Racial Profiling and Terrorism: U.S.

What is the proper role of racial profiling in the fight against terrorism here in America? Ed Gordon talks with Geoffrey Alpert, criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, and Herb Boyd, author of We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement.

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ED GORDON, host:

The debate over racial profiling's usefulness and legality in fighting the war on terror is not limited to England. Earlier this week, two New York City officials suggested that race by itself could be used to justify baggage searches on subway trains and public buses. For further analysis, we're joined now by Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology and department chair at the University of South Carolina. Also with us is author and journalist Herb Boyd. Mr. Boyd says he's been the victim of racial profiling a number of times.

And, gentlemen, thanks for joining us. Professor, let me start with you. We are truly at a house divided in terms of utilizing racial profile as a legitimate tool to fight terror and one that many people say is infringing upon people's civil liberties. How do you strike a balance? Can you?

Professor GEOFFREY ALPERT (University of South Carolina): Well, I think it's pretty clear that the history of racial profiling, at least the, quote, "legitimate authorized racial profiling," came from Operation Pipeline in the '80s, that DEA set up when looking for drug couriers. And, yes, race was certainly used. It was developed using crime and arrest statistics and really described as likely to possess drugs or commit other crimes based on those statistics. And race certainly surfaced and, in fact, was one of the most important categories. I think it's offensive to hear that there are high-ranking officials that say race should be the only category used. And I think it's important that race is looked at when the statistics are what they are, but they have to be in conjunction with other facts, other issues and higher levels of suspicion, certainly not just by itself.

GORDON: Herb Boyd, you believe that you have been racially profiled a number of times. Talk to me about a couple of the incidents.

Mr. HERB BOYD (Author/Journalist): Well, first of all, Ed, it's good to be with you again. Let me say about the beginning, the top of the commentary here, and that situation in London was a fatal mix of hysteria and police incompetence fueled by facial profiling. And since we live in this global community, you know, it was a reaction on this end, you know, `What can we do?' You had the killings in the London tubes, in the London underground and suddenly they say, `Well, can that happen right here in the United States? Can it happen in New York City?' And we have an assemblyman here, Dov Hikind, you know, who is proposing legalizing racial profiling, which is just absolutely incredible. It's absurd. I mean, what effectiveness is it going to have in the first place? Because they have some problems with who they're stopping, you know, getting on the subways. I mean, if you--I've been stopped many, many times, you know, over the years, you know, all these--some of them were very, like--just flights, you know, no real big deals. But then other times, there were really importunities in which I was interposed, you know, which they slammed me up against, you know, against walls and everything, you know, fearing that I may have been one of the people they're looking for. Invariably, when I get on a plane, you know, I get a ticket that's marked. You know, I was curious at first, `Why am I being singled out like this?' you know. And later, I was told that, you know, it's just a random process, you know. But why am I standing over here with five other Muslims, five other Arabs, you know?

GORDON: Professor, when you hear this--and we should note that racial profiling, according to the Supreme Court, is constitutional so long as it serves a compelling government interest, hence the prevention of terrorism in this case, and it is defensible, in many people's minds, if utilized in conjunction with other criteria. Do you believe we're seeing that or do you believe there is a bit of hysteria in the air today?

Prof. ALPERT: Oh, absolutely, there's hysteria, and I think Herb hit the nail on the head in some of the issues he was bringing up and some of the confusion that's going on. But I do believe that race is an important factor and, again, and I must emphasize, when used in conjunction with good information or good intelligence, not when it's used with the hysterical issues or when it's just used as an excuse. And I think that's where it becomes very difficult and very confusing for a lot of people. I think, you know, there are maybe a few officers who are racist; most aren't. However, most are used to seeing black citizens in very bad situations and arresting more black citizens than white citizens. And I think it becomes an unconscious or a preconscious notion that many relate black to criminal. And that's the horrible problem that we've got to deal with.

GORDON: So let me ask this, Herb Boyd. We all come to the table with preconceived notions. They are going to be preconceived notions. I've heard those in the black community, particularly immediately following 9/11 who, quite frankly, used disparaging comments toward Arab-Americans and the idea of, `Oh, we better watch them.' It is human nature, ofttimes. How do you think, as a black man, we need to strike the balance between safety and civil liberty?

Mr. BOYD: That is always such a conflict situation, you know. What is it? The line between domestic security and civil liberties has always been kind of a touchy one. But I think one of the things, it really requires additional training. Many of our officers, particularly our law enforcement officials, are just not prepared for these circumstances. They're almost like new events, you know, new tragedies, new elements of terror, and so they don't know how to deal with them. And so automatically, the reaction is is to fall into this panic, into this chaos, into this hysteria. And when you're in that state of mind, it's pretty difficult for you to proceed in a very logical and humanistic way.

GORDON: Professor, isn't part of the problem, in terms of the backlash, from people who may look at this with a jaundiced eye, with the fact of those preconceived notions almost take over? I think about any one particular incident will immediately heighten the hysteria against one group, except for white males. When we saw the Oklahoma City bombing, we did not see a spate of racial profiling of white men.

Prof. ALPERT: Well, I think that's correct. And I'd like to add to Herb's list of concerns--and it's not just necessarily preconceived notions, but it's history. It's experience. And I think these events bring to the table kind of an unconscious prejudice or something that social psychologists have studied quite a bit that deal with social scripts and what they're used to doing and used to seeing. And he's right, the training issue is needed and it's something that needs to be done across the country so police officers understand what they're doing and the impact their actions have and that it shouldn't be a reactive mode in a crisis. It has to be a--you know, it has to be a situation where police officers are acting somewhat rationally in a very bad situation.

GORDON: All right. Well, Geoffrey Alpert is a professor of criminology and department chair at the University of South Carolina, and Herb Boyd is an author, journalist. And we should note, he's written a book, among others, "We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement." I thank you both for joining us.

Mr. BOYD: Thank you, Ed. Bye-bye.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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