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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

racial profiling

(1990’s | legalese | “discrimination”)

The verb “to profile” has a relatively complicated recent history, even if you set aside the usual literal or technical meanings from geology, engineering, esthetics, etc. For most of the twentieth century, the most common usage had to do with interview-based journalism — describing a worthy individual or organization in detail. Usually an actor or comparable cultural phenomenon, hence the phrase “celebrity profile.” The word was available as both noun and verb, but from either angle it seems an odd choice. The classical meaning of “profile” — a face seen from the side — would seem, on the face of it (sorry), to have little to do with a revealing biographical portrait. To carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion implies that the reporter has left out half the relevant information, as a profile leaves out half the visage — although an art critic might argue that sometimes the profile is more revealing than a full-face view, and there’s no denying some faces are far more interesting in profile. Sometimes “profile” means little more than “categorize,” as in a corporate profile that provides statistics grouped under various measures of performance. In African-American slang, “profiling” was another word for “showing off.” But when we use the term in African-American contexts today, it has an entirely different slant.

Our use of “racial profiling” today is descended from the more sinister practice of psychological profiling; the OED lists its first example of this usage in 1951. The goal is to see beneath the surface presented by the soldier, teacher, or employee, the psychologist’s trained eye constructing an account of each personality that understands the subject better than she understands herself, or at least better than the boss understands her. Inevitably, it occurred to the criminal justice system that such a thing might be useful in dealing with malefactors, and the idea of profiling this depraved criminal or that deranged terrorist entered the mainstream in the seventies and eighties. By 1990, the concept had undergone further refinement in the form of DNA profiling, by which the expert found a unique way to identify any individual through a bit of hair or saliva, again finding a distinctive marker that was not apparent to the unaided eye or brain. A DNA profile is a hyper-detailed diagram constructing a definitive portrait that cannot be confused with that of anyone else. Though the technology is often used in the context of medical research, it turns up much more often in news accounts of criminals, which has paved the way for “racial profiling,” now the dominant locution in which “profiling” appears. (I append the ACLU’s definition along with a reasonably non-partisan discussion of various kinds of profiling.)

The extraordinary thing about the new expression is that it has turned the old idea on its head. Racial profiling dispenses entirely with a painstaking account of the individual, teasing out a detailed map of characteristics, and replaces it with a simple question: Do you belong to this or that dangerous group? (Profiling based on religion or nationality is also possible, of course.) On one view, the change in usage is a complete reversal, but from another it is more or less seamless — profiling is merely one more weapon in the eternal war against the bad guys — and therefore it may be entitled to a certain poetic license.

The illogic of widespread, systematic profiling has been proven so often that the practice has few defenders but many adherents. When Americans feel threatened — some of us don’t even have to feel threatened — we disregard the studies and the logic and reach for the easy, satisfying answer. If a few people from a certain group mean us harm, make all of them suspect. For that to have any chance to work, the group must be very small, but preferred objects of unequal treatment in our society number in the millions, most of whom are law-abiding and just trying to do their jobs and pay their taxes. Having been mistreated by the justice system, such members of minority groups have no incentive to work with police and a quite reasonable desire to avoid them. Police departments around the country have learned this the hard way. (An exchange between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier may flesh out the argument sketched above.) But their experiences have not dissuaded an uncomfortably large percentage of us, who demand that the law be simple and punitive. In America, foolish and failed policies can be enacted over and over again, if they benefit — or harm — the right people.


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