Judging others by their covers
Seattle Times staff reporter
People of color, and those who have embraced diversity all their lives, suddenly find themselves scrutinizing others, looking for brown skin, black hair, beards or Islamic head scarves.
The racial profiling so objectionable to African Americans and others is now being practiced against Arab Americans and others of Middle Eastern descent — even by those who say they know better.
"I've never been one to racially profile, and I feel really bad saying this," says a local businessman, a prominent African American.
"I have a lot of Muslim friends, and they'd kick my butt if they heard me. But I'm saying, if I were on a plane, that brings a whole new perspective."
African Americans, Latinos and Asians alike have long challenged the practice of racial profiling — the act of targeting or stereotyping someone based on the color of their skin or the way they dress.
But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed how Americans look at each other. Even as the nation's leaders call for respecting and embracing Arab Americans and those of Muslim faith, they have also urged Americans to be vigilant, and that coupled with the fear of another terrorist attack make it hard for people to avoid stereotyping others.
The FBI, scrambling to thwart a second attack, has questioned and or arrested more than 600 men since Sept. 11, all from the Middle East or of Arab ethnicity.
At the same time, the agency is investigating about 90 incidents, including three homicides, as possible hate crimes.
Nationwide, racial profiling had triggered 785 anti-Muslim incidents as of Oct. 2, according to the Council of American-Islamic Relations of Washington, D.C. Seattle's Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity has reported 15 incidents of bias thus far in Washington state.
Such harassment has shifted away from incidents at mosques to harassment at schools and the workplace, according to Eric Ward, the coalition's executive director. Turban-wearing Sikh cabdrivers have been yelled at by potential passengers; a local phlebotomist was told by a patient not to take blood because she is Indian.
At Sea-Tac airport last month, Vahid Tony Zohrehvandi, 41, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, was ordered off an American Airlines flight, questioned by airport police and told by airline representatives that the pilot didn't feel safe with him on board, said Laila Al-Qatami of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C.
Zohrehvandi, an American Airlines employee, was in Seattle on a business trip and was on his way home to Dallas. Before being put on a different flight, Al-Qatami said, Zohrehvandi was told by an airline representative that the pilot had been asked by airline officials if he was willing to take Middle Eastern men on the flight.
"I've asked my boss not to make me travel for a while," Zohrehvandi said yesterday from Dallas. "I don't want to get kicked off a plane again."
There have been 14 cases of passengers being denied seating or being pulled off airlines because of their ethnicity, according to the Anti-Discrimination Committee. And last week in Chicago, three men of Assyrian descent filed a federal lawsuit charging United Airlines with racial or ethnic discrimination. It is believed to be the first such "flying while Arab" lawsuit, as these incidents have been dubbed, the newest incarnation of "driving while black."
To what degree racial profiling will be tolerated as the government wages war against terrorism is already being debated, particularly as it relates to airport security. Should people of Arab ethnicity be subjected to more scrutiny than others? And once a person is screened, is it right for a passenger to be removed at the request of an airline pilot or other passengers?
"I think people are trying to figure out the answer," says Doug Stauffer, a local employment counselor, who is white. "You don't want to infringe on someone's civil liberties, but at the same time, how do we protect ourselves? I respect all people. But in an airplane setting, I'd be a little nervous. That's just pure honesty."
Recent polls suggest the public accepts racial and ethnic profiling of Arabs and Arab Americans. Nearly six in 10 Americans interviewed in a Sept.14-15 Gallup Poll favored requiring people of Arab descent to undergo more-intensive security checks when flying on U.S. airplanes.
The irony, columnist Clarence Page recently noted in the Chicago Tribune, is how African Americans are more likely than other racial groups to favor such profiling.
In a column last Wednesday titled "My, oh, my, look who's profiling now," Page, who is black, cited poll data from Gallup and Zogby International. In a Gallup poll, about 71 percent of black respondents said they would favor special, more intensive security checks for Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, before boarding airplanes, Page wrote.
"We are no less prone than many others to judge by appearances, as long as the person being judged is not us," wrote Page, who cautioned against "stupid profiling" rather than "smart profiling." The latter, he said, looks at more than just ethnicity or race.
Categorizing is natural
Moral arguments aside, racial bias, whether before or after the Sept. 11 attacks, is as ubiquitous as ATM cards. Everyone has racial biases, regardless of whether we think it's wrong or right, says social psychologist Anthony Greenwald, who teaches at the University of Washington.
Humans categorize things — male/female, young/old — because the mind can, he explains. Humans are also predisposed to evaluate things, thinking of categories in positive or negative terms, as friendly or unfriendly.
There is an exception, though. Profiling becomes more rational when there is no better cue other than race or ethnicity telling us whether a person is friendly or hostile, Greenwald says. The size of the target group also plays a role: The public didn't profile all white men, for example, in the days after the arrest of Timothy McVeigh as the suspect in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
"But if we know there's a white terrorist out there who has six fingers on his left hand, well, we know there are very few people who have that and we might actually be wise to be afraid," Greenwald says. "At the same time, it seems totally wrong politically, morally and socially. And I think you could only justify doing it if you're in total ignorance of any other, better predictor of danger."
Several years ago, Greenwald helped create a test to measure the extent of hidden or unconscious prejudices. The test measures bias in things people may think they feel positive or even neutral about, such as skin color, age or even gender.
"Even if we don't want to have them (biases), most of us do," he says.
Given all that has happened since Sept. 11, Greenwald is in the process of developing a new bias test about Arabs, which will be available on the Internet.
Information from Bloomberg News is included in this report. Florangela Davila can be reached at 206-464-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org.