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Geography Department
6017 Fairchild
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-3378
Fax: (603) 646-1601

Racial Profiling Is Often Geographic Profiling

In June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona Law SB 1070, the state's harsh immigration regulations, striking down the portions that would have allowed law enforcement to detain anyone found without proper immigration papers — the "round up" provision. The court left intact the parts that required the police, if they suspect the person they have stopped to be in the U.S. without authorization, to determine the individual's immigration status. This is the politely termed "papers please" provision, but might as well be called the "out of place" or "racial profiling" provision. Racial profiling is often geographic profiling.

Immigrants are turning up all over the place these days. Judging by the proliferation of anti-immigrant local ordinances and state statutes in destinations beyond Arizona, their presence causes alarm. Sadly, such reactions are not new.

As early as the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin worried that enclaves of Germans in Pennsylvania signaled their separation from American life. A hundred years later, anti-immigrant campaigners were troubled by much the same thing when they railed against the threat of "foreign colonies" within U.S. cities. More recently, Harvard Political Scientist Samuel Huntington reiterated these anxieties by depicting the concentration of Latino immigrants in the Southwest as a threat to American culture.

Wade Page was also likely alarmed by the presence of Sikhs in U.S. society. This month, he entered one of their churches, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, shooting randomly. He murdered six men and women, wounding four more.

Page was a "frustrated neo-Nazi" according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Sikhs were racially profiled; we suspect that geography also played a role.

In Page's deranged mind, these Sikhs and their church simply did not belong. Brown, non-Christian people, some wearing turbans, living in what had been for generations a white suburb. Would these Sikhs have been safer in a non-suburban location? Did Page see the suburban temple, in the words of one commentator, as a "frightening symbol of otherness"?

The fusion of racial and geographical profiling can produce hatred that leads to violence. We should be concerned that the law now provides Arizona, and other places (or states), with the legal backing to racially/geographically profile. State-sanctioned profiling in law enforcement sets the scene for profiling by others outside of law enforcement.

Franklin, Know-Nothings, and Huntington used geography to formulate their racist arguments. People who follow their lead and read immigrant affiliations, memberships, and identities off maps are equally wrong.

While we can't read memberships and affiliations from a map of the foreign born, can we do this for white native-born citizens? Would geographic profiling have helped catch Theodore Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh? It's almost laughable to think along those lines because these men came from such different backgrounds, operated in different contexts, and lived in such different places. Native-born white "domestic terrorists" have different backgrounds, as do members of many groups.

If we are going to profile, let's use methods other than racial or geographic profiling. Consider the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the would-be Christmas Day bomber — apprehended by passengers on a flight to Detroit from Nigeria.

Abdulmutallab's father had reported him as a security risk. Abdulmutallab was listed on the Terrorist Identities Datamark Environment (TIDE) database — a roster of people with suspected terrorist ties. He paid cash for his one-way flight to the U.S. He had no checked bags. These are some of the clues that should have raised red flags; they have nothing to do with geographic profiling. Or with his race.

The same logic applies to white supremacists. Branding places is a tricky business. Idaho, for some, has a reputation as a redoubt for extreme right-wingers or those who believe that the apocalypse is imminent and that a remote mountainous area offers the best hope for survival. But 36 percent of Idaho's voters in 2008 supported a mixed-race black Democrat for President.

And just how is the geographic profiling of place, Idaho or some other location, predictive of Buford Furrow firing 70 shots into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in Los Angeles 10 years ago, wounding five people and later murdering a mail carrier? The Buford Furrows of this world often signal their intent not by living at a particular address but by exercising radical interpretations of both their first and second amendment rights by spewing hate speech and stockpiling large-clip semi-automatic weapons.

Behaviors, attitudes, and actions; these form the grist for the mill of profiling those who would do violence to others or take the law into their own hands. They have nothing to do with phenotype, accent, dress, or physiology--the main means by which racial categories are produced in the United States. They also have nothing to do with where you worship, your residential neighborhood, or where you work.

Where people live is important, though. Descriptions of these patterns provide foundational material for policy and scholarship that serve the public interest. The extent of membership in society, however, does not depend on location or geographical concentration. This observation applies to newcomers as well as our more established neighbors, no matter their race.

Richard Wright

Orvil E Dryfoos Professor of Public Affairs and Geography
Dartmouth College

Mark Ellis

Professor of Geography
University of Washington

To be published in the Association of American Geographer's Newsletter, November 2012

Last Updated: 9/10/12