eastern travelers, according to a poll conducted in late September by the Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers. If such strong black support for racial profiling isn’t shocking enough, the fact that it comes from New Jersey makes it even more ironic. In the state scandalized by police use of racial profiling, 38 percent of blacks now stand in opposition to the same civil rights leaders and forward-thinking intellectuals who fought so doggedly on their behalf only months ago. And with black support for racial profiling only a few points shy of the 42 percent support among white respondents, the survey suggests that even though New Jersey blacks know how it feels like to be singled for their complexion, they are just as likely to wish that feeling upon others.

Although there’s no denying that the situation today is extraordinary, that doesn’t make racial profiling any less destructive. Our war against terrorism is self-defeating if we disregard the principles that make our country worth defending: that everyone within our borders, whether permanently or just passing through, is entitled to equal protection and equal rights under the law, and that religion, race and ethnicity can never be grounds for discrimination. We betray our sacred commitment to these ideals when we detain Middle Eastern travelers without cause, and we betray the spirit behind these ideals when we forget what it feels like to be a victim of racial profiling—to be treated as an outsider, worthy neither of trust nor the protection of our Constitution.

In exchange for our dearest ideals, racial profiling would not have prevented Sept. 11. Photos of the suspected hijackers reveal a heterogeneous group, diverse enough to ensure that most would pass through just about any racial criteria. Perhaps if only unquestionably Caucasian passengers were let through, we could have kept most of the Sept. 11 terrorists off those planes. But that screening process would be a logistical nightmare—no planes would ever leave the ground. And we need only consider Oklahoma City to realize that race-based security will not protect us against terrorism in the long-term.

There are better ways to ease the minds of wary travelers than to pander to the call for racial profiling. We can tighten airport security in visible but equitable ways, so that fear won’t drive the 38 percent from New Jersey to wish racial profiling upon others. Such measures will require small sacrifices in privacy and convenience, but better to sacrifice those than our commitment to principle.

Many airports have already shown progress in tightening security without resorting to discrimination. Some have reduced staff access to the tarmac and to x-rayed luggage in order to keep unauthorized baggage and passengers off of planes. And nearly all airports are demanding that x-ray operators scrutinize every package with great care—sometimes requiring each item to pass before several pairs of eyes.

However, as demonstrated by the sudden black support for racial profiling, travelers’ peace of mind demands more aggressive action. To prevent the transfer of boarding passes, passengers that have already checked-in should be separated from those that have not. To make it more difficult to sneak weapons onto planes, every carry-on should be opened for inspection—including search with a bomb-sniffing wand. And, as a final safeguard against unauthorized passengers on-board, identification presented at check-in should be scanned into a computer database so that, upon boarding, each passenger can be photographed again for comparison.


Under these new precautions, the advocates of racial profiling could take comfort from knowing that all passengers and luggage were screened thoroughly before takeoff. At the same time, Middle Eastern passengers could travel without fearing harassment or assault from anxious travelers and overzealous security. By no means would these measures eradicate racial insecurity from our airports; the problem extends far beyond the terminal.

But all passengers deserve to feel safe—both those who support racial profiling and their would-be targets.