Affirmative action and racial profiling are very similar conceptually, in that they both use race as a discriminating factor to attain a worthy goal. In the case of affirmative action, the goal is racial equality; in the case of racial profiling the goal is thwarting terrorism or reducing crime.
Affirmative action is using the race of a minority as a positive attribute for their standing in an admissions or hiring process. In the past, this has amounted to quotas and other means of using race as a positive factor.
Racial profiling is the practice of using race as one factor in determining the likelihood that a person will commit a crime. This, in turn, will lead law enforcement to put more scrutiny on that person. Racial profiling is only one aspect of the larger concept of profiling, which takes many aspects of a person (age, sex, race, etc.) and uses that to provide a likelihood of that person committing a crime.
The most palpable and relevant example of this today is searches at the airport. For example, all 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Arab males between the ages of 17 and 30. Therefore, Arab males between the ages of 17 and 30 would, under profiling, receive more scrutiny when their bags are checked at the airport. This practice is not in use at our nation’s airports.
Since the two practices similarly use race to attain goals, one might wonder why it is that liberals tend to vehemently oppose racial profiling while embracing affirmative action. Conservatives, on the other hand, frequently talk about how affirmative action is in principle wrong, and then discuss the practical advantages of profiling.
However, there are very real and important distinctions between the two practices.
The first difference is the way in which each policy affects people. Affirmative action is used in two of the most influential processes in people’s lives, admissions and hiring. What college one attends or what job one works has quite an impact on a person’s life: where that person will spend four years getting an education, where that person will spend 40 hours a week for a majority of the year, and that person’s income.
Racial profiling, on the other hand, is a policy with very little bearing on a person’s life. For instance, if an innocent Arab male aged 17-30 walks into an airport to board a plane and is profiled, five minutes of his time will be spent. There is no real consequence for that person. He simply has his bags searched and moves on. The most an innocent person will suffer from the practice of profiling is a slight inconvenience of time and privacy. Any person who travels by plane is accepting the possibility of that inconvenience anyway, because currently we have random searches at the airport.
The next distinction between the two policies is the benefit of each when the policy works to attain its goal.
Affirmative action will stop racial discrimination, ideally. The discrimination that will be stopped is usually regarding admissions and hiring, which are, as already stated, two extremely important processes in people’s lives. Without affirmative action, there are still laws against racial discrimination. Any person can sue a business for discriminating against them on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin; this has been the case since 1964. If someone is discriminated against, they will have the hassle of a lawsuit or they can choose to try and find another job or college, perhaps a marginal job or college.
When racial profiling works ideally, it stops a terrorist from murdering thousands of innocent Americans. Terrorism, like racial discrimination, is against the law. However, its victims have no legal recourse, because they are dead. Racial profiling is not a perfect solution, by any means, because terrorists certainly can work around the system by using people who wouldn’t be profiled. It does make it harder for terrorists to succeed. After all, every single one of the Sept. 11 hijackers fit the description of Arab male, 17-30.
Another difference between the two policies is the way the target groups are derived. Affirmative action helps minorities, those groups which make up the lower percentages of the population. Racial profiling affects whoever is currently perpetrating terrorism. There isn’t a lot of speculation; it’s simply the group, or groups, who statistically make up terrorists. In that sense, it is racially blind; the profiled group could be white males or black females.
From these differences, many questions arise. Should we be employing race as a discriminating factor, even to attain worthy goals? If so, should we be doing it in highly influential processes where what it is intended to stop is already illegal? What if the cost is innocent lives lost?
One could certainly support racial profiling and not affirmative action. After all, there are important distinctions, and affirmative action takes the use of race much farther than racial profiling. But to support affirmative action and not racial profiling you would have to think that using racial discrimination to attain diversity at the cost of other people’s lives being displaced is better than stopping a terrorist from murdering thousands at the cost of five minutes inconvenience.
Ronen Zargarof is a fourth-year political science and sociology major.