Racial Profiling: A Counterproductive Strategy

A study of racial or ethnic profiling based on law enforcement statistics reveals that it is not an effective method of fighting crime. As University of Toronto law professor David Harris, who authored the study, writes:

When we construct a profile using the wrong kind of characteristic – a racial or an ethnic one as opposed to markers of behavior – we spread our enforcement resources and efforts more thinly than we would otherwise. Even the FBI does not have unlimited manpower; every person FBI agents must investigate because he ‘looks like a terrorist’ means that much less in the way of enforcement resources is available to individuals who actually behave suspiciously. As with other forms of racial profiling, using ethnicity to try to identify terrorists has the added consequence of alienating the very community most able to help with effective law enforcement.

(Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, The New Press, 2002).

Furthermore, if authorities focus on race, ethnicity or religion, those who do not fit the profile and who may in fact be planning crimes will more easily slip underneath their radar. 

What approach would be more effective? One in which the US remains true to its fundamental principles, writes Wajahat Ali, a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is an attorney and the author of The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslims living in a post 9/11 America. In his blog and other writings he has argued that FBI strategies are dangerously eroding community trust.    

Ultimately, the best defense is holding onto the very same values of freedom, liberty and democracy Americans – both Muslim and non-Muslim – wish to defend and protect. The sad reality of modern globalized 21st century existence is that the threat of terrorism and violence is a constant aspect of daily life. But reactionary posturing, rampant ethnic stereotyping, scapegoating of minorities and provoking mistrust of Muslim Americans and allies have only ever exacerbated the risks.

In the words of Mohamed Brahimi, a community organizer in the Boston area, “The government is creating enemies, instead of allies in the communities.” American Muslims, he says, have got to be considered part of the solution for there to be positive change.

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