Racial Profiling: From 9/10 Consensus to Post-9/ll Discord

7 10 2007

Perhaps its difficult to imagine this being the case today, but not that long ago there was near-consensus in U.S. that racial profiling was wrong and counterproductive. The discriminatory practice of using race, ethnicity or religious affiliation as the sole basis in deciding who to investigate was becoming an increasingly discredited among the general public and lawmakers alike. In fact, not only was it a major issue during the 2000 election, but both then-Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore said racial profiling should be outlawed. After being asked whether or not they would sign a federal ban of the practice in PBS debate here is what each of the candidates said:

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: Yes, I would. The only thing an executive order can accomplish is to ban it in federal law enforcement agencies. But I would also support a law in the Congress that would have the effect of doing the same thing. I just — I think that racial profiling is a serious problem…Imagine what it — what it is like for someone to be singled out unfairly, unjustly, and feel the unfair force of law simply because of race or ethnicity. Now, that runs counter to what the United States of America is all about at our core. And it’s not an easy problem to solve, but I — if I am entrusted with the presidency, it will be the first civil rights act of the 21st century.

GOV. BUSH: Yeah, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be singled out because of race, and stopped and harassed. It’s just flat wrong, and that’s not what America is all about, and so we ought to do everything we can to end racial profiling. One of my concerns, though, is I don’t want to federalize the local Police forces. I want to — you know, obviously in the egregious cases we need to enforce Civil rights law, but we need to make sure that internal affairs divisions at the local level do their job and be given a chance to do their job.

Considering Gore and Bush made these statements in October 11, 2000, a mere three weeks before the Presidential election, its a great deal of political momentum to put an end to racial profiling.

In fact, support among the American public to end racial profiling was also fairly high. A Gallup poll released in December 1999, reported “that the majority of Americans, both Black and White – believe that racial profiling is both widespread and unfair…59 percent of the American public believes that racial profiling is widespread; and an overwhelming 81 percent disapproves of its use by police.”

Much of that shift was in no small part to due to several studies during the 90’s by Lamberth Consulting and others that exposed the ineffectiveness of racial profiling as a law enforcement tactic and how people were victimized by it. President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department also began to investigate allegations of racial profiling done by local law enforcement authorities.

But obviously much of that changed after the 9/11 attacks. In a September 23, 2001 article, the New York Times reported:

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken a few days after the attacks showed that Americans were supporting special measures intended for those of Arab descent. In the survey, 58 percent backed more intensive security checks for Arabs, including those who are United States citizens, compared with other travelers; 49 percent favored special identification cards for such people, and 32 percent backed ”special surveillance” for them.

In accepting the rationale for targeting and fearing Muslim or Arab men the national consensus of against racial profiling was instantly annihilated. Few people made the case for racial profiling after September 11th more forcefully than then-Attorney General John Aschcroft who warned, “To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists—for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

Those are serious words. And such tough talk was meant to browbeat dissenters of the administration’s approach to law enforcement, which included nation-wide dragnets, by aligning those critics with the terrorists themselves.

Sure, President Bush’s Justice Department in 2003 issued a policy guidance plan that ostensibly banned racial profiling by federal law enforcement, but he did not work with Congress to make it federal law nor did he incorporate any procedures, such as data collection and other forms of monitoring, to ensure investigators are actually complying with the so-called ban. Plus, according the Justice Department own press release on the ban, exceptions can be made for purposes of “terrorist identification.”

In effect this means if another attack were to occur, many innocent Arab, South Asian, or Muslim men would not be sufficiently protected from another national dragnet. More importantly, the ban had nothing to do with local law enforcement, which is where a substantial portion of racial profiling still takes place.

In thundering Orwellian language, Ashcorft drew a distinction between “immigrants and Americans” and “citizens and non-citizens,” to justify his abuse of his power of Attorney General to root out immigrants whether they are middle-eastern or not. Campus raids, immigrant registration lists , mass deportations of immigrants even for routine violations, and other forms of harsh crackdowns of unauthorized immigration created an anti-immigrant climate favorable to draconian law enforcement. And now such enforcement strategies have carried over in how authorities interact with Latinos living in the United States.

In many of the racially biased raids by local and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into workplaces and into Latino homes have reportedly resulted in many citizens being rounded up in the process too. Some of the immigrants have been rounded up on routine civil violations, such as overstaying their visa. According to the Associated Press, through federally funded programs such as Operation Stonegarden, local police in many border states are now asking Latinos drivers for proof of citizenship during traffic stops and conducting unlawful warrantless raids into Latino homes.

Such abuses of power are nothing new to the African American community, given the killing of Sean Bell in New York City this spring and large scale arrests of African-Americans due to recent local anti-gang ordinances. Each of these situations, have clearly demonstrated how the ongoing racial profiling of African-American has gone unabated and with disastrous results.

Racial and religious profiling leads to an ineffective and unfair method of investigating crimes because it focuses not on individual criminal behavior, but instead uses race, religion, and national origin as a proxy for criminal suspicion. Ultimately, this will lead to an even more of an antagonistic relationship between many communities of color and law enforcement authorities. But, more importantly, it will not make us a safer or freer society.

Note: This post is not meant to downplay or ignore genuine threats to public safety or national security. I wholeheartedly do believe such threats do exist. Nor was it meant to suggest that the men in discussed in the YouTube clip were in fact innocent. I have no idea if they were or not. The aim of my post was to highlight how people of color have been unfairly targeted through the use of racial profiling and demonstrate the shift in public opinion on this issue after Sept 11th.

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