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Commentary: A missed opportunity on profiling

opinion Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/all/themes/wctrib_theme/images/social_default_image.png
West Central Tribune
Commentary: A missed opportunity on profiling
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- I, for one, would have liked to have seen President Obama condemn racial and ethnic profiling in his lengthy and otherwise far-reaching State of the Union address.

I thought Obama was getting close to doing just that when -- in discussing the war on terror -- he rejected "the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values." And I really thought he was going to go there when, later in his remarks, he reaffirmed, "the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like ... if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else." But here, Obama was instead talking about equal pay and lifting the ban on gays in the military.

As long as he was talking about not treating people differently, he could have at least made a passing reference to the idea that, even when dealing with possible terror suspects, we ought not to single out individuals based solely on race and ethnicity.

I'm not saying Obama had to go as far as President George W. Bush did in March 2001 when he directed government agencies to collect racial data on traffic stops by local law enforcement officers in an effort to end racial profiling. Besides, that directive became basically meaningless once the war on terror began and several federal agencies were accused of profiling Arab-Americans. But, for Obama, just mentioning the issue would have sent a powerful message at a time when some elected officials are spouting off with outlandish and irresponsible comments on profiling.

"I believe in racial and ethnic profiling," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., announced at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee review of the shootings at Ford Hood, Texas. "I think if you're looking at people getting on an airplane and you have X amount of resources to get into it, you need to get at the targets, not my wife."

Inhofe simplified matters even further when he said: "When you hear that not all Middle Easterners or Muslims between the ages of 20 and 35 are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims or Middle Easterners between the ages of 20 and 35, that's by and large true."

We can assume that Inhofe didn't get a dictionary for Christmas. If he had, he might know that "Middle Eastern" is not a race and "Muslim" is not an ethnicity.

Aside from that, I get a little tired of white males who never have to worry about being rounded up or singled out because of their race or ethnicity -- even when we're looking for serial killers or child molesters, most of whom, according to FBI statistics, fit such a profile -- being so quick to give authorities the green light to scrutinize the rest of us? That's awfully big of them. If they feel so strongly that this kind of treatment is neither wrong nor inconvenient, why not volunteer to go first?

Focusing on people because of their behavior or criminal history is fine. But applying that lens solely because of one's race and ethnicity is an unattractive and unacceptable practice fueled by knee-jerk prejudices about what a terrorist looks like.

Here's the worst part: More than eight years after 9/11, Americans still have no idea what a terrorist looks like. Crafty evildoers at outfits like al-Qaeda have broadened their recruitment efforts to avoid easy detection.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mentioned how tough it is to detect "homegrown operatives" with U.S. passports. The report cited "nearly 10 non-Yemeni Americans who traveled to Yemen" and who a U.S. official described as "blond-haired, blue-eyed types" who "fit a profile of Americans whom al-Qaeda has sought to recruit over the past several years."

You see the problem? Racial and ethnic profiling isn't just un-American. It's also unreliable and unscientific.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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