Racial Profiling: 11 years after 9/11, 150 years after 1862

Pop history in the wake of 9/11: Showtime’s Emmy Award-nominated miniseries ran for two seasons in 2005 and 2006: “Sleeper Cell takes you behind the veil of terror networks and into the minds of the agents trying to stop them.” 


Historiography  is study of how historical stories come to be. That doesn’t mean the study of how fact is established. Often, the received story is not factually true, and the exact factual truth, beyond knowing.

The real story is, “Why do people believe it?”

Start with a modern story, like the idea that Thomas J. Galbraith was a chronic alcoholic, so mentally unstable he was unfit to manage the Sioux Agency (as evidenced, this theory holds, by the onset of the Dakota War of 1862).

To make sense of that belief, I’ve argued, we need to look for the stories that shaped it. Stories always land in the context of personal experience. So when an idea gains traction today, when it resonates with modern concerns, the question is, “Why?”

Most of us remember 9/11. In late September, 2001, the media reported that Federal hotlines were receiving hundreds of tipster calls reporting a suspect “sleeper cell” of terrorists in the caller’s neighborhood. Weeks before, these alleged potential terrorists were simply doctors, engineers, clerks, students –ordinary people who barely stood out. But in the wake of 9/11, people who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent were catapulted from “ordinary neighbor” to “potential terrorist” status in the United States.

Was this just? Was this fair? Was this true? No, on all counts.

But 9/11 is living history. We were there. Even if, with the benefit of hindsight, we dismiss most of those fears as unfounded, on some level we understand. We remember how vulnerable we felt.

Today, most of us are disconnected from the many contexts of the 1862 story. The uncertainty. The hysteria. The politics. The personalities. The prejudices. The agendas.

Much of what remains for us to consider from 1862 is pretty weak evidence –like the stories of the hundreds of people who called the FBI reporting a sleeper cell in a house down the block. From these hundreds of eye-witness reports, historians of the future might wrongly conclude there were in fact hundreds of terrorist sleeper cells in the U.S. in 2001.

But 150 years after 1862, many seem unwilling to take the received story of the Dakota War with a grain of salt. There will be no careful re-investigation of period allegations because, gosh darn it, every single one of those guys was part of the white power structure and we KNOW the white power structure has always been out to get the little guy!

It’s like insisting my daughters OUGHT to be singled out by security at airports because they are dark-complected and we know who high-jacked those planes on 9/11.

But it still seems socially acceptable, even popular, to make blanket condemnations based on race –as long as the target is a white man.

Isn’t this just as wrong as the “exile or extermination” hysteria in the wake of the war that refused to make distinctions among Dakota people?

As unjust as the discrimination people of color continue to face in the U.S. today?

When an idea gains traction in modern culture, the question is: Why?


Image credit and caption quote: directv.com

This entry was posted in Commemorating Controversy, Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.

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