Over the weekend I watched “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” with some of my friends. Although the movie is very crass at times, there was a scene that made me consider the meaning of citizenship and the rights associated with citizenship. When Harold & Kumar are arrested and detained after what police believe was their attempt at blowing up a plane (but was actually just Kumar smoking marijuana on the plane), they are interrogated by a very naïve, racist, and ridiculous agent, Ron Fox. While smoking on a plane is undeniably illegal, it certainly does not warrant Harol and Kumar’s detainment as terrorists.
At one point during their interrogation, Harold and Kumar say they’d like to make a phone call. Agent Fox retorts, “Oh, I’m sorry, you want rights. You want freedoms. Right now?… Is it freedom o’clock?”
This interrogation scene reminded me of a recent court case I read in a course on Race Law Stories. The case, US vs. Wong Kim Ark, happened in 1898. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco, California and was of Chinese descent. After visiting his family in China he was denied re-entrance to the United States by an immigration official. The official argued that Wong Kim Ark wasn’t actually a citizen and wasn’t allowed entrance to the country because of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. The court case helped to set a precedent regarding “jus soli,” (birth in the United States), as a factor in determining a person’s claim to citizenship of the US. (And Wong Kim Ark was ultimately allowed back into the country.) By the time this case took place, the 14th Amendment had been added to the Constitution to overturn the infamous Dred Scott decision, its meaning was still up for debate. Namely, people were unsure what the Citizenship Clause in the 14th Amendment really meant. Similar to Wong Kim Ark, although Harold and Kumar were both US citizens, they were treated as if they were “enemies” of the US and not really citizens at all. Though Kumar had illegally smoked on a plane, Harold and Kumar were not guilty of any terrorist plots. But, they were denied their rights, like Wong Kim Ark, because of one official’s opinion of them based on appearance.
Harold and Kumar’s interrogation also made me think of our discussion surrounding race and physical appearances. Harold and Kumar are wrongfully arrested and profiled as terrorists based on their non-White physical appearances. They are also denied the rights and freedoms of a normal citizen, such as the right to a phone call, based on these assumptions. Though this movie is certainly a satire, it does accurately characterize the struggles of various people of different ethnic backgrounds to some extent. For example, I have an Indian friend who says that the majority of the time he and his family travel they are pulled aside for a “random” security screening. While I believe security is important, I also find it hard to believe that his family is randomly chosen each time they fly. Perhaps the “randomness” of the security screener’s choice is based on physical appearance—given that my friend’s family has a dark complexion, and his father wears a pagri (an Indian turban) and a full beard.
Both these examples of profiling make me think Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Curse of Modern Slavery” is still relevant today. Clearly slavery based on physical appearance has created long-lasting consequences on White’s views towards African Americans, and vice versa. But, I believe it extends further than that. Today, I believe that this has grown to include fear or negative views of most non-White people. That is, for example, anti-immigration views or stereotypes surrounding 9/11 are held by many Americans and have led to further prejudicial views towards people based on their physical appearance alone. Harold and Kumar, for example, are profiled as terrorists because they appear to resemble North Korean and Middle Eastern men, respectively, to Agent Fox.
Ultimately, this begs the difficult question, where would our society be today (in terms of race relations) had we not instituted a system of slavery based on appearance?
I also wonder what would have happened if we were on that plane with Harold and Kumar. Would we have worried Kumar was a terrorist when we saw/smelled him smoking?