Realm Of Randomness

July 12, 2007

Racial Profiling: Statistics vs Prejudice [Updated]

Filed under: Controversial,Opinion,Racism,Rant — Randomizer @ 2:44 pm

I had a post on stereotyping last year, which I subsequently withdrew since I wasn’t so sure anymore of how I felt towards it. I have lately been at a loss explaining exactly what my stand is, on Racial profiling, and I thought I’d give the discussion a fresh start. A CNN article today ran a familiar story, one that we have all heard before, of a plane that was diverted due to a ‘suspicious’ passenger. I didn’t have to search much to get exactly what I was looking for:

Shortly after landing, Loynes said, security officials boarded the plane and left with a man of “Middle Eastern descent.”

Apparently, he had crossed the security check on an employee bus, and authorities were not so sure if he was an employee or not. Now, I have every reason to suspect that this wasn’t the only reason the plane was diverted. Flying while brown is no cake walk these days, thanks to events that happened 6 years ago.

Now, there are two sides to this coin. One argument is based on the relevance of statistics, if any, and one based on pure xenophobia. My question is, over the last 5 years, if 95% of ‘terrorists’ have been of Middle-Eastern descent, i.e. Brown men aged 18-28, is it wrong to use this knowledge as one of your ‘attributes’, or must one ignore this fact every time ? Obviously, it is wrong if it is your only attribute for suspicion, but what if it is just one of your attributes ?

American suspicion of the brown man has definitely reached xenophobic levels, and it is terrible, personally speaking. But what if we were working for a security agency – Is it completely outrageous to suspect a chinese lady less than a brown man ?

Another interesting question, about our most recent ‘Indian terrorist’ – Kafeel Ahmed – who unsuccessfully tried to blow up his vehicle in the Glasgow airport. I am obviously enraged that this guy has bismirched the name of Bangalore, and our peaceful country of India. But if it wasn’t for stereotyping, I wouldn’t have to be ! So this leads to another question – should I be angrier about him bludgeoning the name of our country, or the people who will eventually associate me with him ?

And if not for using this fact about a Bangalorean terrorist for racial profiling, how exactly are security agencies supposed to handle this fact ? Surely it must count for something …or shouldn’t it ? At what point should it count, and who decides that ? If there are a hundred more Bangalorean terrorists, of course it’s a massive issue .. twenty more .. yes .. two more .. hmmm maybe…. if none more, i don’t think it should count at all. So is there some magic number here ? Some invisible threshold that I’m missing ?

At what point do statistics of racial/national involvement count ? Is it really that immoral ?

The line seems to be extremely thin…. and my opinion is unclear. Help me out here !

[ Update : Sharath has added on to this discussion as well ]



  1. @ Randomizer: “My question is, over the last 5 years, if 95% of ‘terrorists’ have been of Middle-Eastern descent, i.e. Brown men aged 18-28, is it wrong to use this knowledge as one of your ‘attributes’, or must one ignore this fact every time ?”

    I do think they should drop the terminology ‘racial’/ ‘ethnic’ profiling as it implies that the only criteria that counts is race and that’s far from the truth OR is it?!

    From a purely statistical point of view – in your example the odds are ‘heavily’ stacked against the said ethnicity and I would have to say in response to your question – NO, it is not wrong to use this knowledge as one of your ‘attributes’ and ignoring such a vital factor would definitely result in skewed results.

    In the financial services industry we ‘profile’ customers as well through not-so-simple score cards that take into consideration several factors. Some preliminary criteria that do essentially play a part in determining the repayment ability of a customer are the basics such as age, sex, profession, income band and NATIONALITY… Yes nationality is one of the higher weighted criteria. Discriminatory or not, the end results are based on a portfolio wide regression analysis of each criteria, but you do find trends within nationality and income bands. Additional criteria such as number of houses, kids, cars, etc all play a part in the decision process. While it is easier for us to establish which customer is risky, there are kinks in the system. For instance, if you happen to have a smaller sample size such as let’s say professors from Albania that earn very good incomes. Now I don’t mean to generalize but that’s what scoring is all about – drawing inferences from static data and well there happen to be very few such cases of Albanian professors here. If you happen to have three existing cases where two have defaulted, well then the obvious inference is that Albanians that are professors are a bad segment and you end up having applications turned down or having to be manually reviewed.

    The problem with profiling on the whole is you need a significant sample size from which you may derive rational stochastic results. Now in the case of terrorism, you don’t have a realistic sample size to start off with and the events are geographically distributed in a manner that doesn’t really enable profiling per se. NOT everyone in the world is out to get America or the west and while there are a few terrorist groups that get a lot of airtime simply because of the powers that be at western news networks, there are a hundred others that terrorize for reasons beyond comprehension and they do so all over the world. If you were to try and draw an inference from the terrorist acts that have taken place, you would have a very crazy spread with very few correlations except for things such as nationality, origin, religion and possibly age. Try and establish some correlation between the guys from 9/11 and the recent Glasgow incident and your primary correlation ends up being religion. They are otherwise from completely different back grounds – doctors Vs. your average Joe(or should I say Ahmed?)

    At the end of the day while I don’t condone brownies being pulled up every time someone breaks wind, there isnt much else to go one right now and I doubt if we would want the number of incidents to increase solely to improve on our database from which to infer whether or not someone’s going to terrorize.

    In the end, while it IS definitely annoying profiling is a must at all high security areas. But govts must be very specific about areas where it may be used and even when used anyone fitting the mould must be given an unprejudiced opportunity to prove that he/she IS an exception to the profile.

    BTW, if you were to go by Wikipedia’s list of terrorists, there are supposedly NO Hindu terrorists at all!

    Comment by Luciferratic — July 16, 2007 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  2. @Luciferratic-

    Well said. I agree with most of your comment. About the financial sector, I wonder what attributes are used in America… I’m not sure if sex and race are legal attributes in the USA… Most probably they are not.

    Since like you said, there is no ‘large sample size’ to choose from, and all we witness here are the exceptions from the crowd of otherwise peaceful muslims, racial profiling becomes a very poor choice to use here. We only have statistics of ‘Out of 100 terrorist incidents in the last 5 years, X % was by middle eastern men’. We do NOT however have the statistics of ‘Out of 100 million middle eastern men, X % were terrorists’ and that is where most of the analysis gets skewed.

    I guess I am ok with Race being used as one of the factors in profiling a potential terrorist, but I have major issues with how it is being implemented right now.

    Comment by Randomizer — July 17, 2007 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

  3. Well I know that insurance companies in the US want to know your Sex. But well they have your detailed credit history anyway, which I imagine is a much stronger signal for judging you. I don’t recall ever being asked for my Race, except in government forms. And dating sites.

    I’m thinking the essential difference between deciding to block a loan for a person and deciding to black boarding for a person, is that financial institutions are willing to risk a bad investment if the probability is reasonably low (say 20%), but Homeland Security wants to get a near-zero probability of terrorist attacks.
    I think that’s inconvenient for the brown folk, damages the pride on occasion but it’s quite reasonable.

    We’ll just have to accept it. Like we accept driving below the speed limit. Not all speeding cause accidents. Just a tiny fraction of them. Yet we get pulled over, and we pay our tickets. For all you know, this law has saved your life on several occasions.

    Interesting points about stereotyping. I guess it’s just the nature of the brain to generalize. We all do it, we probably couldn’t get on with our lives if we didn’t make thousands of assumptions every day. I guess the best we can do is counter the stereotype, try to redefine the indian stereotype to whatever *you* think it should be. Like, I dunno, get on American Idol or something.

    The magic number / threshhold you’re talking about definitely exists. I suspect this number is zero, equillibrium, a balance between keeping the possibility of a terrorist attack very low while minimizing incovenience, costs, public opposition. There’s also politics in the mix (more Orange-level-alerts before elections!).

    We could turn this discussion around… how would you suggest they implement profiling, or minimizing terrorist attacks through airplanes?

    Comment by eyw — July 22, 2007 @ 8:56 am | Reply

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  6. @eyw: “I guess the best we can do is counter the stereotype, try to redefine the indian stereotype to whatever *you* think it should be.”

    That is definitely the right way to go, but given that this stereotype is present in every guy’s head makes the whole thing frustrating. Like, an American born desi or chinese will have to live his WHOLE life proving to everyone that he isn’t one of the stereotypes, and that he’s as American as anyone else. This is really not fair, and there has to be some responsibility on the side of the beholder as well.

    “how would you suggest they implement profiling, or minimizing terrorist attacks through airplanes?”

    Better airplane security checks. I don’t mind being labeled a suspected terrorist for the extra minute of inspection at the security line … it really doesn’t matter much to me. I wouldn’t complain … but I do have a problem about being labeled a suspected terrorist when I’m doing other normal things like photographing buildings as a tourist, etc…

    Comment by Randomizer — July 24, 2007 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

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