On Racial Profiling

After Jonah Goldberg wrote in favor of racial profiling in Arizona, and Roger Clegg disagreed, National Review’s Andy McCarthy, a former prosecutor, jumped into the fray:

…you can’t be an Islamist terrorist without being a Muslim, you can’t be the head of the Gambino Family without being Italian, and you can’t be a Mexican illegal alien without being a Mexican. It would be nonsensical not to take into account, for investigative purposes, the racial, ethnic, or religious characteristics of criminal activity if they are inherent in that criminal activity.

This argument is incredibly flawed. Yes, if you define the objectionable activity as “illegal immigration by Mexicans,” then by definition, only Mexicans are going to be guilty of it, but it would be completely unjustifiable and discriminatory to define the crime that way, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, if the “criminal activity” is illegal immigration, then folks other than Mexicans will be among the lawbreakers — indeed, in addition to the many El Salvadorans and Guatemalans and Hondurans you’ll find the occasional Irish, Koreans, Russians, Egyptians, and others who’ve overstayed visas or snuck into the country.

Similarly, it is certainly true that the Gambino crime family is a legitimate target for police and prosecutors, but I am betting that at some point non-Italians were involved in their criminal activity, and besides, organized crime is a type of criminal activity that encompasses folks with lots of different ethnic backgrounds. Count me among the Americans who want law enforcement to stop illegal immigration from any country, organized crime perpetrated by any ethnicity, and terrorism of any kind, not just the Islamist variety. It just floors me that a former prosecutor would offer up these ethnicities as “inherent” in the relevant criminal activities.

And it gets worse:

When I was a young prosecutor in the eighties, this was a lot less controversial than it has become in our irrationally sensitive times. A lot of crime is ethnic. The Westies were Irish, the tongs were Chinese, the Latin Kings were Hispanics, the YACs were Yugoslavs, Albanians and Croatian, and so on. When we were investigating Colombian cocaine cartels, the fact that someone was Colombian was part of the probable cause (and if he was from Cali, even more so).

He goes on:

No one got pinched solely on the basis of his race or ethnicity. The important thing was conduct, not status. But if I had arrested a guy named Clegg or Goldberg and charged him with being the head of the Gambino Family, the defendant would have made his ethnicity a key part of his defense; it can’t be that an race/ethnicity/religion factor is only relevant if it cuts against guilt.

Interesting bit of reasoning — it would be absurd to arrest a non-Italian for being head of the Gambino crime family, therefore the fact of being Italian would lead a reasonably intelligent person to believe that an accused Italian is the head of the Gambino crime family. Or something. It’s hard to tell exactly what Mr. McCarthy means by saying that ethnicity is “part of” probable cause.

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7 Responses to “On Racial Profiling”

  1. jamesgw Says:

    Um…well, while there were historically Jewish racketeers and Irish racketeers and racketeers of all backgrounds actually, it is certainly arguable that in the 50s and 60s it was the Italian racketeers who had the connections to be the most serious problem nationwide: from the Northeast, Las Vegas, to Los Angeles. So focusing on Italians in that circumstance was more likely to yield noticeable results.

    By the same token, if you want to deal with lawlessness in border states related to illegal immigration, you should focus on those coming from Mexico. MEXICO certainly does. They treat illegal immigration quite harshly. I’m sure they don’t focus on Americans and Egyptians who have over-stayed their visas.

  2. davidlosangeles Says:

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    Google the phrase “Legalize the Irish” and see what you get. It turns out that there are thousands and thousands of illegal Irish aliens in the US. The same is true for Australians, Canadians, and other white people. There are plenty of illegal aliens who are not Mexican.

    The point here is of course that the real problem is in the Hispanic end of the Hispanic illegal aliens. It is indeed the fact that Hispanic illegal aliens “look” and “talk” like illegal aliens while Irish illegal aliens do not. Race is the issue.

  3. Alton Foley Says:

    It’s really quite simple, and not nearly so nefarious as you seem to want to make it.

    My local convenience store was robbed by a short blond woman. The video clearly shows it.

    It seems you want the police to also focus their investigation on tall black guys. And prevent the prosecution form pointing out the eventual suspect’s similarity to the eye-witness accounts.

    What am I missing in your argument?

    • marissaao Says:


      Who is this comment addressed to? Friedersdorf is against racial profiling.

      • Sean Nelson Says:

        I think Alton doesn’t understand the difference between searching for any brown-skinned person on the basis that they are more likely to be a criminal and searching for an individual who committed a criminal act based on a description of that individual. The first is racial profiling, the second is not.

  4. leisureguy Says:

    I’m puzzled by McCarthy’s reference to illegal immigration as a “criminal activity.” I thought he was some kind of lawyer. Immigration offenses are violations of the civil code, not the criminal code. Illegal immigrants are not “criminals.”

    Maybe you should do what I do: ignore Andrew McCarthy altogether. He’s unreliable.

  5. marissaao Says:

    Lawyers say some of the most embarassing things sometimes.

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