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The New York Times

American, Even With the Hyphen


November 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times. All rights reserved. 

THE huge, centralized database of personal information being created by the Pentagon to help combat terrorism has evoked fears of a high-tech fulfillment of George Orwell's omniscient government. But in fact, Orwell's chilling vision is already being deployed via the low-tech tactic of vigilante racial profiling in the name of patriotism. I know because I'm a casualty.

My injury came in the form of a call stating that I had been engaged in ''suspicious activity'' while I was in fact simply filming a documentary in Farmingville. The call set off an inquiry by the Suffolk County police.

I had to explain to a detective that I have spent the last two years working on a film documenting the tensions in Farmingville after the hate-based attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers. I moved there to get to know the community. I wanted to understand the plight of the day laborers. I was attempting to see through the allegations of racism to residents' legitimate concerns over the sudden appearance of hundreds of men standing on street corners looking for work.

For several months I occupied an office in Farmingville. I slept there because of the need to film dawn scenes or late-night meetings. With my crew, I was constantly shuttling camera bags and large black cases filled with lighting or sound equipment. At odd hours. On weekends. Innocuous stuff in more innocent times.

The intensity of the work and a desire to avoid drawing attention to the fact that I was actually living in a commercial space kept me from getting to know my neighbors. Maybe that was my mistake.

Or maybe my real offense is that with my dark skin, coarse hair and pronounced nose, some people mistake me for Middle Eastern. When I was part of the United States delegation to the United Nations, members of Middle Eastern missions would look disappointed when I explained I was not Arab but American. (At least fifth generation, in fact. My father's New Mexican roots go back to when the territory was taken as war booty from Mexico, and my great-great grandfather got his American passport after Puerto Rico was taken as war booty from Spain.)

The suspicion that my dark skin and features were the offenders was borne out when I discovered that I had been described to the detective as ''Middle Eastern-looking,'' and that I, and not my blond co-producer,was the primary object of the investigation.

While living in Farmingville, I had a car veer at me as the driver screamed, ''You [expletive] illegal! Why don't you go back to the [expletive] country you came from!'' A red-faced woman once stalked me from her S.U.V. into a strip mall lot, muttering, ''Aggravation! You people cause me nothing but aggravation!''

Oddly, none of these incidents affected me as much as the indignity of having to confirm to the detective that I was indeed a United States citizen. Of having to give my address, date of birth, my telephone, Social Security and driver's license numbers. In other words I had to hand over my electronic self, data that may now be used to filter my name from the ''background noise'' that will be caught in the Pentagon's proposed electronic dragnet.

Incongruously, it was while I was exercising one of our most vaunted values, that of a free press documenting a new frontier in our constantly evolving struggle toward civil rights -- the treatment of illegal immigrants -- that I may have developed a dossier. While I was working hard at trying to determine whether a town deserved the knee-jerk tarring of racism, I got stereotyped. And now, if the database is developed without the proper safeguards, I'll have to spend the rest of my life wondering whether I will be subjected to heightened scrutiny as a result of my name having been tagged. Wondering if a purchase of this item, a trip to that country or a certain series of keystrokes will cumulatively set off a data mine. All because of the way I look.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the need for surveillance. I have a dear friend who barely escaped from the 55th floor of Tower Two. I cry each time I fly over the gash in the Manhattan skyline. I am patriotic. If my role in this war is to bear the burden of suspicion because of my appearance so that we can all feel a little more secure, I'll accept it.

But understand the cost. First there's the reduction of freedom we all face. Second, as my experience shows, those of us who fit some individual's profile of a terrorist will bear a disproportionate burden in this war. As a result it will be a little tougher to ask us to melt in America's pot, or to pledge our allegiance without some twinge. I, for one, will be holding on more dearly to the hyphen in my American identity.

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