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The Risk of Racial Profiling
An essay by Robert Franklin

audio Listen to Franklin's essay.

Sept. 25, 2001 -- As an African-American, I know something about racial profiling. I've been the target of racial profiling and I abhor it. But, since September 11th, I've been guilty of practicing it. A few days ago, I took my first flight since the hijackings and crashes. I sat in the rear section of a long and half-full 767 jet.

Seated immediately in front of me was a gentleman who appeared to be of Arab or South Asian descent. His head was down and he seemed quietly indifferent to his surroundings. Walking along the aisle in our direction was an attractive African American female flight attendant.

She seemed to be making friendly eye contact and small talk with each passenger as a gesture of gratitude for our return to the airways. I looked forward to my turn to visit with her. But just as she approached my row, she looked at the guy in front of me, did a noticeable double-take, and frowned at whatever he was holding.

"Someone has observed that "truth is the first casualty of war." Liberty must not become its second casualty. Permitting racial profiling and prejudice to increase, whether in our hearts and minds or in our public policy is not the American way."

Robert Franklin

Abruptly, she turned around and walked back to the attendant's station where she whispered to her colleagues, and they began to peer from around the curtain at this gentleman. Well, this was quite enough to get me interested and involved in the investigation. Who is this guy and what is he holding?

I discreetly sat up as far as I could and looked over the back of his seat, over his shoulder to discover that he was reading a book. A Koran, the holy book for Muslims. I felt embarrassed and annoyed with myself and with the flight attendant.

But since then, I've begun to pay more attention to what friends in my south Atlanta African-American neighborhood are saying about possible terrorist cells that may be thriving in communities throughout America.

At the local Starbucks, I overheard two guys say that less than a mile from where they were sipping double lattes, there were Middle-Easterners operating a dry cleaner, a gas station and the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. What if they were bin Laden sympathizers?

Suddenly, I realized something disgusting was seeping into my community and my own consciousness. We're all police now, and bad ones at that.

For years, African Americans have tried to convince America that some police routinely subject innocent citizens to the humiliating ordeal of being stopped, searched and verbally disrespected because of our color.

But, since September 11th, many Americans, including minorities, find themselves trying to assess and predict the behavior, motives, and character of other law-abiding people based on their physical appearance. A nation of bad cops, training our untrained eyes upon ambiguous traits we call "Middle Eastern."

Someone has observed that "truth is the first casualty of war." Liberty must not become its second casualty. Permitting racial profiling and prejudice to increase, whether in our hearts and minds or in our public policy is not the American way. In the wake of our recent national tragedy, this would only deepen and extend our pain. Worse, it would bring us a step closer to the closed and controlled society our enemies cherish but our founding fathers and mothers would abhor.

Robert Franklin is the president of the Interdenominational Center in Atlanta, Ga.