Racial profiling was in the news this week because Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a world-renowned Professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, was a victim. However, it is important to remember that this story is news because of the identity of the person profiled, not because of the rarity of the underlying police actions.
President Obama accurately reminded us of this during his press conference last night:
What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.
Racial profiling—using a person’s race, color, ethnicity or national origin to determine whether to stop, search or investigate him or her for alleged criminal activity—is rampant throughout the United States, and it acutely affects African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, and Arab communities.
The Director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU, Dennis Parker, posed the question on the Diane Rehm Show this morning that if Professor Gates is subject to such treatment, “what does that say for the rest of the people of color that haven’t achieved his level of success?” In fact, much of what happened to Professor Gates was an anomaly. Most victims of racial profiling by police are not released after four hours. Most victims of racial profiling do not have the charges against them dropped. Most victims of racial profiling do not receive media attention.
Last month, the ACLU and the Rights Working Group released a report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that demonstrates just how pervasive racial profiling is in the United States. The report, The Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States, explains,
Despite overwhelming evidence of its existence, often supported by official data, racial profiling continues to be a prevalent and egregious form of discrimination in the United States. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have acknowledged that racial profiling is unconstitutional, socially corrupting and counter-productive, yet this unjustifiable practice remains a stain on American democracy and an affront to the promise of racial equality.
The report also uncovers how government policies contribute to racial profiling. For example, the 287(g) program has allowed local law enforcement officers to enforce civil immigration laws, which has resulted “in the increased profiling of people of color suspected of being immigrants and non-citizens.” The effects of this policy have been especially harmful to Latino communities, as well as South-Asian communities that already suffer from post-9/11 hostility in the workplace and public spaces.
As a senator, President Obama supported the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), which was first introduced in 1997 and subsequently reintroduced without success. It is time that his administration encourages Congress to pass this important piece of legislation once and for all. ERPA would not only ban racial profiling, but it would require law enforcement agencies to establish procedures for when and how to conduct appropriate profiling of suspects and to collect gender and race data on police activity, as well as allow victims of racial profiling to take action against law enforcement officers. Currently only 13 states require police to track the race of persons stopped in their vehicles, according to Reginald Shuford, a lawyer at the ACLU who has successfully sued the Maryland State Police for disproportionately stopping motorists along interstate 95.
Most important, ERPA is vital for our federal government to officially take action against racial profiling and set the standard for each state.
To learn more about the Professor Gates’ incident and racial profiling in Massachusetts, read “Racial profiling is Alive and Well” in the Boston Globe by Carol Rose, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Learn more about the state of racial profiling in the United States by visiting www.aclu.org/cerd.
Listen to a podcast with Dennis Parker discussing racial profiling in America.
Find out more about the Racial Justice program’s work against racial profiling at our website.