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A Lesson from Bollywood: Time for America to Ban Racial Profiling

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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September 1, 2009

You might have heard about Shahrukh Khan, the Bollywood megastar who was pulled out of a security line and questioned and detained for over 1 1/2 hours by Customs and Border Protection authorities at Newark airport, apparently because of his Muslim name. Khan, who is adored around the world, has an estimated fan base of 3.5 billion people and is a symbol of Indian national pride, was on his way to Indian Independence Day events in Chicago. News of his experience at Newark set off international protests. What made the incident particularly poignant was the fact that Khan had just finished filming My Name is Khan, a movie that deals with post 9/11 discrimination against Muslims in the United States. What a strange coincidence.

However, it is critical to remember that the indignity suffered by Khan is emblematic of a larger problem of racial profiling in the United States. Indian and other South Asian travelers (be they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Christian) have been subjected to similar forms of profiling and scrutiny including former Indian president Abdul Kalam and Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

Recently, CNN ran an op-ed by Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney of the Human Rights Program, about the Khan incident and the depth of racial profiling in the United States. In the piece, Chandra notes:

The Khan case provides a chance for American society to re-examine the breadth and depth of racial profiling, its impact on minority communities in the United States, and its harm to America’s reputation around the world.

Recently, the ACLU and the Rights Working Group released a report that compiled data and anecdotal information from across the United States and showed that authorities continue to investigate, stop, frisk or search racial minorities based upon subjective identity-based characteristics, rather than identifiable evidence of illegal activity.

The report found that the practice of racial profiling by members of law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels remains a widespread and pervasive problem, affecting the lives of millions of people in African-American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities. The report also illustrated that victims continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they work, drive, shop, pray, travel and stand on the street.

The ACLU saw two big successes against racial profiling in the recent weeks. The ACLU of New Jersey recently made advances in monitoring the State Police and upholding accountability, and the ACLU of Illinois was able to access information about the stopping of motorists. To learn more about the ACLU’s work to combat racial profiling, check out our report, The Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States.

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