Deep secrets of racial profiling (3)

In part 2 of this series, I wrote about David Harris’s book Profiles In Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work. Harris’s book had obviously been written before 9/11, though it was published in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

In the book’s chapter 6, Harris provided an account of the reform of airline passenger screening in the Clinton administration to avert alleged racial profiling. By the time of the book’s publication in 2002, events had cast their own harsh commentary on this part of Harris’s book. Publication could not have been more poorly timed. The book proceeded to drop without a trace.

In my American Enterprise article on Harris’s book, included in part 2, I said that the profiling ruckus Harris helped stir up had, among other things, made it hard for security officers to use intelligent profiles to uncover potential terrorists in our airports, at our borders, and at visa offices abroad. I added that this was a mistake that had already come to haunt us and referred to a sidebar quoting from pages 139-144 of Harris’s book. I asserted that so long the likes of Harris deterred law enforcement officials from carefully applying profiling tools, we would continue to be exposed needlessly to potential reruns of 9/11.

At pages 139-144, Harris told the now largely forgotten story of the airline screening system put into place by the Clinton administration in the run-up to 9/11. The sidebar from Harris’s book included in the hard copy of the American Enterprise article quoted from this account by Harris of the events leading up to the adoption of the system that had been put into place by the FAA in the days before 9/11 (emphasis in original):

For some years American air travelers have been occasional targets of terrorism involving air travel. This has ranged from hijacking and hostage taking to bombings of airliners that have killed all on board the aircraft, such as the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Some of these crimes have involved Middle Eastern or Muslim perpetrators. Because of these and other types of terrorism directed at American and other Western interests, a broad perception exists that Muslims or Arab people represent a potential terrorist threat that the government and the airlines must address. Constant use of such terms as Muslim extremists and Arab terrorists has perpetuated this belief among the general populace.

Consistent with the controversy stirred up at the time, Harris implied that this all reflected misguided bias and stereotypes. Airline screening of passengers at the behest of the FAA came under assault. It was alleged improperly to have focused attention on Arabs and Muslims.

Harris relates that, in response to the TWA Flight 800 crash in July 1996, “President Clinton quickly appointed a commission, headed by Vice President Gore, to investigate and propose new measures to insure aviation safety and security.” The commission recommended a Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS) system to replace screening by airline personnel. The CAPS system was adopted and put into operation at the beginning of 1998.

Among other things, CAPS selected a certain number of passengers for bag matching or explosive detection at random, moving us toward the farcical TSA screening of our post 9/11 world. Harris described the upshot of the CAPS system’s pre-9/11 random screening (footnote omitted):

These passengers could be anyone, even the airline’s premium frequent travelers paying full first-class fares. This has helped to reeducate the airline workforce. In [FAA security officer] James Padgett’s words, “They see enough little old ladies selected every day” that they know not everyone selected is bad. The message is clear: draw no conclusions from who is selected. These folks could be anyone–even our best, highest paying customers–so treat them with care.

The results of these changes have been striking: according to both Arab American groups and the FAA, complaints about these types of encounters in American airports have fallen drastically since CAPS was put into place.

‘Twas a famous victory.

By contrast with Harris’s poor timing, Michelle Alexander caught a wave in 2012 with the paperback publication of her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander rehearsed all of Harris’s arguments while adding an even more incendiary racial animus to the mix. The book has become a huge bestseller in paperback with a new foreword by the execrable Cornel West.

In paperback the book is now in its eighteenth printing. Referring to the book’s charmed timing, Jennifer Schuessler explained in her 2012 New York Times article:

“The New Jim Crow” arrives at a receptive moment, when declining crime rates and exploding prison budgets have made conservatives and liberals alike more ready to question the wisdom of keeping nearly 1 in 100 Americans behind bars.

We’ll turn to Alexander’s book in part 4 of this series.

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