The American Tradition of Racial Profiling


Jean Phan


The enemy has always been easily recognizable in American life: He has been the savage Native American known for scalping people; the black slave bent on ravaging white women; the Asian worker unfairly competing against the white man; the Mexican immigrant who does nothing but leech off the system; the Arab who dreams up terrorist plots, and carries them out. These enemies have always been visible in American society, and yet, they don’t exist in reality. They exist only in the minds of those too afraid to consider that these strange individuals who seem so different, could be just like them…American. They exist only in the fear that is cultivated through the popular culture in response to the threat that supposed “outsiders” pose. They exist only when we allow that fear to override our common sense. And far too often, they exist until they are recognized as nothing but false assumptions, much too late. These characters are the adult equivalent of the children’s boogeyman…the result of an irrational fear of the unknown.

“The American Tradition of Racial Profiling” looks into two instances in American society, the Japanese Internment and the post-9/11 racial profiling of Middle Eastern individuals, and asks why we have been unable to learn from the mistakes of the past and why we have made these mistakes in the first place. It asserts that both incidents stemmed from the same impetus and are part of the same American tradition: racial profiling to subordinate and control the “other.” Racial profiling in this sense is a tool that Americans turn to when a perceived outsider threatens to damage the status quo. Of course, this tool cannot be used unless it is justified. The justification, inevitably, is fear. Be it fear of the Japanese Kamikaze pilot or fear of the fanatical Middle Eastern terrorist, Americans are conditioned through the media to fear the “other,” even when the “other” turns out not to be the dark skinned minority they expected, but rather good old fashioned white Americans like the American Taliban or the Oklahoma City Bomber. In other words, public opinion is manipulated to serve the unconstitutional end of racial profiling.

After all is said and done, there can be only one remedy to fear driven racial profiling: make racial profiling per se unconstitutional. The harsh reality is that America is a racist society. As a result, there is no way to utilize racial profiling without abusing it. Only when we acknowledge this unfortunate facet of our existence will we truly have moved on from the Japanese internment days.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law | Human Rights Law | Law and Politics | Law and Society | Legal History | Legislation | Public Law and Legal Theory | Social Welfare Law

Date of this Version

February 2007