Weapons of Math Destruction

Recently in the news, an Ivy League economist was escorted off a plane and interrogated for doing math.

Guido Menzio, a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Italian economist, was scribbling away in his airplane seat, working out properties of a price-setting model he was going to present at Queens University in the near future. His neighbor on the airplane, a “blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag,” believed he was a terrorist, scribbling nefarious notes in some “foreign” language (“perhaps Arabic”). After a long delay, Professor Menzio was escorted off the plane and accused of being a terrorist by a security agent. Guido, to his credit, laughed incredulously at the accusation.

Guido Menzio, a young economist at the University of Pennsylvania, was faced with accusations of terrorism due to ethnic profiling.

There are three key pieces of information in this story that reflect poorly on current American society. First is that Menzio, despite being Italian, was ethnically profiled by his neighbor as “Middle Eastern” due to his complexion and accent. Second, the ethnic profiling led to the belief that he may be a terrorist, and it took a two-hour song-and-dance routine that wasted everyone’s time to escort off the plane and accuse him. Third, Menzio was writing math, not Arabic, and no one noticed. Did no one bother to Google his name? Did they think that Menzio was part of the group Al-Gebra, deriving solutions by means and extremes?

Whatever the rationale the woman may have had, it does not excuse the fact that American society is currently engaging in close-minded Islamophobia, blatantly profiling people who look Middle Eastern as Muslim Terrorists (even though many people of Middle Eastern descent are not Muslim, and a ridiculously small percentage of them are terrorists, and incidents have involved people who are not of Middle Eastern descent). Our tendency to fear the unknown and polarize opinions too often leads to hatred. The next time you board a plane, check to make sure that the person you’re about to ethnically profile isn’t writing mathematical equations instead of Arabic before you accuse him of a terrorist plot. Or perhaps, realize that real-life terrorists do not fit common stereotypes; it’s good to remain alert in your surroundings for suspicious activity, but remember that someone’s physical characteristics or choice of language does not immediately make them suspicious.

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