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A large majority of Harvard Law students would support racial profiling if such screening reduced air travel delays.
That is the result of a recent study conducted by two Harvard professors that sought to evaluate the cost-benefit analyses the public makes between civil rights and convenience.
The study’s authors, Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at the Kennedy School of Government Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62 and Cogan Professor of Law and Economics at Harvard Law School W. Kip Viscusi ’71, drew their conclusions from a survey of 95 students at Harvard Law School.
More than 73 percent of those surveyed by the professors said they would accept racial profiling if it would prevent a 60 minute delay for all air passengers and if they were not singled out as suspicious travelers.
More than 56 percent would accept profiling if they were singled out.
If the alternative to racial profiling is a 30 minute wait, and the respondent would not be singled out for screening, 55 percent of those surveyed would choose profiling. Only 44.7 percent would support profiling to avoid a ten minute wait if they were not being screened.
Non-white respondents were more likely than whites to oppose profiling, especially if they were going to be targeted. Zeckhauser noted, however, that this result was based on a sample size of only six students.
White respondents were no less likely to support profiling based on the knowledge that they would be targeted. According to Zeckhauser, this result demonstrates that “if the cost isn’t great, people will pursue social efficiency.”
Some minorities and civil liberties advocates on campus criticized the assumption the study seeks to test—that racial profiling increases safety.
“Racial profiling assumes that people of certain ethnicities are more likely to be terrorists,” says Hana A. Habayeb, president of the Society of Arab Students. “That’s wrong.”
The Harvard study is part of a national effort by social scientists and economists to use cost-benefit analysis to weigh the loss of civil liberties as a result of increased security.
According to The New York Times, Bush Administration officials and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union support the new method for policy analysis because they say quantifying the benefits of
civil liberty will be useful for judging security policies.
While the ACLU believes quantifying the desire for liberties will demonstrate Americans’ devotion to them, Zeckhauser said his study suggests that people are willing to trade civil liberties for other benefits.
But some on campus are skeptical of any effort to reduce civil liberties concerns to numbers. While Brian J. Wong ’03, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Harvard, believes it is important to consider the trade-off between civil liberties and security, he said he questions social scientists’ reductionist tendency.
“Civil liberties embody the basic principles of deliberative democracy, which are not necessarily reducible to numbers,” he said.
Habayeb said that even if some Americans would accept racial profiling to make air travel more convenient, profiling is “morally wrong.” While Habayeb believes security should be maintained by all means necessary, she says “there are many other legal and moral ways” to protect the country.
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