Racial Profiling

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2013-05-20 – IRS screening of Tea Party applications for tax exemption was a kind of racial profiling.

We don’t normally think of racial profiling in this way. We think about TSA agents singling out Muslims for intrusive inspection before boarding an airplane. We think about suburban cops stopping cars of black or Hispanic teenagers that happen to cross their borders.

We don’t normally think about racial profiling working the other way: working against whites. But that’s really what happened here. The IRS perceived a risk of abuse of the 501(c)(4) tax exemption based on affiliation with the Tea Party movement. Tea Partiers exist largely out of animus toward the tax system and a certain measure of hostility toward the current administration which manifests itself in political action. The 501(c)(4) exemption is not available for organizations that engage in political activity. Furthermore, the Tea Party stance on taxes as illegitimate or even illegal is in uncomfortably close to a category of tax evader known as “tax protestors” that the IRS has struggled with for decades.  It made superficial sense to tax screeners to create a screening category based on this affiliation.

But not really.

Profiling is offensive for two reasons. It violates our sense of what is right, and what is right is not to be discriminated against based on your race or gender or religion—or politics—even if the tax issue involved is the degree of political activity.

Profiling is also offensive because it is statistically inefficient. There may be a lot of Muslims in the world who are waging jihad against this country, but the percentage of Muslims standing in that airport line who are genuine threats is exceedingly small. Same with police stops of random blacks and Hispanics. The false positives of this approach are its downfall. You’re mainly inconveniencing the innocent, with little to show for the effort.

And there are the false negatives. If you’re looking for problems with one group, you’re bound to miss problems with another. And so it was with the IRS screening of Tea Party applications for tax exempt status. Time was spent giving extra scrutiny to tiny applicants while huge super-PAC slid right through despite extensive political actions.

Profiling is an easy shortcut, but it falls heavily on law abiding citizens and produces few results. It must be maddening for Tea Partiers to be on the other side for a change.

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