Thursday, 14 August 2014

Why is racial profiling acceptable in marketing, but not in crime prevention?

A New York department store, Barneys (sic), has been fined $525,000 for racially profiling customers while trying to deter shoplifting at its flagship branch on Madison Avenue. The shop’s security team was apparently guilty of stopping a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic customers. Presumably they did this on the assumption that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to shoplift than other ethnic groups. (I have no idea whether this is true or not, but I presume the people paid to protect the merchandise know what they're doing.)

Yesterday, a member of my family who happens to be a wonderful source of ethnographic curiosities, noticed that I was smoking (inhaling?) an e-cigarette with a mint-green filter tip, signifying that it was menthol-flavoured. (I hated menthol cigarettes – which is why I never filched any of my mum’s Consulate or Everest - but the erstwhile Telegraph blogs editor, Damian Thompson, recently reported that menthol e-cigarettes tasted better than the regular variety, a judgment with which I am now happy to concur). My son (for it was he) informed me that, in America, menthol cigarettes are mainly smoked by blacks, and that Newport is the preferred brand. I just checked his assertion online and – as always – he’s on the money: while some 25% of white American smokers enjoy wrapping their lips around a mint-flavoured fag, a whopping 75% of black smokers do.

If you were the marketing executive in charge of Newport menthol cigarettes, where would you place the majority of your advertising in order to maintain market share? Unless you wanted to be fired, it would probably be in media disproportionately consumed by African-Americans. Obviously you’d advertise in white-favoured media as well, but, as the British Conservative Party has discovered, you ignore your core market at your peril. Obviously the aim of marketing is to sell as much product as possible, using whatever legal means are available, including racial profiling. Why does this change when it comes to crime prevention? In the first instance, you’re trying to encourage people to behave in certain ways: in the second, you’re trying to persuade them not to behave in certain ways.

This whole issue has perplexed me since an experience a few years’ ago, in the wake of  some vile Islamist terrorist outrage or other. We were passing through Heathrow, about to board a flight to Lisbon, when my wife was randomly hoiked out of our line in order to be subjected to an unscheduled security check. This surprised me, because of all the people there, she looked the least likely to be involved in terrorism: in fact, anti-terrorism personnel should have been issued with her photograph accompanied by the message, “There is absolutely no chance that someone looking like this would ever be involved in terrorism, so don’t waste time by subjecting anyone even vaguely resembling this woman to any but the most cursory examination.” As for the argument that to rely on this sort of lazy stereotyping might lead to physically atypical terrorists slipping through the net, well the ones known to have been involved in terrorist activities in this country since 9/11 tend to share certain undeniable physical characteristics - the main one being that they don't bear much resemblance to Mrs. G.

Did they target my wife to make passengers of a non-European appearance feel less persecuted? If so, why should my wife have been expected to suffer pointless inconvenience to make young men of a Middle Eastern appearance feel better about themselves? I’m sure it must be bloody annoying for entirely innocent members of a certain racial group to be routinely suspected of planning to commit a crime (even more annoying if you're not a member of that group, but just happen to look like you might be) – but if the crime in question is one overwhelmingly carried out by people from their racial group, that’s just tough. Obviously, there’s no excuse for security folk to be rude or unecessarily rough, but if I were an Arab constantly having my luggage checked at airports or a black constantly being questioned by police searching for muggers, I’d be a damn sight more angry with fellow Arabs or blacks who – by trying to blow up planes or carry out muggings – have made me an object of suspicion.


  1. racial profiling works period

  2. Replies
    1. I am more certain that Mrs G is not a terrorist than anything I can currently think of. The official who detained her was probably just as certain, too, that he was wasting her time and his. The reason he had to take part in this charade is precisely the result of the profiling which the two commentators above advocate. Once you start profiling, you have to hide your tracks a bit.

      I agree that it is unfair that Barneys were fined for profiling. They should be just as free to waste their money as the marketing executives referred to in the post above.

      Profilers look for patterns. Their contribution to security is geometric. If the pattern is too sketchy, security fails because it is swamped by false positives. Too precise, and it fails with too many false negatives.

      What is the exact geometry of crime/terrorism? No-one knows. They don't know what it is now. They don't know what it will be tomorrow. or the next day.

      One way and another, profiling fails.

      By way of an example, please take 15 minutes out to remind yourselves of the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

      I am hooked on lemon-flavoured eLiquid and also banana. Love 'em. Can't stand the mint, coffee, tobacco, apple, grape, caramel and vanilla juices I have tried. Please take another 15 minutes out to:
      • name my race
      • design a value-for-money marketing strategy for lemon and/or banana eLiquid

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  4. I know that Israel's national airline, El Al, practices racial profiling with regard to its Arab passengers thus ensuring the safety of the country's ethnic majority.

    It is unfortunate and richly ironic that , were the US to attempt emulation of this sensible policy, the loudest voices against it would be leftist, Jewish - led civil rights groups like Abe Foxman's ADL.

    Here's a short piece on the US policing aspect of racial profiling :