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Profiling Petulance By: Walter Williams
The Washington Times | Thursday, December 21, 2006


Charges of racial, religious and ethnic profiling swirl in the wake of US Airways' removal of six imams. According to police reports, the men made anti-American statements, were praying and chanting "Allah," refused the pilot's requests to disembark for additional screening and asked for seat-belt extensions for no obvious reason. Three of the men had no checked baggage and only one-way tickets.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), five of the men have retained lawyers and will probably bring a discrimination lawsuit against the airline.

Racial profiling controversy is nothing new. For a number of years, black Americans have made charges of racial profiling by police and store personnel who might give them extra scrutiny. Clever phrases have emerged, such as "driving while black" and now "flying while Muslim," but they don't aid understanding much. Let's apply some economic analysis.

God, or some other omniscient being, would never racially profile. Why? Since He is all-knowing, He would know who is and is not a terrorist or a criminal. We humans are not all-knowing. While a god would have perfect and complete information about everything, we humans have less than perfect and incomplete information. We must use substitutes such as guesses and hunches for certain kinds of information. It turns out some physical attributes correlate highly with other attributes less easily, or more costly, observed.

Let's look at a few, and the associated "profiling," that cause little or no controversy. Mortality rates for cardiovascular diseases were about 30 percent higher among black adults than among white adults. The Pima Indians of Arizona have the world's highest known diabetes rates. Prostate cancer is nearly twice as common among black men as white men. Would anyone bring racial profiling charges against a doctor who routinely ordered more frequent blood tests and prostate screening among his black patients and more glucose tolerance tests for his Pima Indian patients? Of course, God wouldn't have to do that because He'd know for sure which patient was more prone to cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer and diabetes.

It is clear, whether we like it or not, or want to say it or not, that there is a strong correlation between committing terrorist acts and being a Muslim, and being black and high rates of crime. That means if one is trying to deter terrorism and in some cases capture a criminal, he would expend greater investigatory resources on Muslims and blacks. A law-abiding Muslim who is given extra airport screening or a black who is stopped by the police is justifiably angry, but with whom should he be angry? I think a Muslim should be angry with those who've made terrorism and Muslim synonymous and blacks angry with those who've made blacks and crime synonymous. The latter is my response to the insulting sounds of car doors locking sometimes when I'm crossing a street in downtown Washington, D.C., or when taxi drivers pass me by.

It would be a serious misallocation of resources if airport security intensively screened everyone. After all, intensively screening someone who had a near zero probability of being a terrorist, such as an 80-year-old woman using a walker, would not only be a waste but it would take resources away from screening a person with a much higher probability.

You say, "Williams, are you justifying religious and racial profiling?" No. I'm not justifying anything any more than I would try to justify Einstein's special law of relativity. I'm trying to explain a phenomenon. By the way, I think some of the airport screening is grossly stupid, but I'm at peace with the Transportation Security Administration. They have their rules, and I have mine. One of mine is to minimize my association with idiocy. Thus, I no longer fly commercial.

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Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., and a syndicated columnist.


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