Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, airport security has become a grave and expensive endeavor, projected to cost $45 billion by 2018. News stories about airport security scares or the ridiculousness of airport security scares proliferate. Other stories concern the efficacy of racial profiling, particularly of Arab passengers. A new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program called SPOT – Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique – targets suspicious behavior in security lines with in-depth questioning. This program alone has cost $878 million. And SPOT faces criticisms for propagating racial profiling.
Forthcoming research by Center for Political Studies researcher Nicholas Valentino, along with colleagues Cigdem Sirin and Jose Villalobos from the University of Texas El Paso, explore the factors that explain support for racial profiling. In particular these scholars wondered whether different racial groups, with their different experiences with discrimination, react distinctly to security policies that involve profiling.
Valentino and colleagues investigated this question in an experiment. The sample focused on three racial groups and included 221 whites, 193 blacks, and 207 Latinos. All participants read a vignette:
Recently, a passenger was flying from New York to Chicago when he was pulled out of a security line, searched, and questioned. The passenger was talking on his cell phone while waiting in line to board his flight. One of the airport security officers standing nearby said that he heard the passenger say, “It’s a go!” which qualifies as suspicious behavior according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines. In response, the airport security officer took the passenger aside for further screening. The passenger, however, claims that when it was his turn to board the plane, he had told the person on the phone, “I’ve got to go!” and hung up. Amid the controversy, the airport security officer said that he had a reasonable cause to search and question the passenger. The passenger, on the other hand, said that the additional screening was unwarranted.
The picture presented alongside the text varied, with participants randomized to see a suspect from one of four racial groups: black, white, Latino, or Arab. Pictures were pretested to ensure equality on all dimensions except ethnic identity. After reading the story, participants answered several questions, including, “Who are you more likely to agree with in this case—the airport security officer or the passenger?” and “What do you think about the response by the airport security officer—do you think he had a reasonable cause to search and question the passenger?”
The graph below displays the results for the Arab passenger scenario. Compared to whites, blacks and Latinos showed less support for extra airport security measures targeting an Arab passenger. Further, the likelihood of siding with the Arab passenger is about 36 percent higher for black respondents and about 26 percent higher for Latino respondents.
Yet, blacks and Latinos perceive themselves to be at higher risk of personal threat from terrorism. Valentino and colleagues suggest this pattern is consistent with Group Empathy Theory, which holds that empathy for one group by another, even when the two are in competition for the same resources, mitigates support for harsh security tactics.
Lawmakers and TSA programs should keep in mind, as Valentino states, “These results demonstrate that anti-Arab sentiment is not distributed uniformly throughout society, and support our theory that the power of existential threats on tolerance is moderated by group empathy.”