You see and hear the statement all the time: “If you see something, say something.” But just what does it mean? And can it lead to racial profiling?

The statement was invented by a New York ad agency back in 2001, a day after 9/11. It was created for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). For years, the MTA spent between $2 million and $3 million annually promoting the slogan. In the meantime, it became a global phenomenon. And what it means and how it is implemented is not all that clear.

Racial Profiling

The general idea, we suppose, is that citizens are urged to report to the police situations they observe which they find “suspicious.” But what looks suspicious to you, and perhaps indicative of a criminal act or worse, a terrorist threat, may appear quite normal and harmless to others. Here’s an example that took place in Phoenix just last month.

The Incident at Sky Harbor Airport

Cindy McCain, widow of Senator John McCain, was at Sky Harbor airport when she saw something she didn’t like. She didn’t call it “suspicious.” She said, “it looked odd,” and “something didn’t click with me.” The big question is, what “it” was. The answer: a woman with a child of different ethnicities. Before you assume that Cindy McCain is racist, you should know that she and her husband adopted a baby girl from Bangladesh years ago. On the other hand, racism – and perhaps racial profiling – is not always a conscious thought; most of us grow up with some exposure to racist, religious and similar prejudices, and those prejudices can end up guiding our thoughts – and sometimes our behavior – in viewing the world and the people around us.

In any event, Mrs. McCain, who is co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on Human Trafficking, reported the “odd” situation to the police. She is then quoted as saying that the woman she spotted “was trafficking that kid.” It turns out that Cindy was wrong about everything. There was no trafficking, the police never said there was trafficking, and it apparently was the statement by Cindy that was suspicious. Some believe that what she was doing was, in essence, racially profiling the woman and child.

According to a police spokesman, officers checked on the child at Mrs. McCain’s request, and found “no evidence” of criminal conduct. If there is a lesson here, it’s that the next time you feel the need to act in accordance the phrase “if you see something, do something,” check yourself while you’re checking what you think you see.

Law Offices of David A. Black
40 North Central Avenue #1850
Phoenix, AZ 85004
(480) 280-8028

Racial Profiling and “If you see something . . .”
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