Some profiling is just common sense

There are two types of people when it comes to profiling: Those who do it, and those who do it and say they don't. Photo: Public image/ gang members

WASHINGTON, August 15, 2013 — In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin trial, the endless national conversation about race has turned to racial profiling. Profiling has been condemned as prejudicial, discriminatory and outright racist.

It is not that simple. 

There are many types of profiling. Some are insidious, subjecting people in some groups to inappropriate, inexcusable, and sometimes illegal diminution of their rights because of their race, gender or creed. African Americans are still sometimes unable to get a cab in major cities. Or, as President Obama noted, there still may be folks who hold their purse a little closer to their bodies when an African-American man gets on the elevator.

But not all profiling is discriminatory or born of racial discrimination. Some profiling is common sense.

Profiling is often the calculation of odds. Young men are more dangerous than old women. Which group do you prefer to approach for directions late at night: four elderly black women, or four heavily tatooed young white men with shaved heads?

The men might be Bikers for Jesus on their way to feed orphans, but when you have to quickly calculate odds and minimize risk, you’ll probably approach the women. That calculation isn’t irrational prejudice; it’s common sense.

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Israeli security protects El Al passengers and employees by a careful program of profiling at its checkpoints. Though they interview all passengers, they understand that a conspiracy to take down a plane is far more likely to originate from young males from the Mideast than a 75-year-old Hispanic woman in a wheelchair.

The Israelis don’t play the politically correct game, which is one reason that they have perhaps the safest airline in the world. 

When George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, was he racially profiling him? We will never know completely what was in Zimmerman’s head at the time. If he had, would that have been irrational? Would it have been irrational for Zimmerman to profile Martin as young and male? Young men are a high-crime group.

Attire, outward appearance and hygiene all play an important role in helping us form judgments of others, and for good reason; it’s simply the odds. A young male of any race in a hoodie, or just a hat and sun glasses that obscure his identity, will attract closer scrutiny in a community that has experienced numerous burglaries in the recent past.

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Young men retain their constitutional rights. They should not be randomly and indiscriminately searched on the street without reasonable suspicion. Behavior is more important in effective profiling than race, age or gender, but it’s not illogical for law enforcement to keep a closer eye on people in demographic groups more likely to commit a crime. 

Some profiling goes over the line, but profiling isn’t by itself illegal, or even improper. We shouldn’t rush to abandon a useful tool.


Steve Levy is President of Common Sense Strategies, a political and business consulting firm. He served as Suffolk County Executive  2004-2011, and as a NYS Assemblyman.

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Steve Levy

Steve Levy joins Communities as a poltical writer after serving as state and county legislator, and candidate for Governor of New York State, Steve Levy served as County Executive of Suffolk County, New York from 2004-2011.  Presently, Steve Levy is a political commentator and a strategist assisting candidates for elective office.


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