By Elvin Lim
The Transportation and Security Administration’s new video screening and pat-down procedures has given new fuel to advocates of racial profiling at airports around the nation. Opponents of racial profiling argue that treating an individual differently simply because of his or her race is wrong because discrimination, even for noble intentions, is just plain wrong. Let’s call this the principle of formal equality.
Oddly enough, this is exactly what opponents of affirmative action say. They typically argue that some other signifier, for example class, can be a more efficient, and less discriminatory way of achieving similar outcomes if affirmative action policies were in place.
This argument is analogous to the one offered by those who are against racial profiling. They suggest that some other signifier, for example behavior, can be a more efficient, and less discriminatory way of achieving similar outcomes if racial profiling policies were in place.
It seems, then, that one can either be for race-based profiling and affirmative action, or against both. What is problematic is if one is for one but not the other. My guess is that most liberals are for race-based affirmative action but against racial profiling, and most conservatives are against race-based affirmative action but for racial profiling. Inconsistency?
The problem is harder to resolve for the conservative who is anti-affirmative action but for racial profiling than it is for the liberal who is pro-affirmative action and anti-racial profiling. Here is why. The liberal can restate his or her philosophy as such: discrimination is wrong only when a historically disadvantaged group bears the brunt of a particular policy (as in racial profiling); discrimination is permissible when historically advantaged groups bear the brunt of a particular policy (as in affirmative action). By moving away from formal equality toward a more substantive conception of equality that incorporates the principle of historical remedy, a liberal can remain consistently pro-affirmative action, and still be anti-racial-profiling.
For the conservative who is against race-based affirmative action but for profiling, the problem is stickier. Almost every anti-affirmative action argument I have come across turns on the principle of formal equality: that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, no matter what the policy intentions may be.
Suppose, in an effort to reconcile an anti-affirmative action and a pro-profiling position, one argued that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, unless it was done in the name of some higher good, such as national security.
Well, then in protest, the pro-affirmative action liberal will simply substitute “some higher good” with “diversity,” and the anti-affirmative action conservative would be forced to accept the plausibility of the liberal’s position on affirmative action — or at least the fact that they share similar argumentative forms with no way to adjudicate between one higher good and another (while retaining his or her pro-profiling stance.) The problem is that to admit of any higher principle other than formal equality (the claim that discrimination on the basis of race for any reason is just flat out wrong) to help distinguish the cases decimates the case against affirmative action that was itself built on formal equality.
Profiling on the basis of race, among other characteristics, such as behavior, is likely to become a de facto, if not a de jure, policy in our nation’s airports in the years to come. It is going to inconvenience some innocent people simply because, among other factors, their skin was colored a particular way just as, and the hope is, it will save a lot mor
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the national immigration debate. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
Immigration is likely to become the new theater of the culture wars because Arizona’s new immigration law has further nationalized the immigration issue. Illegal immigrants in the state would be more likely to move to nearby states like Texas and California, and especially to those cities where sanctuary ordinances have been passed. Since immigrants settle disproportionately in California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois, we would expect these states to be most affected by Arizona’s new law.
Arizona is correct, then, that there can be no state solution to the illegal immigration problem. But that is not so say that the state is doing anything to alleviate the problem by taking things into its own hands. In fact, Arizona’s new law is only going to worsen the national problem.
What is missing in the contemporary debate is the asymmetry of support for legal sanctions against those who are here illegally, but not against those who hire illegally, namely businesses who hire illegal (and also lawyers and lobbyists who help them defend the conditions which make this possible). This puts the illegal immigrant in the worst of all worlds, harassed and harangued by the law, and in no position to bargain with prospective employers who are still relatively free to hire them at any price because of half-hearted enforcement of the Legal Arizona Workers Act. This puts downward pressure on wages, and even more native animus against illegal immigrants.
If Arizona is serious about controlling illegal immigration, it should proactively punish employers who hire illegals rather than focus its energies on a hit-and-miss strategy of authorizing law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of suspicious persons. This policy would then escape the “racial profiling” controversy because employers would have to check the immigration status of all potential employees (and not just those who look a certain way). It is somewhat disingenuous for Arizona to disproportionately target illegal immigrants but not legal citizens acting illegally, for at the very least this asymmetry about our tolerance of different kinds of illegality tells us that Arizona’s law isn’t purely about respect for the law qua law. Rather than focus on the supply of illegals, shouldn’t the state equally address the demand thereof?
The national immigration debate, which has currently centered on racial profiling, misses out on this central defect of federal immigration policy, which is that we focus too much on border security and not enough on the glaring fact that over a third of illegal immigrants became illegal because they over-stayed their visas, and the only reason why they could afford to do so was because they were able to find employment.
President Obama was wise, nevertheless, to have taken immigration reform off his agenda for this year, for if he hadn’t, Congress would have been forced to enact a quick-fix law that would have exacerbated the pathologies of our current immigration regime. In the long run, t
I’m weighing in a little late on this one, but something needs to be said. What happened? And how did things get so far out of control? Yes, I am referring to the situation involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (or Skip Gates), office James Crowley of the Cambridge police department, and President Barack Obama leader of the free world. This is a hotbed issue that just kept getting worse and worse. Let’s recant some of the facts and proceed.
First of all, from what we know, professor Gates was coming home from a long trip, and apparently could not get into his house in a normal fashion. When he “broke into” his own home, a neighbor saw this happening, and called the police. From here, the police arrived after Gates was already inside his home. It gets a little fuzzy here, as all the facts are either not known or are different, depending on who you ask. Following this, you have professor Gates being taken out of his home, in handcuffs, escorted by police. This is also where the picture that had been circling the airwaves was taken, of an apparently screaming Gates being removed from his home. Next, the police take professor Gates to jail, where he is processed. He is eventually released, and the charges later dropped. During the arrest, officer Crowley was the arresting officer, and apparently the one that exchanged words with professor Gates. This made headlines due to the prestigious reputation of professor Gates, and perhaps due to the fact that he is African-American, and was breaking into his own home. From the now released police reports, Gates was not arrested for breaking into his own home, but for disorderly conduct. Yes, he was in his own home and actually arrested for disorderly conduct – in his own home. According to the Crowley report, he was “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior”. Also from the pictures, it seems like there were several police officers on the scene. This is understandable, as when dispatched initially, they could have been walking into anything, and so utilizing safety in numbers makes perfect sense. End of story? Not even close.
This episode received national news attention, due to the facts mentioned above. It became a beacon and magnet for racial profiling. White cop arrests black man, who had not broken any laws up until the police got there, and did not break any laws following their arrival (and his arrest). On the talk shows, it came up. On the news shows, it was discussed. It quickly became the buzz. This was on July 16th 2009.
Now let’s fast forward to July 20th, 2009. President Obama is giving a speech on healthcare reform in the later evening hours. He is trying to rally support by appearing in prime time and getting his message across. The speech goes as well as expected, and the President opens the floor to Q&A. The questions that he fields from the media are mostly healthcare related. Then he is asked about the arrest of professor Gates, and the President answers by saying that the police “acted stupidly”. From this he goes on to describe his interpretation of the events. From here he continues by drawing a comparison-type of analogy using himself trying to get into the White House under similar circumstances. He continues on a bit further, and even garners more than a few laughs from those assembled. He answers a few more questions, not related to professor Gates, and then ends the event, leaving. Okay, that’s it, right? Wrong.
Now let’s see where things went wrong – and yes, they went terribly wrong. First of all, when the police arrived at professor Gate’s home, he was already inside. Already inside! According to witnesses, he had shown the officers his driver’s license as well as his Harvard identification card. This is confirmed, as he was never charges with breaking and entering, his id never in question. He had shown proof of residency. That should have really have been it. The event should have been over, done, complete. But no, it continued. Officer Crowley, for whatever reason did not leave it there. According to him, professor Gates said something about his mother. Let’s see now, you have one of the most pre-eminent scholars, at one of the top learning institutions in the country, American literary critic, educator, writer, editor, and public intellectual allegedly saying something about a police officer’s mother, with several other police officers around. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard was actually debasing himself in such a manner? Very, very hard to believe. However, even if you do believe it, which professor Gates vehemently denies, since when is that grounds for an arrest? Taking another look at the picture where professor Gates is led out of his home, in handcuffs, we see several police officers there. Obviously they had made sure that the area was secure, not dangerous. The only potential threat came from professor Gates. Let’s drill down on that. Professor Gates is 58 years old, small by any and all accounts (even lightweight), and walks with a limp assisted by a cane. In his home, surrounded by police, where is the threat? What greater good does it serve to arrest a man who is legally in his own home, when all he wants is for you to leave? There is little doubt as to why the charges were dropped, because they were bogus and unconscionable; utterly ridiculous. Officer Crowley obviously abused his authority. This was a travesty. Even when the tapes were released of Crowley calling in the incident, he told the dispatcher to keep the backup cars coming. Outrageous! One small man, nearly 60, several police officers, Crowley the arresting officer, and we get ‘keep the backup cars coming’. Disgraceful. Offensive. Officer Crowley was apparently much less than sincere with his statements to the press, and should be ashamed of himself. The arrest should not have happened.
President Obama, arguably one of the most intelligent presidents in generations, charismatic and calm under fire, and possessing on awareness that many, if not most, seem to lack. President Obama who has to deal with major issues like the economy, wars on two fronts, and most recently healthcare. President Obama, author, statesman, man in touch, what were you thinking? Why did you weigh in like you did? It seemed somewhat obvious that the President might have thought that the situation was very straightforward, and even at the tail end of its lifecycle. Yes and no. Yes it was clear what we all saw, more so when the 911 tapes were released, and Crowley’s report was aired. It was stupid, what officer Crowley did. No doubt. However, it was not the type of thing that the President should be giving his opinions on, especially to the detail and magnitude that he did. Not a good idea. Worse even, when coming from someone who is so intelligent. A simple “I do not know the full details, so I cannot comment” would have sufficed in his signature deep, rich tone. President Obama’s comments on the arrest completely overshadowed his speech on healthcare reform – completely. I was finishing the dishes at the time that the speech came on. It was informative and well delivered. He answered the questions definitively and succinctly. Then he said what he said about the arrest, and my jaw dropped. Then he elaborated and expounded. I had to do a bit of a double-take. Really? The fallout came later that night on the late night news programs, followed up by a tidal wave of discussion on his comments, the very next day, and beyond, day after day. It got so bad, that he had to intervene in the daily press briefings to somewhat detract what he had said. Then he revealed that he might be having a beer with professor Gates and officer Crowley in the near future. Really? No, Really! Then it actually happened. The three met, with the VP, at the White House, and had drinks, and discussed whatever.
This meeting should not have happened. Just based on the facts and details, this appears to have been a case of an abuse of authority on the officer’s part. I cannot even discern that it was a case of racial profiling. Maybe, but not sure. Officer Crowley in any case acted without discretion, and was insincere in his statements. He should have been reprimanded for his actions. They were stupid indeed. He should not be rewarded by being invited to a meeting with the President of the United States of America. He does not deserve this honor at all. He owes professor Gates an apology for his actions. This whole series of events was just one mistake after another. Professor Gates should have been left alone once it was determined that he was in his own home – plain and simple. NO crime was committed, and even the stupid (yes, I said it again, stupid) charges that were used to arrest and embarrass him were found baseless and dropped. President Obama should not have commented about it – at all. It cost him focus and attention from his healthcare push, and some political capitol as well. That meeting at the White House should not have happened, period. It raised the level of an overreaching, authoritatively abusive, insincere police officer to the rank of a presidential guest worthy of that type of meeting. Again, worthy Crowley was not. The meeting was something that the President termed as a ‘teachable moment’. Regardless of what your views and opinions are, one thing is happening. People are talking. Racial profiling is receiving some attention. People are discussing it. People are being educated about it, hopefully. Things might change, and this time it could be on purpose.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at what happens when you judge too quickly. See his previous OUPblogs here.
In his press conference on July 22, President Obama’s knee-jerk reaction to call what the Cambridge police department did “stupid” was poor form. The president thought he was avoiding the hot spot when asked about the Gates arrest by saying that the controversy offered a “teachable moment.” But having admitted that he had imperfect knowledge of the facts, he went on and assumed that this particular incident invited a lesson about racial profiling and made the very indictment that his conversational segway was intended to avoid. In so doing, Obama confirmed conservatives’ belief that minorities love to whine about their beleaguered status (also another knee-jerk belief, incidentally) even if Obama could have made a case had he marshalled the evidence appropriately. Obama spoke like a liberal before he thought, and that was his mistake.
In so doing, he repeated the same mistake that Professor Gates made. Like Obama, Gates, too, jumped to the conclusion that Sgt Crowley was racist. I do not know if Sgt Crowley acted hastily in arresting the Professor for allegedly exhibiting “tumultous” behavior, so I won’t jump to conclusions but simply note my suspicion that there was probably a contest of egos on both sides. Those who have rushed to Crowley’s defense should ask themselves if they do not also have a knee-jerk reaction to give the benefit of the doubt to a law enforcement officer (or a soldier or a partisan affiliated with the Commander-in-Chief.)
Gates, Obama, and possibly Crowley were not the only people who have been jumping to conclusions, substituting unreflected intuition for a careful weighing of the evidence. Frank Luntz and his political students are encouraging Americans to become thoughtless automatons responding to carefully researched code words like “government takeover” and “health-care rationing.” The issue domain is different, but the error is the same.
It is very difficult to prove racial-profiling, for it demands an investigator to go inside the head of the alleged perpetrator. It is equally difficult to prove that the president’s and Democratic Congress’s plan for a “public option” is a precursor to a completely government-run health-care system. If it is not appropriate to rush to accuse someone of being racist, then it is at least premature to rush to accuse of someone of being socialist (assuming that that is a bad thing).
Those who are accusing Obama and Gates for rushing into judgment should look into the mirror to see if they too have not rushed to conclude that liberals are whiners and socialists who want a government takeover of health-care. At some level, we all have the instinct to cherry-pick the evidence to come to the conclusions we want.
Ideologies, like stereotypes, are cognitive cues or heuristics. They help us to “think” before we get the facts. They allow us to abdicate our duty to make sense of the world with our own independent judgment. They do the easy but intellectually dishonest work of guiding our reactions to the conclusions we want without us having to do the hard work of getting to know a person or a proposed policy before we came to a judgment. The people who are reinforcing such behavior in our politics are destroying our democracy and robbing us of our first freedom - the freedom of independent thought.
So the Gates controversy is a teaching moment, and the lesson is quite simple. Look before you leap; think before you conclude. It is probably the first lesson of critical thinking, but two professors forgot it last week. If Obama wants us to learn this lesson, he should have been clearer about what the nature of his lapse was. It wasn’t that the president miscallibrated his words - for the question wasn’t about the intensity of what he said, but the very fact that he said something at all. Obama should have apologized for expressing what he felt and intuited without having first perused the evidence. If he had done that, he would have claimed the moral ground to shame some of his opponents in Congress into admitting that they too are doing the same thing in their knee-jerk opposition to what they call “Obamacare.”