Affirmative Action, Part IV: Racial Profiling

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This post is an interlude, so it sort of doesn't fit into the schedule I set up with the six arguments for affirmative action and six against (see the first post in the series, which also has links to parts II and III). I assume I'll pick up with the third argument for affirmative action in part V.

For now I wanted to record a thought I had while hearing an argument for a minimalist kind of racial profiling, in particular with regard to terrorists since 9/11. If airline screening is completely random, it seems as if it will be far less effective than if they take into account characteristics that are more common among terrorists. Racial profiling is stupid if it doesn't involve any reason to single out the people being singled out, as with the case of stopping black people on the New Jersey Turnpike, when it turned out black motorists weren't any more likely in that context to be doing anything illegal. Even those who would resist using race as the basis for finding terrorists (which it may be a good idea to resist, since al Qaeda has been reported to be using European-looking operatives) should acknowledge that it is a factor that seems relevant enough to consider it. The discussion I heard the tail end of on one of the cable news networks a few minutes ago ended with someone arguing that race or ethnicity should at least be considered as a tie-breaker between two people who might be considered for a screening. All of this language sounded remarkably like the language used in affirmative action discussions.

It made me wonder if allowing affirmative action for reasons having to do with race really being relevant (e.g. it's a real qualification or it has good enough effects for historically oppressed people) then you have to allow racial profiling when race really is relevant (e.g. in a certain neighborhood people fitting a certain description with a racial component are much more likely to be criminals than others). I think the answer is yes. If race can be relevant for singling people out for a benefit, then it should also be relevant for singling someone out for closer scrutiny involving criminal enforcement. I suspect most affirmative action proponents would be reluctant to concede this.

On the other side, we get just as interesting a result. If affirmative action is wrong in principle because it's wrong to single out anyone's race for any classificatory reason, as some affirmative action opponents believe, then racial profiling must always be wrong on the same grounds. If affirmative action is wrong except as a tie-breaker, then it seems that racial profiling must also always be wrong except as a tie-breaker. The fellow whose argument I caught the tail end of realizes this. I wonder how many conservatives do.

So this now joins the abortion/capital punishment set of issues as an interesting set of seeingly unrelated moral views that standardly fall in opposite combinations despite what you'd expect. In that case, there are consistent positions for affirming capital punishment and opposing abortion (not that most conservatives have thought carefully enough about why) and consistent positions that allow abortion but oppose capital punishment (though again most liberals dont think carefully enough about why). Maybe such nuanced positions will turn up here, with conservatives giving interesting reasons why racial profiling might be ok while affirmative action is wrong and liberals giving carefully thought-out reasons why affirmative action is good but racial profiling always wrong. In this case, the tie seems stronger than with capital punishment and abortion, so I'm not holding my breath. I suspect each more absolute position really will need to have the parallel view not standardly held in combination with it.

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3 Comments

It made me wonder if allowing affirmative action for reasons having to do with race really being relevant (e.g. it's a real qualification or it has good enough effects for historically oppressed people) then you have to allow racial profiling when race really is relevant (e.g. in a certain neighborhood people fitting a certain description with a racial component are much more likely to be criminals than others).

Very good points. I think that most people haven't caught on to this tension yet.

I think that the key is in the section I quoted above. Namely, the difference in examples. Though both fall under the broad category of "cases where race really is relevant", the examples are very different. The question becomes, "are the differences enough to make them such that they should be treated differently?"

Obviously, if the goals are the same, then they should be treated the same. One reason commonly cited for affirmative action is reparations. If the goal of racial profiling is also reparations, then obviously they should have the same standing in people's moral calculus. But singleing people out for extra suspicion hardly seems the appropriate way to dispense reparations, so it seems clear that the goals for affirmative action are different than the goals of profiling.

Are the goals different enough to merit different treatment? I don't know. But it seems to me to be the obvious first step in developing a nuanced view that either affirmative actions is good while profiling is bad, or affirmative action is bad while profiling is good.

Right. I guess when you work out the details there will be some tough calls to make. Someone who favors affirmative action for multiple reasons might still have the problem. If reparations is the only reason, then I can see how opposing all racial profiling might be consistent with that. If it's reparations + seeing race as a qualification, then it allows some racial profiling. If seeing race as a qualification because people of that race tend to have certain characteristics, then I think you've said enough. Racial profiling is usually based on the grounds that stopping or searching people who fit a profile that includes but isn't limited to race is more effective toward the goal of stopping crime of some sort, particularly when the very race that is being targeted is also the victim. If race is a qualification because certain race characteristics make someone better at the job, and that's ok, then racial profiling because characteristics strongly correlating with race + some other factors seem to be enough to justify profiling. This is getting hard to say without being too wordy, so let me know if you're not getting the point.

I guess the only thing I can think of for affirmative action as bad and profiling as good is if you think affirmative action is bad primarily because it harms the group it's intended to help and profiling is good because it helps the very group it's singling out because the crime in the areas more concentrated with people of the group will be diminished. That's doing it all in terms of consequences, which I as a non-utilitarian wouldn't be willing to allow as a starting point, since other features might be more important than consequences, but given what I'm going to argue in the rest of the series it might come down to consequences anyway, since I don't think any of the so-called absolute principles given in favor of or against affirmative action can really serve as absolutes.

Very well explained points. I couldn't agree any more. =]

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