Walter E. Williams

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 are probably going to bring a discrimination lawsuit against US Airways.

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 help much in terms of understanding. Let's apply some economic analysis to the issue.

God, or some other omniscient being, would never racially profile. Why? Since He is all-knowing, He'd 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. That means we must use substitutes such as guesses and hunches for certain kinds of information. It turns out that some physical attributes are highly correlated with other attributes that are 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 approximately 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 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's given extra airport screening or a black who's stopped by the police is perfectly justified in being 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 of being a terrorist.

You say, "Williams, are you justifying religious and racial profiling?" No. I'm not justifying anything any more than I'd 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.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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