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Roughed Up by the PC Police

Why are conservatives suddenly squeamish about racial profiling?

Catching up on the political chat shows last week, I stumbled across Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity enthusing about Arizona’s hot new immigration law. Unsurprisingly, both Fox Newsies approve of HB 2162, which requires police to check the immigration status of anyone “stop[ped], detain[ed], or arrest[ed]” whom they suspect is here illegally. Both also scoff at “the left’s” concerns that the measure will result in racial profiling. Touting fellow conservative Byron York’s Washington Examiner column about how the “carefully crafted” law explicitly forbids focusing solely on race or ethnicity, Hannity blamed hysterical libs and cynical journalists for misrepresenting the measure and fomenting discontent. Palin could not have agreed more. Assuring viewers that “there is no ability or opportunity in there for the racial profiling,” she scolded both “the lamestream media” and, more pointedly, the Obama administration for “perpetuating this myth that racial profiling is a part of this law.”

Listening to the exchange, all I could think was: What a bunch of chicken-shit, PC wimps.

Since when did conservatives in this country get squeamish about racial profiling? I realize many people find the practice constitutionally indefensible. But conservatives, God love ‘em, usually spurn such squeamishness.

Indeed, post-9-11, conservatives have touted racial and ethnic profiling as the greatest homeland security tool since waterboarding. Not only do they embrace it, but they also decry the dearth of aggressive profiling as a sign of the PC madness crippling this nation. For years after the attacks, you could not open a newspaper or flip on the television without seeing some revved-up conservative hyperventilating about how airport screeners needed to be given a more sensible mandate: strip search anyone who looked like he’d ever tasted a falafel and stop harassing our fair-haired daughters and dangerously frail grandmothers.  

Channeling all this energy, New York Representative Peter King, then chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, proposed a measure in 2006 that would have subjected anyone of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent to increased airport screening. We all know what enemies of the state look like, goes the argument; if libs would stop wringing their hands about constitutional niceties, we could get around to making this a much safer nation.

Now, I’m content to let the experts haggle over profiling’s efficacy and constitutionality. This is a long and storied debate (before Islamist terrorists, the focus was on African-American men), and far be it from me to relitigate it in the course of a single column. But seeing as how the right has staked out such a bold pro-profiling position, why back away from it now?

Surely most conservatives don’t actually believe “there is no ability or opportunity for profiling” in Arizona. Doesn’t that seem a touch naive for the cold-eyed Daddy Party? Regardless of how carefully crafted the law’s language, its messy, real-world application won’t crack the door to profiling so much as remove the door from its hinges and vaporize the sucker. Just ask a black kid cruising through a white neighborhood at night how little it takes to get stopped for looking “suspicious.”

But let’s assume conservatives do think profiling is off the table in this case. Why then aren’t they furious? I mean, if ever there was a homeland security issue where racial profiling made sense, this would seem to be it. Islamic terrorists have been known to throw an occasional curveball into the mix (Jose Padilla: ethnic Puerto Rican; Richard Reid: of Jamaican descent; Jihad Jane: garden-variety crazy white woman). By contrast, the Mexican illegals driving Arizonans round the bend are, by definition, Mexican. And in the frenzy to round ‘em up and ship ‘em back, demanding documentation from frail, pasty-faced grandmas would be even more absurd at a DUI checkpoint in Nogales than in a security line at JFK. If essentially 100 percent of people impacted by this law don’t belong to a single ethnic minority, we’re talking about a waste of law enforcement resources.

So why get touchy about profiling now? Who can say? Maybe the more colorful elements of the Tea Party have the entire right wing edgy about being labeled racist. Or perhaps even conservative Republicans are loath to admit their willingness to trample the rights of all Latinos—just in case the GOP ever wants to try and win back that demographic. Or maybe Palin still has a note scribbled on her palm from her days on the McCain campaign: Profiling Bad. Whatever the cause, the panicky rush by some on the right not just to distance this law from profiling but also to imply that they regard the practice itself as distasteful (how dare Obama suggest such a thing is possible!), is pathetic—uncharacteristically so.   

One of the more admirable qualities of the conservative movement is members’ usual willingness to stick by their principals even at the risk of looking extreme. But with this Arizona business, Palin et al look suspiciously like they’re struggling to have it both ways. That may not qualify as political correctness exactly, but it definitely smacks of political cowardice.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.