First piece of evidence. Yesterday a father tweeted that his daughter had had a difficult time getting through New York’s JFK airport because she has a forename that sounds a bit Muslim. Responders blamed ‘profiling’. Second piece of evidence. On Friday I was at Dinard Airport in France, sharing a flight back to the UK with forty well-behaved school-kids, chaperoned by school staff and parents, and all wearing matching bright blue baseball caps proclaiming “St Teresa’s RC Primary School”. As they boarded the plane, the ticket and passport of each child – none of them, remember, over the age of 11 – was individually scrutinized. I guess officials were trying to avoid any charge of discrimination.
Irrational discrimination by bureaucrats and state officials can be a problem. I have worked in south London, and talked to black colleagues for whom being pulled over and searched by police was an endless annoyance. One guy gave up his new BMW and selected an older second hand model just to avoid the aggravation. But the word discrimination does not mean being nasty to minorities: it means making choices between one category and another. There is nothing wrong with discrimination in its place. We discriminate when we choose clothes that fit against those that don’t, products of good quality rather than tat, companions who are clever and kind rather than rude dullards. We discriminate when we pass learner drivers who are safe on the road and fail those who aren’t. What is wrong is unreasoning, unevidenced discrimination – appointing candidates to vacancies at work because they are like you, hassling people in the street because they are not.
Which brings us back to the airport. Travel would be greatly improved if we did not need security checks at airports. But we do need them, because there are plenty of cases of people trying to destroy airplanes to make a political point. Currently, the main threat is from young adults with an Islamic background. Are we allowed to say this ? If this is the case, then security services should ‘profile’ – if that means, looking more carefully at those who are in the risk category. What we have at the moment is a system with some farcical elements, in which security staff sometimes select pensioners with elasticated fawn trousers for extra searches, or demand the passport of an 8 year old, just to show they are not being discriminatory.