Tunku Varadarajan: on Amartya Sen, Racial Profiling

With his weekly column in The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan is among the most successful Indian journalists working in the U.S. (the only one I can think of who is more influential is Somini Sengupta at the New York Times).

Varadarajan's column is on "Taste," but he has on occasion talked politics, and not surprisingly (this is the WSJ) he leans conservative. Last summer he wrote a column arguing in favor of racial profiling to catch terrorists (here). I didn't find it compelling: racial profiling doesn't make sense to me as a law enforcement strategy. It is, as many many people have pointed out, unconstitutional. It is also ineffective, because terrorists are likely to make an effort to not look like terrorists if they try something on airplanes again. And there are many people sympathetic to the aims of various terrorist groups who do not have Muslims names or Arab, Persian, or South Asian ethnicity. I'm not talking about when brown-skinned men (i.e., people who look like me) are given a little extra scrutiny in the security line at airports. It isn't really a violation of my rights if the screener stops the belt to really stare down my copy of Vikram Seth's Two Lives for a full 30 seconds through the X-Ray. Nor does it put me out especially if the secondary screener gets a little overzealous with the wand.

What crosses the line are intentional administrative policies: unjustified blacklists, or pulling people off planes merely because they look suspicious or they're reading books about Islam. Or detaining 15 year old girls for six weeks because they frequent "Jihad" chatrooms (this happened). Or putting asylum-seekers in immigration detention (aka "jail") for upwards of three years before giving them a fair hearing (this happens relatively often). And so on.

By all accounts what happened to Amartya Sen a few years ago at a London airport fits the description of "extra scrutiny" rather than profiling. Sen records the incident in his new book Identity and Violence; here is Varadarajan's condensed version of the event from this week's column:
Mr. Sen, now a professor at Harvard, was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the field of welfare economics. He has a CV so seriously good that everyone, surely, knows of his being (in his previous post) the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the apex of the British academic pyramid. Everyone, that is, except a British immigration official at Heathrow Airport a few years ago who, on looking at Mr. Sen's Indian passport and then at his home address on the immigration form--"Master's Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge"--asked whether Mr. Sen was a close friend of the Master. This question made Mr. Sen enter into a private contemplation, rather self-indulgent in the circumstances, of whether "I could claim to be a friend of myself." As the seconds ticked away without answer, the immigration officer asked whether there was an "irregularity" with Mr. Sen's immigration status. And can you blame the man? Yet Mr. Sen--in his amused-but-chippy recall of the episode--says that the encounter was "a reminder, if one were needed, that identity can be a complicated matter." Well of course it can, professor. But in the 700-odd years of its existence, Cambridge had never before had a nonwhite head of college. Cannot immigration officers be just as empirical as economists?
Surely Varadarajan must be aware how precarious his argument is here. He is actually suggesting that it's appropriate for Amartya Sen to be asked about "irregularities" in his immigration status simply because the official can't envision him as a Cambridge Don.

Again, this isn't exactly racial profiling in the formal sense. Sen wasn't denied re-entry, or carted off to some room in handcuffs for 48 hours (like, for instance, the world-famous filmmaker Jafar Panahi). And judging from the passage from Varadarajan's column above, he wasn't particularly upset about the incident. But Varadarajan's tone does bother me: "And can you blame the man?" "Cannot immigration officials be as empirical as economists?" Yes, I can blame the man. With those rhetorical questions, it's as if Varadarajan is nodding to his white readership's prejudices, and legitimating them at his own expense: "I could see how you might think that -- we all look the same, isn't it?" It's a rather sad posture.