Zev Levi

A defense of racial profiling (and a critique)

Quick thought experiment: You own a cafe. You know with 100% certainty that a woman plans to enter your cafe at 2:00 PM today to detonate a bomb that would destroy the Earth and all its inhabitants. You know exactly what the attacker looks like, and you know that there are eight people who look identical to her. The other seven are not aware of her plan. The act cannot be done at any other time or place.

It would be reasonable to check your customers’ appearances on entry around that time. It would be reasonable to apologetically explain to any description-fitting customers that they must unfortunately wait until 2:05 PM to enter. Doing this would be profiling based on physical appearance. Would you do it?

My personal answer is a resounding yes. The risk of not profiling (losing all life as we know it) by far outweighs the inconvenience of profiling (delaying some customers a few minutes, paying a security guard, possibly losing some innocent and impatient customers to other businesses).

And now come the tweaks. What would you do in a scenario identical to the cafe owner’s above except with one change:

  • the threat is to kill only the people in the vicinity?
  • you are unsure of the time of the attack?
  • the possibility of attack is 80%?
  • the attacker has only one defining physical characteristic: race?

I have come across a logical defense of racial profiling. I present it (and my critique of it) below.

I propose (and I’m not the first) that an act is racist if a person’s race is a factor in determining their treatment.

Genocide is racist. Apartheid is racist. Affirmative Action is racist (yet, part of a good temporary solution to racial oppression). How can all three fit into one category?

The racism’s cause

Genocide is founded on the theory that every individual belonging to the targeted race is a threat. Apartheid is founded on the theory that every individual belonging to the targeted race is unworthy of equal rights. These foundations are baloney so the actions based on them are unjustified. Genetic history does not determine a person’s threat level or worth, so it should not affect their treatment.

Affirmative Action is founded on the historical and institutionalized denial of opportunity to the targeted race. Fact, not baloney, so race affecting treatment is justified.

So if racism can sometimes be understandable, why is racial profiling deemed inexcusable?

The profiling’s cause

In the original thought experiment described above, would it change your decision if the threat, instead of being the destruction of the world, was only to annoy other customers by dawdling in the queue? What if the threat was a 15% chance of the assailant stealing something? What about 60%?

The threat that causes the profiling needs to be grave enough to justify interference. Leaving race out of the scenario, it is still unjust for a police officer to interrogate a man on the street because the officer thinks that the civilian might possibly steal something in the future. If there was a high chance of the civilian murdering the inhabitants of the street (i.e. he fit the description of a gang of serial killers who dressed the same way and committed massacres), the interrogation (i.e.’can I check you don’t have any weapons?’) would be justified. The threat of murder seems to warrant interference.

So there is a hypothetical case for understandable racial profiling; an ever-present high risk of murder, perpetrated by members who all share a social / linguistic / cultural / genealogical heritage.


The fact is that in Israel, groups of guerrillas (that do not represent the Arab population but claim to do so) massacre Israelis. Blowing up bus stations and cafes means all Israeli civilians are under attack (though Jewish areas and gatherings are targeted). Every week for the last few weeks, there have been between more than ten acts of terrorism executed and / or attempted (Molotov Cocktails thrown at civilians, rocks thrown at civilian buses, nationalist hit-and-runs etc.) in a country 1.4 times the size of New Jersey (or 0.4 times the size of Tasmania). The Israeli army responds with arrests and the demolition of infrastructure that they find connected to terror.

The Israeli people respond by placing security guards and metal detectors at every entrance of every bus station, cafe, university campus, shopping center, (the list goes on…) to analyze possible threats and ascertain actual threat level. Depending on the intelligence, some days see everyone get searched at the entrance to the bus station. Other days see only Arabs searched. This practice is racist, but is it justified?

The argument: These security points see Arab citizens asked more questions and inspected closer than the general population because the racial profiling is (1) based on an active and common threat, not a flawed theory of racial supremacy, and (2) effective at stopping massacres (which was the form the terrorism took before these measures were instituted).

My critique: There is a byproduct of this (possibly justified) racism that I fear. It is hard to leave the us-vs-them mentality at the security points and on the newsflashes. It is easy for the act of racial profiling (caused by valid security concerns) to propagate a quack theory of racial superiority. And that’s not good for anybody.

There is a difference between justification and sensitivity. Even if you think this needs to be done, it is still important to recognize that it is unfair to the innocent. Once someone passes security, they should rejoin the civilian populace with honor and respect. No threat = ‘thank you for your cooperation, you are a credit to our nation.’ The words might need some work, but the concept is there.

Interestingly, the West does not see itself as living in the same world as it did during WWII (where Japanese internment camps saw American citizens of Japanese descent separated from the population for fear of an internal attack from a foreign enemy). Israel suffers from this very dangerous threat, but hasn’t found a better solution. Please comment below if you have.

Until racial profiling is phased out completely, we need to actively limit racism to the borders of justifiability. We need to maintain its influence on our identity to keep us from becoming idiots. Muslala uses art to, “promote the transformation of Jerusalem into an open and creative society,” which sounds like a great way to start.

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About the Author
Zev Levi is an Australian oleh cataloging how his opinions on local issues change and why.
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