February 17, 2003

Racial profiling takes stage at Glenn

By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

The discussion was relatively civil, but tension hung in the Glenn Auditorium air at the third annual State of Race Debate, Thursday night, Feb. 13.

The subject matter, “Racial Profiling: Pre- and Post-September 11,” was a volatile one, the speakers—Michelle Alexander of the American Civil Liberties Union-Northern California and Dinesh D’Souza, Rishwain Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution—were passionate, and the audience of several hundred took sides and did not apologize for it.

With D’Souza, a senior domestic policy analyst during the Reagan administration, setting himself up on the right, and the ACLU lawyer, Alexander, on the left, the battle lines were drawn early.

In the middle, physically if not politically, was John Ford, senior vice president and dean for Campus Life, serving as moderator. He kept the proceedings moving along from the guest’s 15-minute opening statements to a detailed back-and-forth discussion followed by responses to audience questions.

Alexander said that racial profiling seems appropriate when people’s security is at stake, but she did not say that it was right. “We can have a careful conversation about the costs and benefits of sacrificing the civil rights of a certain racial group,” she said.

Alexander also spoke at length about the drug war, which she said unfairly targets people of color although they are not statistically more likely than whites to be drug users.
“The war on drugs creates an Us vs. Them mentality,” she said. “Rather than fight the causes of drug abuse and terrorism, it’s easier to just round people up.”

D’Souza began his address with a joke (“My job is to make the case for racial profiling, so I have titled my talk ‘Two Cheers for Racial Profiling.’”), but he played the role of attacker much of the night.

While D’Souza derided what he called “stupid profiling,” defined as racial profiling without a reason, but he staunchly defended profiling based on statistics, such as the investigation of Middle Eastern men for terrorist activities or African American men of a certain age and of a certain appearance for crimes.

D’Souza was most in defense of profiling in cases where national security and personal security were involved (an example he used was of cab drivers not picking up young African American men because that demographic has the highest incidence of violent crime). When you can find out all the information about an individual person of color, he said, it should be done. But in cases where that is impossible, profiling should be acceptable.

“In the fog, when you don’t know who to blame, you are forced to act on hunches,” he said. “I would much rather have that than somebody sitting comfortably in the offices of the ACLU saying, ‘At no price will we relinquish our civil rights.’”

Although the set up was there, Alexander did not take the bait. Through most of the night, when D’Souza would attack, Alexander would either let it pass or mildly redefine his words. For instance, D’Souza described an attack on a Sikh man by a white man in Texas as “racial profiling,” Alexander termed it a “hate crime.”

Each told personal stories of profiling as well. Alexander recounted a time when she was a child and her black father was stopped while driving in a predominantly white neighborhood and questioned. Her white mother, seated in the passenger seat was questioned about their relationship and asked by a police officer if “she was OK.”

D’Souza’s story was a bit lighter. When interviewing an information technology professional for a book he was writing about culture, D’Souza said his subject went into great detail about the technical aspects of his job—something D’Souza didn’t care about.

“That’s when I realized this person thought I was interested because there are a lot of Indians in the technology industry,” he said.

The audience, which packed Glenn’s lower level and part of the balcony, was made up primarily of students, and it played a role in the evening. Only a small percentage of people in attendance applauded for both speakers. Much of the time competing factions in the crowd (Alexander’s supporters a bit scattered in the front and D’Souza’s a large group in the back) attempted to out-root each other. Nothing beyond a couple soft murmurs was said among audience members, but the unease in the building had teeth.

The event was presented by College Council, and more than 20 campus organizations contributed to or cosponsored it. “This phenomenon, based on race, affects all members of the Emory community,” said College Council Vice President Amanda Edwards in her introduction. “It is a matter of racial equity, homeland security and civil liberties.”

A third speaker, Arun Gandhi, cofounder of the Memphis, Tenn.-based M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, was scheduled to appear but could not because he was taking care of his wife, Sunanda, who had suffered a fall earlier in the week and required surgery. Ford read an apology sent to him by Gandhi.






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