Political Profiling and Racial Profiling

Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo has an interesting article arguing that conservatives are right to complain about the IRS’ use of political profiling, but argues that they should use the same reasoning to rethink their support for racial profiling in law enforcement. As he points out the IRS justification for political profiling is very similar to standard arguments for racial profiling in combatting terrorism and crime:

Pretend you work at the Internal Revenue Service… Every day, a big stack of files lands on your desk…. Each file represents a new application for a certain tax status—501(c)(4), a tax-exempt designation meant for “social welfare” organizations. Nonprofits with this status aren’t required to disclose the identity of their donors and they’re allowed to lobby legislative officials. The catch is that they must limit their political campaign activity….

It’s your job to decide which 501(c)(4) applications represent legitimate social-welfare organizations, and which ones are from groups trying to hide their campaign activities. What’s more, you’ve got to sort the good from the bad very quickly, as you’re being inundated with applications….

So what do you do? You look for a shortcut. Someone at your office notices that a lot of the applications for 501(c)(4) status are from groups that claim to be part of the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Aha! When you’re looking for signs of political activity, wouldn’t it make sense to search for criteria related to the largest new political movement of our times? So that’s what you do…

[T]here’s a name for the kind of shortcut that the IRS’s Cincinnati office used to pick out applications for greater scrutiny: “profiling.” By using superficial characteristics—groups’ names or mission statements—to determine whether they should be subject to deeper investigation, the IRS was acting like the TSA agent who pulls aside the guy in the turban, or the FBI agents that target mosques when investigating terrorism, or New York City cops who stop and frisk young black males in an effort to prevent crime….

All these efforts rely on the same intellectual justification—looking at surface characteristics makes sense because they’re a potential signal of deeper activity, whether it’s terrorism or crime or electioneering. As a right-wing blogger might say, “Not all Muslims are terrorists—but most terrorists are Muslims….”

That’s exactly what the IRS was doing with Tea Party groups. Not all Tea Party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were engaged in campaign politics. But out of all the many groups that applied for such status, wouldn’t any reasonable person guess that a group called “Tea Party Patriots” is more likely to be engaged in campaign activity than, say, a group focused on rescuing abandoned puppies?

The deep irony of the IRS scandal is that people on the political right are being subjected to exactly the kind of profiling that they’ve long advocated in fighting terrorism and crime—and they don’t seem to appreciate it. I’m on their side: This case perfectly illustrates why profiling is wrong…

I made a similar point several years ago when I explained the parallels between the conservative defense of racial profiling and left-wing rationales for affirmative action (see here and here). Overall, I think Manjoo is right. And if he has not already done so, he should extent his skepticism about the use of profiling to cover the affirmative action case.

But I do have two caveats about his argument. First, I am not convinced that the IRS was merely engaged in neutral profiling intended to increase the chance of ferreting out political groups. It is true that “a group called ‘Tea Party Patriots’ is more likely to be engaged in campaign activity than, say, a group focused on rescuing abandoned puppies.” But the same is true of a group called “Occupy Wall Street” or one with some other name using a standard left-wing catch-phrase. Yet there is no evidence that the IRS targeted groups with liberal code words in their names in the same way it targeted conservative ones. That suggests political bias, not just a simple effort to economize on search costs. Obviously, however, racial profiling in law enforcement often flunks the neutrality test as well.

Second, I would not go as far as Manjoo in abjuring all forms of profiling. There is a difference between profiling based on characteristics that impinge on important constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and freedom from racial discrimination by government and profiling policies that rely on less problematic proxies. The latter may also be unjust or ineffective. But they are not as objectionable as profiling based on race or ideology.

That said, I hope that the IRS scandal will indeed persuade conservatives who support racial profiling to reconsider the issue. I also hope that more liberals will apply their critique of racial profiling to affirmative action.