Profiling 2.0


We heard a lot this summer about profiling of black Americans, thanks to the “teachable moment’’ provided by the Gates affair. Now the curriculum should be broadened to study the extent to which other types of profiling remain rampant in our society.

After decades of abuse, racial profiling of blacks may actually be in a slight decline - not enough, certainly, but moving in the right direction. Yet, other forms of profiling are increasing, in some cases with the government’s encouragement.

Ask a US citizen of Muslim faith, especially one favoring Middle Eastern dress, what it’s like to travel by plane in post-9/11 America, and you’re likely to hear plenty about profiling. Ask a Hispanic American about profiling after he or she is subjected repeatedly to unwarranted scrutiny about immigration status.

For that matter, ask an overweight person what it’s like to be profiled by a maitre d’. Ask gray-haired people in their 50s, in perfect health and with excellent skills, if they believe there’s a problem with age profiling by employers. Ask those with visible tattoos and piercings what types of unwelcome profiling come with body art.

It is true that as a nation of immigrants, America has always had to deal with some measures of ethnic, racial, and religious stereotyping. As a society, though, we like to think of ourselves as generally tolerant of those in our melting pot - but many factors make that assumption troublingly open to question.

Since 9/11, travelers in airports, train stations, and other public venues have been encouraged to profile those around them and to report anything suspicious. Even without instruction, most of us would be doing that anyway. Can you honestly say you’ve watched airline passengers coming down the aisle without relating their appearance and clothing to a profile that fits your fears?

This process is both sanctioned and practiced by government. The Transportation Security Administration now has more than 2,000 plain-clothed “behavior detection officers,’’ whose mission is to profile people in airports, right down to their facial expressions and apparent levels of anxiety. The TSA won’t say if anyone among the first 180,000 citizens detained under the program turned out to be a terrorist, but CBS News reported that none was found.

Many local and state police agencies teach profiling. Joe Arpaio, the notorious sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, is said to encourage his deputies to use skin color as a pretense for stopping suspected illegal immigrants - a charge currently under investigation by the Justice Department. Isn’t there an inherent contradiction when government preaches against profiling, yet practices it at the same time?

And what about in the private sector? The car dealer profiles customers even before they move from the lot to the showroom. By the time the bell rings on the first day of class, the teacher has profiled each new student. I know a successful golf pro who insists he can profile a player’s handicap index within three points, just by watching him take his clubs from his car and walk to the driving range. And no one should even try to compete in a singles bar without a degree in advanced profiling.

This is our nature. But in less stressful times, perhaps, we are better at curbing the worst aspects of that natural behavior.

Now, however, more profiling seems to be on the horizon. The decline of Caucasians as a percentage of total US population, erosion of the middle class, extended life spans of older Americans - they all contribute to societal splits. With them come anxiety, suspicion and stereotyping. We are increasingly a nation of “us’’ and “them,’’ and we tend to create negative profiles about “them.’’

The more we judge each other based upon a dubious list of presumed traits, and the more effort government devotes to employing the same tactics in the name of making us safer, the more it damages society’s own larger profile.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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