Friday, September 16, 2005

QUESTION: When do conservatives support racial preference programs?

ANSWER: When the program is called racial profiling. Case in point: Jillian Bandes, a junior at the University of North Carolina. She wrote a column for the Daily Tar Heel titled: "It's Sad, but Racial Profiling Is Necessary." The day after the article appeared, she was fired by Chris Coletta, the paper's Opinion Editor. Here is part of what Bandes wrote:

You can debate a lot of things about post-9/11 foreign policy, but one thing you can’t debate is that taking out terrorists — or blatant human-rights violators — is a good thing.

You also can’t debate that of the 19 hijackers on those planes, all 19 were Arab.

And you can’t debate that while most Arabs are not terrorists, sadly, most terrorists are indeed Arab. Given this combination, I want some kind of security.

Gosh, whatever happened to the conservative mantra of a "color-blind" society and not "judging people based on race"?

Guess that's only for when judgments based on race might work to the disadvantage of Caucasians.

As usual in situations like this, the outrage divides along ideological lines. Right-wingers are up in arms over what they see as a liberal editor clamping down on a conservative writer's free-speech rights. Coletta has gotten so many hateful e-mails that he felt it necessary to write a second explanation of why Bandes was fired.

Bandes has told the media that the conclusions she reached in her Tuesday column about racial profiling reflect the beliefs of her sources. She also has said there was no duplicity involved in her newsgathering. But after examining her notes and interviewing all three of her sources -- two of them twice -- I have reached a different conclusion.

1. To address the first concern:

Two of the sources in Bandes' column say they were misquoted, but her notes reflect otherwise. That's why I wrote in Thursday's column that Bandes quoted their words accurately.

But as we all know, what appears to be a solid quote often reflects only part of a much deeper story. All three of the people interviewed for Bandes' column have had deeply negative experiences with racial profiling. None of them think it's a good idea for Arabs to be "sexed up" -- or if it's the language that concerns you, "closely examined" -- in airports.

One of the students Bandes interviewed, Muhammad Salameh, spoke to her at length about being pulled aside before going on a flight and then forced to strip by airport officials -- all while others could watch him through a clear booth. Salameh spoke about how humiliating the experience was, how disgusted it made him, and how angry he still feels about it.

Might he have made a flippant comment about not wanting to die? Sure. Does he think racial profiling is a necessary evil? Yes.

But in his interview with Bandes, he stressed the "evil" and not the "necessary." It is clear that he fully explained to the columnist his feelings on the issue, and it is clear that those feelings are not representative of the things he is quoted as saying in Bandes' piece. The other two sources in the column -- student Sherief Khaki and Professor Nasser Isleem -- reported similar experiences when I talked to them about their interviews with Bandes.

Their message, in a nutshell, was this: "I think racial profiling is a terrible idea. It should not happen. I do not support it. But insofar as it will happen, I will live with it." But what Bandes wrote (also in a nutshell) was much different: "You know, racial profiling doesn't bother me that much; I will live with it."

The intellectual dishonesty of that message is the journalistic form of a lie -- something I find unacceptable. (Bandes, unfortunately, has told me on numerous occasions that she believes the quotes are fundamentally sound.)

But we have enough problems in this business with our readers thinking we selectively choose quotes. And while I understand that some journalists don't think it's always a bad idea, I disagree, and I take responsibility for that decision.

2. To address Bandes' claims that she acted without duplicity:

There has been much confusion in the journalism community as to why at least part of my rationale for dismissing Bandes rests on the fact that she told her sources she was writing about Arab relations in the post-9/11 world -- and instead wrote about one specific aspect of that topic.

But Bandes always intended to write a column on racial profiling -- and only racial profiling. She told me as much almost a month before she wrote it.

What puzzles me is, if Bandes wanted to write a column about racial profiling, why did she tell her interviewees that she was writing an article on post-9/11 relations between Arabs and Americans? I don't know the answer, but it seems peculiar to me.

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