Exactly one year ago today, a 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin was gunned down in his quiet Florida suburb in a tragedy that left our country shocked and ashamed. The incident set off a national conversation about racial profiling and the role race played in his death and subsequent police action.
Racial profiling violates the Constitution by denying equal protection under the law, as well as freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Furthermore, the Constitution requires treaties to be treated as the "supreme law of the land," and racial profiling runs afoul of America's human rights treaty obligations.
While the court proceedings around Trayvon's death are still ongoing, Washington D.C. seems to be treading water on the issue of racial profiling. The 112th Congress concluded without a vote on the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), a crucial piece of legislation that would, among other things, provide training to help police avoid responses based on stereotypes and unreliable assumptions about minorities. It did, however, see the first Senate hearing on profiling in over a decade, since before 9/11. The hearing included testimony from police representatives and civil rights advocates, including ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.
But the hearing was just a first step in what looks to be a long road to eliminating the practice of racial profiling. If the current Congress were to take up and pass ERPA, it would send the strong message that the Constitution requires that people be judged by what they do, not by what they look like or what God they pray to. Looking to our past, the case is clear: racial profiling is unfair, unjust, and ineffective.
This isn't an issue that's new to President Obama. As a state senator, he sponsored and helped pass a bill that effectively ended racial profiling by law enforcement in Illinois. Obama even promised during his 2008 campaign to pass a ban on the practice, but he's been very quiet on the issue during his time in the White House. The ACLU has repeatedly called on President Obama to address racial profiling on the federal level, just as his predecessor did. President Bush vowed to end the practice, and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called racial profiling "unconstitutional" and said it "[undermines] the confidence that people can have in law enforcement."
When the state condones racial profiling, it implicitly sanctions that kind of behavior among private citizens. Washington D.C. must find a way to ensure that young men like Trayvon are not the victims of vigilante justice and racial profiling. Beyond that, our country has to recognize that this incident raises concerns that go beyond the actions of one man in Florida. Failing to take a real look at the ongoing association of young men of color with crime ensures that stories like Trayvon's will continue leaving us to ask how many young people must die before we address the serious underlying problem of racial denigration and bias in the United States.
Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said it best in her blog post last year about the fears she has for her son: "We cannot be satisfied with legal equality when for many of us, it is of limited value in the face of our actual day-to-day experience. Unless Americans work together to end the practice of racial profiling – not just in law enforcement but in the larger social fabric – the precautions I and many other parents of color take may never be enough."