This Type of Ish Happens Every Day.

The TSA’s new airport security protocols, in which folks are either subjected to high-tech x-ray screening or patdowns, have ruffled a lot of feathers from people who have become rather convenient civil libertarians. I caught Dave Barry, the humorist, on NPR the other day joking about an embarrassing search as he waited to board a plane, and he said the TSA was stopping old ladies instead of being more sensible in targeting who to search. He may not have come out and said “profiling passengers,” but that’s certainly what he was implying.

As it is with most things, Charles Krauthammer has no such qualms voicing those ugly thoughts.

We pretend that we go through this nonsense as a small price paid to ensure the safety of air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.

But Adam points out that for all the implicit and explicit calls for racial profiling, it’s pretty obviously clear that it doesn’t work.

Racial profiling is no more statistically accurate than those random searches conservatives always complain about. Thousands of Muslims travel on airplanes every day, and an infinitesimal number actually turn out to be dangerous. But the argument here is pretty clear — the problem isn’t that the violation of privacy isn’t worth an unknown gain in security. It’s that the TSA should be frisking “Nigerian nutjobs” instead of grandma. Conservatives like Krauthammer aren’t angry that the TSA is infringing on individual liberty, just that it’s infringing on their individual liberty. [emphasis mine.]

It should be pointed out that for plenty of people of color in the nation’s inner cities, these kind of uncomfortable, vaguely legal searches — with the stated intent of finding people carrying guns and drugs — are essentially de rigueur. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are going about their days, who are patted down because they match some vague description of some suspect. In one four-block section of Brownsville, Brooklyn, the NYPD made 52,000 stops over a four-year period, which averaged out to about one stop for every resident in the area each year. And it’s no more efficient than the profiling Adam decries: for all that scrutiny and all those stops over four years, the police in Brownsville recovered just 25 guns, and less than 1 percent of all those people who were stopped — and questioned and patted down and humiliated as they went about their lives — were ever arrested. (All of the personal info taken during the stops, however, was entered into a citywide database.)

There’s a perverse kind of cycle at work here: if you give extra police scrutiny to certain kinds of people, you reify in the minds of a jittery public the idea that those people are in need of special attention, and so those people’s implicit criminalization is always, always justified.


Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Couldn’t agree more.

  • No.

    No, this shit doesn’t happen every day.

    Look, I cosign the spirit of this critique and I completely agree with your analysis of street stops. But this essay (and Serwer’s before it) stops well short of addressing a) the unprecedented legal shift away from civil rights initiated by the Bush Administration and perpetuated under Obama and b) that Arabs and Muslims–regardless of their race–are the disproportionate target of this new legislation. In other words, it is now perfectly legal in the United States for me to be removed from my apartment for writing this response and imprisoned indefinitely with no legal right to counsel. And further, for me to be tortured physically, psychologically and sexually at the discretion of my captors, who would suffer no consequences for those acts even if they came to light. That is NOT an “every day” scenario. That is a new, radical abrogation of civil rights and Arabs and Muslims are its unambiguous focus.

    The Charles Krauthammer Washington Post op-ed that inspired Serwer’s response at TAP and this one here is very clear in its intent: Krauthammer is arguing against the TSA’s invasive security theatre in favor of profiling Arabs and Muslims, an increasingly mainstream position. That the main refutation of this argument here and at TAP is “but it doesn’t work” does not fill me with confidence. So… what if it worked? Would it be okay then? Every couple of years or so when some conservative nutbag advocates fencing off ghettos or forcing women who receive welfare benefits to submit to state-enforced birth control we don’t click our tongues and say “but it wouldn’t work.” We say, “Fuck you for suggesting that we legally dismantle civil rights for your racist political agenda.” So would it kill you to take such an unambiguous, ethical stand against targeting Arabs and Muslims? As an Arab the lack of will to speak out for me among the US Left is at least as frightening as the open hatred among the Right.

    You are quite right that the law is selectively applied to Black people–and that this is exponentially worse for poor Black people. And you are completely right that institutional racism goes down to the bone in US society. And a critique of the responses of old white guys like the pilot who was so shaken by his groping pat down that he refused to fly afterward using a racial lens is valuable and completely valid… But the selective application of civil rights (as in “random” police stops in Brownsville) is *not* the same as legally removing them entirely.

    Which is a thing that has happened. Bush did that and Obama has done nothing to undo it.

    So let’s be clear. Enduring a humiliating pat down is *not* the same thing as getting sodomized by a fluorescent light tube (which is another thing that has happened to Arabs and Muslims imprisoned in the “war on terror”). Do violations like that also happen to Black men in police custody? We know that they do. But we also know that when they happen they are completely illegal. Not so for Arabs and Muslims at Baghram, Gitmo, or any of the numerous Black Sites around the globe. When US soldiers screamed at the Arabs and Muslims who were collected almost entirely at random for imprisonment and torture at Guantanamo Bay “You are property of the US Military!” as they sodomized them, it was completely legal. That is a paradigm shift. Period.

    Now is it a slippery slope from one to the other? You bet. But that isn’t really what you are arguing (If you were believe me, I’d be thrilled) Instead you are saying it “happens every day” to Black folks and so, in some sense, it is not a big deal that it is happening to folks like me. This is a grotesque argument I have unfortunately heard over and over from Black progressives. (Who have also made the same point about Latinos in the ongoing immigration debate, to similar effect.) But here’s the thing: Our experiences are different, mine are not a weak metaphor for yours.

    I love reading PB. That I feel free to respond so frankly is a testament to my respect for the intelligence of the community here. So if I sound angry it’s only because I AM angry. Posts like this that argue But This Has Always Happened To Black People Anyway are fundamentally dishonest if they do not acknowledge the material circumstances of life for Arabs and Muslims under the USA Patriot Act. There is a fantastic, intersectional analysis of US racism and orientalism/Islamophobia waiting to be written. But that analysis cannot be made if we begin from assumptions like those upon which this essay is based.

    Between you, me and the CIA operatives monitoring my internet activity, a better analogy than institutional racism to the USA Patriot Act and its ultimate effects would be Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933, which legally expanded the reach and powers of the government to selectively apply constitutional rights and protections… And we all (I hope) know how that ended up. Still, if you wrote about Arabs and Muslims by relating our situation to what Black folks endure under institutionalized racism I think that would be great. But if you only want to use us to make a point about *your* experience– delegitimizing ours in the process–then do us a favor and please don’t. Dealing with the Krauthammers of the world, who are not in short supply, is exhausting enough.

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