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Once a Profilee, Now a Hero

January 03, 2002

Judging people by their appearance or ethnicity is a fuzzy, fickle business, as several recent stories make clear.

In Baltimore, an American Airlines pilot and airport police vigorously questioned a man of Arab descent and--while they contend race had nothing to do with the matter--ultimately removed him from a flight to Texas. It turned out that the man was just who he said he was: a Secret Service agent on his way to protect President Bush.

On the other hand, when a man with a British passport and the decidedly un-Arab name Richard C. Reid allegedly tried to ignite shoes filled with plastic explosives on a Paris-to-Boston flight, attendants called on a tall passenger named Kwame James for help--apparently oblivious to the fact that he was engaged in an activity that racial profilers would once have deemed suspicious: Flying While Black.

African Americans say they've noticed this phenomenon often since Sept. 11. When a passenger became unruly on a Christmas Day flight from Houston to LAX, for instance, the crew rushed up to a black passenger and asked, "If we need you, will you help?"

"I'm there," the man said without hesitation, no doubt marveling at how quickly people turn from profiling one group as a possible threat to looking to them as allies against whomever the latest conventional wisdom identifies as dangerous.

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