Safe Travels? Racial Profiling is Alive and Well in America

Vina Kay

Vina Kay

We were not in a hurry to get past security this particular day in July. At the end of a family vacation in the Pacific Northwest, we were heading back to Minneapolis from Seattle. But the first agent we encountered at the security check motioned us to a different, shorter line. We were being given a pass – not one we had requested, but one granted.

How? My husband’s frequent travel for work was one reason. The TSA assumption seems to be that frequent business travelers are not a security threat. Were there other factors that contributed to this profiling for privilege? How about the fact that my husband is white. My mixed-race teen-age sons or my own Asian identity did not seem to raise flags – we were traveling with a white man, perhaps making us safe. Also, we do not have the dark-skinned Indian appearance of some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

So it is that racial profiling works to advantage some and disadvantage others. Making a series of assumptions based on circumstantial evidence, including frequency of travel, presumed socio-economic status, manner of dress, and accompanying travelers, is common policy and practice.

In September, an online “travel tool” called “Ghetto Tracker” made waves for its obviously racist attempt to identify dangerous parts of cities. Based not on crime data or other statistical information, but on the perceptions of users of the app who rate neighborhoods, it perpetuated profiling of entire communities based on an individual rating system. The site was immediately criticized for its racist and classist language and assumptions (including a photo of a smiling white family, presumably safe). It soon came down, to be replaced with a site called “Good Part of Town.” (Still, when I searched for “Ghetto Tracker,” the site seems to be a functioning beta site with colored dots indicating safe and unsafe neighborhoods of select cities.)

Other technologies are in the works to direct what parts of town people venture into based on crime data and demographics, and that are also troubling. Clark University geographer Jim Thatcher calls such technology-driven – and corporate-driven – mapping “teleological red-lining wherein applications remove the very possibility of encountering people, places, and events deemed inappropriate.” (Something is teleological when it exists for a certain final end or cause, in this case preventing perceived dangerous interactions.)

The fear apps like this promote, in the form of lines drawing or colored dots marking good and bad spaces, is really a fear of people. Those lines and dots are marking who to trust and who to fear, based on race and class.

Profiling is, of course, alive and well at our borders where the largest federal law enforcement agency – the Customs and Border Patrol or CBP – is known for stopping U.S. citizens from re-entering their own country, simply because they appear foreign. On The Media radio producer Sarah Abdurrahman reports on her experience traveling by car from a wedding in Toronto back to the United States, crossing the border at Niagara Falls. Detained by CBP officials for hours, she and other travelers were harassed, placed in an “ice box” room, had their cell phones confiscated and searched, and questioned about their religious practices. All members of the party, which included young children, were U.S. citizens. None received explanation for the detainment.

Intimidation. Humiliation. Power. These are they things we should really be afraid of in America. This and racial violence like that experienced by Trayvon  Martin and just this month by Renisha McBride, a young African American woman seeking help after a car accident who was shot in the face on the porch by a white homeowner.

But not so afraid that we cannot act. Our increasingly diverse America must continue to tell the truth of these encounters. Document profiling. Collect data. Tell stories. There are apps for this, too. In response to the rampant profiling at airports, civil rights groups including the Sikh Coalition and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have created the FlyRights smart phone app to make it easier for individuals to file complaints. The Arizona ACLU has developed an app to allow users to document civil rights abuses related to SB 1070, the state’s restrictive immigration law. And you know what else? Its interactive map tells stories of where and how individuals experienced incidents of racial profiling and other civil rights abuses – a different view of the bad parts of town.

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