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Why Racial Profiling is like Affirmative Action

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 more innocent people a lot of hassle if everyone were treated equally at airports. If Americans accept this trade-off to be worth it, then perhaps we should also accept the analogous trade off: that as affirmative action on the basis of race, among other characteristics, such as gender, has become law and policy in employment and college admissions, the policy is going to make things harder for some equally qualified people, but it is going to make things easier for a bunch of people who would otherwise have had to endure many obstacles to employment and admission to college.


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 and his column on politics appears here each Tuesday.

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