Sunday, July 31, 2005

Racial Profiling

I just watched a very banal discussion about racial profiling on "Fox News Sunday." Three points.
  • Why do liberals that oppose racial profiling have to come up with contrived explanations of how racial profiling will actually negatively affect counter-terrorism? One of them on the show (can't remember the name) came up with something about how we need to build good relations with the Muslim community so we can get intelligence from them later. Vaguely plausible, but that's not really why anyone thinks that we shouldn't racially profile. If you think we shouldn't racially profile it's because you think it's wrong. And it is wrong, for sure. There's no need to hide that moral judgement behind some utilitarian front. (Perhaps they are obligated by their contract with Fox News to only make poor arguments?)
  • Juan Williams argued that, well, some terrorists are white (see Timothy McVeigh.) In response, Brit Hume suggested that we should search airline passengers according to probability (i.e. 95% of the time search Arabs, 5% of the time search whites). But if you want to look at things in a utilitarian framework, this is silly. If you have two populations distributed between terrorists and non-terrorists you maximize the probability of finding a terrorist by searching everyone in the population with a higher percentage of terrorists first.
  • This brings up the fact that most people make a conditional probability fallacy when talking about racial profiling. I haven't seen anyone not do this. You don't want to look at the percentage of terrorists that are white vs. percentage that are Arabic. You have to compare the percentage of whites that are terrorists with the percentage of Arabs that are terrorists. But since the Arabic population in America is small compared to the white population this doesn't change the qualitative conclusion. (It changes the quantitative conclusion a lot!)
The bottom line for me is that racial profiling is basically wrong. Of course there is a trade-off with safety and it does seem silly to have the TSA patting down grandmas. There are a lot of other things we could do to improve safety that we don't do because they are wrong, like national ID cards, internment camps, the draft, even greater executive branch powers, etc. Why is racial profiling any different?

UPDATE: Battlepanda reminds us that, yes, racism is still wrong.

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