Lets get one thing straight…

 <rant> Invoking the Driving While Black phenomenon in a discussion of racial profiling is as knee-jerk as invoking tokenism in a discussion of Affirmative Action. The Driving While Black phenomenon is not a function of racial profiling, it is bald-faced racism, plain and simple.

The idea of racial profiling gives me the creeps. I prefer the idea of security profiling which encompasses a number of dimensions, including–when appropriate–ethnicity. It’s a simple fact that a Chinese man travelling with his family on a Chinese passport and having checked a lot of luggage is less likely to be a security threat–based on historical precedent–than an arabic single man travelling alone with no checked luggage. Similarly, a lone 20-ish Irish Catholic man travelling from Belfast to London will raise an eyebrow before, say, a Vietnamese woman travelling with an infant from Sydney to Ho Chi Mihn.

The real question is "what do you do with people who fit the profile?" According to the Driving While Black model, you harrass them, throw them in a room, and generally deny them their rights while humiliating and possibly even assaulting them. That is deplorable and if you ask me, criminal. No, instead you take an extra minute to verify their passport, ask a few extra questions, and perhaps–if it seems warranted based on the security personnel’s training–conduct a search or a sniff from a security dog.

The obvious response is to say "that’s easy for a white Canadian to say," and yes it is. It would also be easy for anyone else to say if people got off their high-horses. By that I mean  (a) people who interpret any sort of attention from "authority" as harrassment, (b) idealist white-bread honkies who think the solution to racism is color blindness, (c) people of color who interpret every inconvenience as an act of racism, (d) people who say "profiling is racist" then cross to the other side of the mall to avoid a cluster of black kids in baggy pants and puffy jackets. 

Things like this are often painted as a "white/western vs colored/non-western" thing. It isn’t, or at least it shouldn’t be. At least not at the highest idealogical level. Security profiling–when done right–is based on a number of dimensions and is a learned skill based on psychology and probabilities. It is not a matter of just pulling aside the dark people, as some would have us believe.

Racial does not necessarily mean racist. It’s only whities who run around wishing for a color-blind world, which for the most part means pretending everyone is white, and that stinks. People of color are (or should be) proud of their ethnicity and culture. We’re a big diverse population of humanity on this ball of dirt called Earth, and we come in all flavors. And they’re all delicious. I don’t want to live in a grey and colorless world. It’s not a matter of not seeing color, it’s a matter of not judging by it.

I sound like I’m contradicting myself, but I’m not. What I’m saying is that ethnicity, in terms of security, is just one of many factors to consider when evaluating a potential security risk. People do it all the time, around the world. In the Middle East, Israelis are cautious of arabs and arabs are cautious of Israelis. Basques are cautious of Spaniards and Spaniards are cautious of Basques. I won’t even mention the Balkans. No, I am not advocating the kind of mistrust these examples invoke, I’m pointing out that in an environment in which groups of people dislike other groups, it is natural to pay attention to these things in the name of security. It is not the security guard’s role to be an ambassador. Security is a reactive job (reacting to the insecurities of a sick society). It is up to the people at large (and to a lesser extent the politicians) to combat racism and inequality, but until that war is won, somebody’s gotta keep us safe, and by "us" I mean everyone.

We don’t live in a perfect world, nor an ideal one, so I don’t think we should be idealistic in matters of security. We need to be practical, and that includes properly training airport (and other) security people to identify and assess risks. Some of that includes profiling, which includes racial attributes as well as other things. It also means coming down hard on anyone who abuses the process for their own racist gratification.

Please don’t hate me or label me if you disagree. In fact, I’m quite happy to discuss this and even to admit I’m wrong if you have a convincing argument. I’m just tired of what I see as naïve-idealist thinking. A knee-jerk is a knee-jerk, whether it’s the right knee or the left. Our television-induced short attention spans have reduced most political rhetoric to black and white, this-or-that, polarized opinions, because that’s what’s easy to digest and it leaves time for commercials. The truth–or more precisely, the truths–lie somewhere in the muddy middle. I wish we’d put on our Wellies and spend more time wading around in there. </rant>