Does Racial Profiling to Prevent Terror and to Prevent Crime Have the Same Value

An article in theHuffington Post outlines the methodology used in airport screening by personnel at Ben Gurion Airport, a methodology that depends in large part on observation and questioning of departing travelers.  The screening process starts with an x-ray of the trunk and underbody scan on entering vehicles, and all luggage is placed through a pressure chamber to set off any explosives, but the principle methodology concentrates on a sophisticated, low-tech, assessment of traveler’s moods, destination, and other factors.

"Our local police -- they know who a lot of these people are. They are afraid to do anything about it because they don't want to be accused of profiling," the Republican Candidate for President said on Fox News on Monday. Trump pointed to how Israel used profiling and "done an unbelievable job."

We have non-discrimination on the basis of race and creed written into our constitution, but we all discriminate all of the time, and some of the discrimination is for good.

As an example, assessment of the likelihood that any individual has a certain medical condition frequently factors race into the equation.  Some diseases are much more common in one racial group than another.  Tay-Sachs disease is seen almost entirely in Jews, and not just Jews but Ashkenazi Jews.  Screening for it in Vietnames or even Sephardic Jews would be less than economical.  Tuberculosis and a variety of systemic fungal diseases are more common in those of non-European ancestry. The relatively lower incidence in those of European descent probably relates to the fact that the disease organism "jumped species" in Europe and has been there much longer than the rest of the world so that Europeans have evolved some resistance.

Systemic Lupus is more common in African Americans than whites, probably because it is an autoimmune disease and the antigen that it confuses with an invader is more common in Black Americans.

Epidemiology teaches us that the prevalence of a disease n the population has an impact on the strategy used to detect it.  The ideal test would be both sensitive – detect everyone with the disease – and, specific – pick up no one who doesn’t have the disease. 

Another concept that needs to be mentioned is the predictive value of a test, which is a function of sensitivity, specificity and prevalence of the condition being tested for.  A simple example might be that at the height of an influenza epidemic, when half of the people in the waiting room have the flu, the simple question, “How are you feeling?” would be highly sensitive (100%), and have a 50% specificity.  At other times it would be a really lousy test.

A bit of graffiti from a bathroom wall in Vietnam read (cleaned up for the general public), “Half of the women in Vietnam have T.B..  Half have V.D., so, only offer to buy a drink for bar girls that cough.”

The humor here, of course is based on the fact that T.B. and V.D. are not mutually exclusive.  However, one might influence the other.  That possibility would require further study.

An article in AL Monitor was written by a person who was never individually stopped by Israeli guards at the check-points between Arab and Jewish areas, but because she was riding one day in a cab being driven by an Arab man they were pulled over, questioned and detained for some period of time.  The man’s name and his residence prompted the stop.  Other Arabs told the writer that this happened to them on a daily basis, and the line of cars was long at some times of the day.

The writer, Akiva Eldar, is of the opinion that the preferential stopping of Arab Israelis produces little security and prompts hostility, and quotes Donald Harris’s opinion in support. 

“David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor considered one of the world’s leading authorities on racial screening, holds that the use of racial profiling cannot contribute to maintaining public order, reducing crime and drug dealing or preventing terror attacks. According to Harris, racial and ethnic affiliation are very weak indicators for predicting a person’s behavior and threat level. Among other data, Harris cites statistics according to which the use of racial profiling in the war on drugs and crime in the United States, where the targets are mostly black and Hispanic citizens, did not contribute to a drop in drug offenses, but rather to the social alienation of members of these minority groups. According to Harris, the same is true of the profiling at airports, where the targets are Arabs and Muslims.”


In none of the articles is there mention of the incidence of drug dealers in the neighborhoods where young men are being stopped, or the relative percentages among racial groups.  If all you stop are black and Hispanic young men you may think that all of the drug activity is related to those racial/ethnic groups.

However, the data is readily available and it shows that the percentage of whites who sell drugs is actually higher than the percentage of blacks, while the number of arrests for drug sales have gone up for blacks.  The reason is felt to be that drug sales in black neighborhoods tend to take place out of doors, and white sales occur indoors.

This chart from the Brookings Institute shows that arrests of blacks for drug sales and possession have gone up while arrests for property and violent crimes have gone down.


Has anyone looked at the airport screening techniques in Israel to see how they compare in value to the screening procedures at checkpoints?  Is there any evidence that using racial profiling actually stops more terrorists than it produces?

We pride ourselves, as do the French, on not officially discriminating along racial/ethnic/cultural lines, yet we still have homegrown terrorists.  Have the expressions of hatred toward those who are different by ordinary citizens who do not have the constraints of those in law enforcement and the justice system produced terrorists?

We don’t know the epidemiology of terror because, unlike medicine where racial profiling is done to help the target (patient), its use by police and airport security is done to potentially punish the subject.  So, we don’t know the value of racial profiling. 

It should be noted, that the personnel at Ben Gurion airport are looking at much more than ethnicity; they look at mood, behavior, travel destination and other factors that may identify someone intent on carrying out a terrorist act.  The government of Israel does not contract out to an independent agency to do the screening, and that looks like a good thing.

The last time I flew no one asked me how I felt, where I was going, what my business was when I arrived there, or any of a number of questions that may have seemed pertinent. 

I have had to remove my shoes and belt, empty my carry-on, or submit to x-ray while a person in a turban or Arab dress was not stopped, all in the interest of being fair and impartial.  I have no problem with being stopped and searched, but it should be for some reason other than being the twelfth person in line. 

I don’t agree with Donald Trump's call for profiling, because he is clearly pandering to racists when he says we need to profile, but we need a better plan.  I think we need to know what radicalized the man who set the bombs in New York and New Jersey, if possible. The family claims that they have been discriminated against by the police.  Someone called the police about noise when the family fried chicken store was visited by the police.  Was it about noise, or was the caller racist?  Did constant taunts by those around him about his religion or ways drive the young man to violent acts? 

Taunts are protected under freedom of speech - otherwise Donald Trump could not talk the way he does - and the, bar for hate speech is consequently high, but there needs to be real investigation into the causes of radicalization, understanding that sometimes, terrorists don’t fit in a mold.

Look at Timothy McVeigh.



Views: 94

Comment by JMac1949 Today on September 20, 2016 at 2:26pm

Actually Timothy McVeigh does fit into a mold, in that if he weren't dead he'd likely be one of "the deplorables" who are voting for Donald Trump.  R&L ;-)

Comment by Zanelle on September 20, 2016 at 3:08pm

I was profiled twice crossing borders as a HIPPIE.   Just one look at me and they marched me in a back room and searched me naked.  One bunch on the Canadian border found some dirt in my pocket and thought it was hashish.  ha.  The others took a book of erotic photos from me and sent me on my way.  Just one look is all it took and I was a beautiful young hippy lady.  sigh.  

It is not stopping people at the border that has to is people like Trump who have to go.  How can we profile for that?

Comment by Rodney Roe on September 20, 2016 at 3:18pm

JMac, Terry and Zanelle, thanks for reading an commenting.  I'm don't have any answers, but I'm not sure that those in charge are asking the right questions.

About the time I was finishing this i got a phone call telling me that my cancer is back.  I haven't been able to think of much else, since.  I'll be going back to Duke for assessment.  Maybe there are options other than swallowing a grenade.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 20, 2016 at 3:25pm

Regarding the post:
Racial profiling of Blacks for drug possession is actually statistically counterproductive. It should not in theory help prevent or discover crime at all. So that profiling has no value, in fact negative value.

The Israelis are looking at a variety of factors and are not farming out this function. They wouldn't. It's too important. In their case, there is no question their aircraft would be targeted for terrorist attacks. They have a smaller population than New Jersey. You would be hard pressed to find an Israeli adult who doesn't know someone killed by someone attacking their country in some form. I'm not sure you'd find more than one degree of separation among most of the adult population from someone killed in a terrorist attack - by which I mean they know someone who knows someone killed. Hell, I have one degree of separation from someone killed in a terrorist attack in Israel and I'm here. This is all personal to them. 

Also understand that the guys at TSA are aware that even if a terrorist attack on a US airline happens today, it's highly unlikely to be at their airport. There are airports with serious traffic all over the United States. The Northeast alone has five major airports I can think of (Logan, La Guardia, Kennedy, Newark, Philadelphia) and none of those are the busiest in the country, which I think tends to be either O'Hare in Chicago or Hartsfield in Atlanta. Israel has one major airport in Tel Aviv. These guys are absolutely certain that aircraft flying in and out of (especially in) their airport are targeted. In 1980, I flew to Israel through London. I was in my twenties, traveling alone, dressed casually. I was questioned, not in a security line but at the gate. I was taken aside, as I think a lot of people were (maybe everyone, I don't know, though I doubt it now). The young man looked me in the eye. "Did anyone give you a package to deliver?" This was not routine, this was "If I fuck this up, my airline is going down today." The Israelis don't lose airliners. This is why. Maybe I was profiled. If so, more power to them. I got there in one piece. 

Comment by Zanelle on September 20, 2016 at 4:56pm

Oh phooey, Rodney.  You are part of the family here.  Keep us posted!!

Comment by koshersalaami on September 20, 2016 at 5:58pm
Oh shit. I left my comment right when Rodney did, so I didn't see his.

Keep us posted.
Comment by Rodney Roe on September 20, 2016 at 6:09pm

It is like a family.  I'll let you know.  And thanks for your concern. It helps.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on September 20, 2016 at 6:42pm

Rod   take good care and all-best to you and your family.  

Comment by Rodney Roe on September 21, 2016 at 10:53am

Steel Breeze, in this case I know too much.  And I appreciate your well wishes.

BTW, as a total aside, I don't think there is a way to say something akin to, "I hope the dice fall in your favor."  Luck was Norse god who was thought to decide good or bad outcomes for you.  Fortuna was a Roman god who did something similar.  So, whether you are lucky or fortunate there is some entity intervening; life according to the Norse and Romans was not a crap shoot.  The Greeks, on the other hand, envisoned three old hags - the fates - one of whom spun the thread of life, one who measured the length of the thread and determined the length of your life, and the last who cut the thread, determining when and how you died.  The Greeks saw all of us as threads in a tapestry, the pattern of which we could not see because we were part of the weave.

Me?  I think no one's in charge, so there are no gods to bribe.  It is what it is.


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