Back to News & Commentary

New Venue, Same Game: Racial Profiling

And Arizona law would require law enforcement officers to investigate a person's citizenship status if they think that the person could be in the country unlawfully.
Jasmine Elliott,
Washington Legislative Office
Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Share This Page
July 16, 2010

The Arizona immigration law is poised to inflame the already widespread problem of racial profiling in the United States. This law, S.B. 1070, would require law enforcement officers to investigate a person’s citizenship status if they think that the person could be in the country unlawfully. This is a clear invitation to racial profiling, and because of this new law, more people will be put into jails and the criminal justice system merely because of their race or ethnicity. When law enforcement is invited to question people based on appearance and without evidence of criminal activity, dire consequences occur.

Practices in Baltimore, Maryland, during the tenure of former mayor (and now governor) Martin O’Malley, are a prime example of policing gone awry. From 1999 to 2007, Baltimore established a “zero tolerance police policy” in an attempt to reduce the amount of homicides and violent crimes in the city. Instead of focusing on violent crime, law enforcement targeted people of color who were “driving while black” or loitering, arresting them and detaining them for a number of hours until they released them with no criminal charge (but with an arrest still on their record). In 2005 alone, more than 76,400 people were arrested in Baltimore; 30 percent of those arrests were dismissed after a preliminary review. This year, the ACLU of Maryland settled a 2006 lawsuit with the Baltimore Police Department and now focuses on reforming Baltimore’s arresting and monitoring practices. Baltimore’s policing tactics under Mayor O’Malley’s policy wasted resources and time and did not address the crime problems of the city. In addition, the use of racial profiling to discriminate against African-Americans in particular created, as Baltimore defense attorney Warren A. Brown describes, “a mentality that we really can’t be safe in the streets from either the thugs or the police.”

Similarly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support for New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy is another abysmal example of racial profiling in law enforcement. According to the New York Times, in 2009, African-Americans and Latinos were nine times more likely to be stopped than whites but no more likely to be arrested. From 2004 to 2009, almost 3 million people were stopped and frisked; 90 percent of these people were not charged with a crime. These unprovoked and discriminatory searches are demeaning to minorities and cause the victims to feel worthless and defenseless. As if this policy isn’t offensive enough, the personal information of people stopped is stored in a database used by police to investigate crimes, essentially turning untold numbers of New Yorkers into suspects for life. Innocent people are targeted by the police for crimes they did not commit simply because of the color of their skin. The New York Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than 100,000 New Yorkers that challenges elements of NYPD’s stop-and-frisk database.

Racial profiling in law enforcement is not just limited to city police departments. For example, since 9/11, Sikhs and Muslims have been disproportionately targeted for stops at airports and U.S. borders. Some airports search Sikhs 100 percent of the time. Even though there is no physical profile that can be attributed to a potential terrorist, law enforcement officers specifically target anyone who appears to be of Middle Eastern descent. “No Fly” lists, airport searches, and other travel restrictions wrongfully and disproportionately affect Sikhs, Muslims, and other citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. People are discouraged from exercising their right to travel for fear of being unjustly arrested and detained because of how they look or what religion they practice.

The Arizona immigration law is one of the most recent and obvious examples of racial profiling. S.B. 1070 states that race or color should not be factors justifying an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” to demand a person’s papers, but how else will an officer act on this vague definition of suspicion? In addition to the ACLU and other leading civil rights groups, the U.S. Justice Department has recently sued Arizona over S.B. 1070, saying that the law will cause the “detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens.” Essentially, this law is attempting to not-so-covertly write the use of racial profiling into state immigration policy. Anyone who looks foreign could fall victim to the discriminatory tactics proposed by this unconstitutional law.

The victims of racial profiling might be expanding to include different shades of brown in different venues, but the game remains the same. Solely because of their appearance, people are harassed, detained and sometimes deported. Problems like over-incarceration and a lack of trust between law enforcement and the community worsen. Law enforcement officers waste precious time and resources relying on this inefficient and degrading police strategy, instead of focusing on investigating actual perpetrators of crime. Racial profiling affects everyone— citizen and noncitizen, black, white and every shade in between.

The Arizona immigration law, like all other forms of racial profiling, is ineffective, offensive and destructive to the work of law enforcement. People from both sides of the party line have reaffirmed that racial profiling is unjust and wrong. While an act to end racial profiling (ERPA) has been introduced numerous times in Congress, this legislation has not become law. The Obama administration has made the elimination of racial profiling a priority, and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) have just reintroduced ERPA in the House. We as a nation have progressed too far in the narrative of race relations for this discriminatory practice to continue.

We must act now to stop the Arizona immigration law from going into effect and help this country move one step closer to ending racial profiling.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page