Facing racial profiling

By Michelle Chen Jul 01, 2009

Civil liberties advocates told the United Nations today that racial profiling continues to tear away at the social fabric of American communities. In a report to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the ACLU and Rights Working Group state that the Bush administration dramatically worsened the problem in the wake of 9/11, rolling back earlier executive actions to stamp out profiling:

data and anecdotal information from across the country reveal that racial minorities continue to be unfairly victimized when authorities investigate, stop, frisk, or search them based upon subjective identity-based characteristics rather than identifiable evidence of illegal activity. Victims continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they work, drive, shop, pray, travel, and stand on the street.

The report also points to best piece of legislation you’ve never heard of: the End Racial Profiling Act. The law, first introduced in the late 1990s, would essentially bar racial profiling, create a system of documenting profiling incidents, and allow victims to bring private lawsuits to hold agencies accountable. Last year, the bill was politely referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. You can guess how far it went after that. Federal action against illegal immigration has institutionalized profiling within the Homeland Security apparatus. The infamous 287(g) program, for instance, has been criticized by activists for encouraging rampant profiling of low-wage immigrant workers by local and federal agents. The Justice Department has issued a federal “ban” on racial profiling that seems to go out of its way to make itself toothless. Specifically, the guidelines don’t apply to "profiling based on religion, religious appearance, or national origin,” and address only federal, not state or local, law enforcement. Agents needing more wiggle room can also fall back on a loophole that allows profiling when “protecting national security or preventing catastrophic events.” The ACLU and RWG point out that profiling in counter-terrorism operations has taken racist “stop and search” practices to a whole new level:

Without specific or material verification, individuals have been scrutinized based upon assumptions of their potential connection to alleged “terrorist activities.” Almost none of these men have been found to have any connection to terrorism and the law enforcement agencies who categorized the men as having “special interest” appear to have based many of these decisions on racial, ethnic, and religious profiling. While in custody for months on end, some of the men were physically and psychologically brutalized and mistreated, and even still, after having been found to be innocent of the terrorist activity that they were suspected of, many of these men were deported.

The report makes several recommendations to the Obama administration and lawmakers, including: following United Nations advisories against racial profiling, establishing mandatory training programs for law enforcement officers, and narrow the channels for collaboration between federal immigration authorities and state and local agencies. More disturbing than the federal government’s inaction on racial profiling are the examples the report cites: Muslims, Arabs and South Asians humiliated by intrusive searches at airports, aggressive police sweeps of Black-owned barbershops in California, traumatic round-ups of Latino immigrants in Maricopa County. These illustrations suggest that the problem ties into something much bigger and more intractable–an attitude wired into the psychological impulses of people wielding disproportionate authority. Will more lawsuits or “sensitivity” training eradicate that kind of entrenched bias? If the White House reforms the policies that encourage these behaviors, that’s one place to start, but the project of changing people’s mindsets will outlast this administration, and very likely outlive entire generations. Image: OpenCongress.org