Racial profiling and terrorism: If you want to screen Muslims, you'll have to target blacks.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 31 2011 8:13 AM

Flying While Black

If you want to screen Muslims as potential terrorists, you'll have to target blacks.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Click image to expand.
Accused "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Two months ago, I criticized Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain for prejudging Muslims the way racists prejudge blacks. Cain argued that Muslims should be subjected to special loyalty tests or barred from Cabinet positions. "This nation is under attack constantly by people who want to kill all of us," he told CNN's John King. "I am going to take extra precautions if a Muslim person who is competent wants to work in my administration." When Glenn Beck asked Cain whether Catholics or Mormons should face the same loyalty test as Muslims, Cain said no, "because there is a greater dangerous part of the Muslim faith than there is in these other religions."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Last month, after going to Tennessee to support bigots who opposed construction of a mosque, Cain apologized for "any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it." He said of peaceful Muslims, "In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes."

For this apology, Cain has been denounced by Islamophobes. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took similar abuse for rejecting religious profiling. In June, a questioner told Napolitano: "In most of the cases since 9/11 that we've made arrests, it wouldn't be profiling to discover that most of the suspects or the convicted parties have been men, typically under 30 or under 35, often Muslim. … Why wouldn't the department focus more of its attention on that category of individual who's turned up most often as the suspect?" Napolitano replied that behavioral profiling was more accurate than profiling by sex, age, or religion. In response, several conservative websites, including Beck's, accused her of defying "logic" and "common sense."

The logic of Muslim profiling is simple. First, Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to plan or commit acts of terror against the United States. Second, Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to sympathize with al-Qaida or believe that suicide bombing can be justified. Previous polling by the Pew Research Center supports this claim. But a new survey report from Pew adds a twist to the data: Statistically, the group most deserving of scrutiny under this rationale isn't Muslims. It's black Muslims.


The survey report, released yesterday, presents a table (on Page 5) breaking down the data by race. One question asks: "How much support for extremism, if any, is there among Muslims living in the U.S.?" Among all U.S. Muslims, 21 percent say there's a great deal or a fair amount of support. Among native-born U.S. Muslims, the number is 32 percent. Among black native-born Muslims, it's 40 percent.

Another question asks: "Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of al-Qaida?" Among all U.S. Muslims, 5 percent report a favorable view. Among native-born U.S. Muslims, the number is 10 percent. Among black native-born Muslims, it's 11 percent.

A third question asks: "Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?" Among all U.S. Muslims, 8 percent say suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified. Among native-born U.S. Muslims, the number is 11 percent. Among black native-born Muslims, it's 16 percent.

If you think the way Cain did—that we should take "extra precautions" with certain groups because the percentage of people in those groups who might want to kill us is bigger than it is in other groups—then Pew's findings suggest scrutiny of Muslims isn't enough. You need to zero in on black Muslims. Look at the two guys who have been caught trying to blow up planes to the U.S. since 9/11: shoe bomber Richard Reid and accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Not to mention Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the guy who shot up the military recruiting center in Arkansas.

I don't see presidential candidates advocating this kind of heightened scrutiny. Evidently, racial profiling of blacks is out of fashion. It's been replaced by discrimination against Muslims, ostensibly justified by 9/11  and the threat of Islamic terrorism. But if group data warrant extra screening of Muslims, they also warrant extra screening, in particular, of blacks. Or they warrant neither. Logically, those are your options.

(Readings I recommend: Asra Nomani in the Daily Beast writes: "'Profile me. Profile my family,' because, in my eyes, we in the Muslim community have failed to police ourselves." Nomani, Robert Baer, and Deroy Murdock defended racial and religious profiling at airports in a debate at Intelligence Squared. Juan Cole at Salon made the case against profiling. Faiz Shakir at Think Progress has the best compilation of statements from politicians and pundits advocating Muslim profiling. Rachel Slajda at Talking Points Memo quotes Sarah Palin: "Profile away." Andrew Breitbart's Biggovernment.com shows a black Muslim terrorist plotter under the sarcastic headline, "Please Don't Profile." Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch ridicules Janet Napolitano for imagining "it's only a coincidence" that so many terrorists are "all Muslim men under age 35." Noreen Malone at New York magazine examines an ethnically organized Muslim surveillance program by police that "sounds an awful lot like racial profiling." Alan Duke at CNN's "Belief" blog looks at Gallup data showing that 81 percent of Muslim Americans, but only half of other Americans, think demographic profiling can't identify terrorists.)

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