Airport racial profiling in the United States

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Airport racial profiling in the United States is U.S. government activity directed at a suspect or group of suspects because of their race or ethnicity. Under analysis Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, objective factors measure whether law enforcement action is constitutional, and under the Fourteenth Amendment challenges to the practice are assessed under the customary strict scrutiny test for racial classifications.[1]

Since September 11, 2001, there have been reports on increases in racial profiling at airports, particularly targeting people who appear to be Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. It has been a routine practice by law enforcement officials to stop individuals who are profiled because of their race and religious and ethnic appearance or who may appear to be "suspicious".[2]


In the weeks following September 11, 2001, federal, state and local law enforcement officials investigated those responsible for the September 11 attacks during which nearly 3,000 people died. They assessed the United States's vulnerability to future acts of terrorism. Investigations showed the suspects of the crime to be of Middle Eastern origin.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, US officials responded to the fears of air travelers by reinforcing security. Despite more thorough investigation of baggage and increased security staffing, there were so many vast open spaces, exits and entrances at airport hubs that prevention of incidents was problematic.

Los Angeles International Airport was recently found to be the most vulnerable to infiltration in the US when it comes to smuggling weapons. Knives, guns, and explosives carried by federal undercover inspectors were missed by LA International airport screeners at checkpoints 41% of the time in an airport security test. The test, which checked security at America's 32 biggest airports, was carried out in June by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which assumed responsibility for airport security.[3]


A 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asserted that, due to terrorists being vastly outnumbered by innocents, racial profiling is no more effective than random profiling.[4] It has also been claimed that any form of profiling is less secure than random profiling, because a terrorist cell can simply have a number of members go through airport security, until one is reliably not profiled, then use that individual to perform an attack.[5] None of the 19 successful hijackers in the September 11 attacks were reported or even remembered by checkpoint supervisors.[6]

Michael Kinsley asked in a 2001 article for Slate magazine if a rational reason exists to single out Arabic-looking men at airport.[7]

King Downing, the national coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union's Campaign Against Airport Racial Profiling, says he was the victim of profiling by police at Logan International Airport in Boston, MA. He was going to the federal court to challenge a screening technique used around the country that looks at suspicious behavior patterns to identify potential terrorists.[8] Downing alleges he was stopped and questioned by state police after arriving on a flight to attend a meeting on racial profiling. He has sued the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport, and the Massachusetts State Police, citing they violated his constitutional rights. Downing, who is black and wears a short beard, believes he was targeted because of his race. In his lawsuit, Downing alleges the behavioral screening system used at Logan Airport encourages racial profiling. His lawsuit also seeks a ruling to declare airport racial profiling as unconstitutional.

In 2002, after the September 11 attack on the US, Logan Airport began a program called "Behavior Assessment Screening System" which allows police to question passengers whose behavior appears to be "suspicious". Logan was the first airport in the country to use the system.[citation needed] The plausibility of any benefit from "Behavior Assessment" has been questioned in a 2012 study by G. Stuart Mendenhall and Mark Schmidhofer of the Cato Institute.[9]


The Fourth Amendment provides that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated". In its 1968 Fourth Amendment ruling, Terry v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court found that reasonable, articulable suspicion was sufficient grounds for a police officer to briefly stop and question a citizen. They ruled that such suspicion must not be based on the officer's "inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or 'hunch,' but on the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience." Terry v. Ohio employed a "totality of circumstances" test to determine the reasonableness of police investigatory stops.[10]

US support[edit]

The Obama administration's decision to heighten airport security for passengers while traveling to the US from 14 nations triggered a backlash of complaints from Muslim and privacy groups[which?] who say President Barack Obama's response to terror threats amounted to little more than racial profiling.[11]

Frank Cilluffo, former special assistant for Homeland Security under then-President George W. Bush, said "airports need to be 'profiling' based on behavior even though it's a 'dirty word.'"[12]

A 2010 poll by USA Today showed Americans were in favor of more intensive security check for people who fit a profile of a terrorist based on age, ethnicity and gender.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peter Siggins. "Racial Profiling in an Age of Terrorism". Santa Clara University.
  2. ^ Testimony from Amnesty International USA's hearing on racial profiling through airports
  3. ^ "Attack shows limits to airport security". BBC News. July 5, 2002.
  4. ^ Press, William (23 December 2008). "Strong profiling is not mathematically optimal for discovering rare malfeasors". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 (6): 1716–1719. doi:10.1073/pnas.0813202106. PMC 2634801. PMID 19188610. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
  5. ^ Chakrabarti, Samidh; Aaron Strauss (16 May 2002). "Carnival Booth: An Algorithm for Defeating the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening System". Archived from the original on 12 May 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
  6. ^ Ahlers, Mike M.; Jeanne Meserve (15 April 2011). "TSA security looks at people who complain about ... TSA security". CNN. Archived from the original on 13 May 2011. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
  7. ^ Michael Kinsley. "Discrimination we're afraid to be against". Slate Magazine.
  8. ^ Michael Dwer/AP. "ACLU official alleges racial profiling at airport". MSNBC Travel News.
  9. ^ Mendenhall, G. Stuart; Mark Schmidhofer (December 2012). "Screening Tests for Terrorism" (PDF). Regulation.
  10. ^ Feder, Jody. "Racial Profiling: Legal and Constitutional Issues" (PDF).
  11. ^ Murray, Nancy (2011). "Obama and the global war on terror". Race & Class. 53 (2): 84–93. doi:10.1177/0306396811413046.
  12. ^ "Airport Security Measures Draw Accusations of 'Profiling'". Fox News. January 6, 2010.
  13. ^ Susan Page (January 12, 2010). "Poll: Most support ethnic profiling in air security". USA Today.