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From Sharpeville to Selma: Ongoing Struggles for Equality

Chandra Bhatnagar,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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March 22, 2010

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

Fifty years ago yesterday, in the township of Sharpeville in South Africa, thousands of black South Africans peacefully demonstrated against racist laws requiring black people to carry passes that regulated where they could go and what they could do. Police reacted violently to the protest, killing 69 people and injuring almost 200. The “Sharpeville Massacre” elicited international condemnation and galvanized the anti-apartheid freedom struggle in South Africa. In 1966, the United Nations proclaimed March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and every year on this day, all nations are encouraged to examine racial discrimination and take affirmative steps to address racial inequality.

Like South Africa, the United States has its own legacy of violence, discrimination, and domestic apartheid. Earlier this month marked the 45th anniversary of the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march, when Alabama state troopers attacked 600 peaceful marchers protesting segregation and racial discrimination outside Selma, Alabama. The brutal images of the white police force viciously attacking the nonviolent, primarily African-American marchers were televised throughout the world and changed global perceptions of American democracy. Bloody Sunday served as a galvanizing moment in the U.S. civil rights movement.

The anniversaries of Sharpeville and Selma remind us of the courage of those freedom fighters who sought to remove barriers to equality. Both of these anniversaries also offer us an opportunity to reflect on contemporary racism and discrimination. While some have inaccurately described the post-Obama United States as “post-racial,” the historic election of an African-American president, while a huge milestone, does not in any way diminish the work that still must be done.

A report released last summer by the ACLU and the Rights Working Group suggests that racial and ethnic profiling by members of law enforcement at federal, state and local levels is one of today’s most significant challenges to equality. While the U.S. Constitution prohibits racial profiling, and the international community has defined racial profiling as a violation of human rights, profiling continues to impact millions of people in African-American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities. All over the country, racial and ethnic minorities very often are investigated, stopped, frisked or searched based exclusively upon who they are, what they look like or what faith they practice, without any identifiable evidence of illegal activity. The disproportionate rates at which racial minorities are stopped and searched, in addition to the often high concentrations of law enforcement in minority communities, continues to have a tremendous impact on the over-representation of minorities in the American criminal justice system.

In the wake of recent events such as the Fort Hood shootings and the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, some have placed fear and bigotry over due process and basic human rights. During a hearing of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) unabashedly declared that he supported racial and ethnic profiling at airport security checkpoints. Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that citizens from 14 nations — almost all predominantly Muslim countries, with the exception of Cuba — will be subject to increased security measures. These measures will not make us safer, and by stigmatizing and alienating broad groups of people, could negatively impact our security.

While the Obama administration has taken some steps to address racial profiling, such as opening an investigation into the anti-immigrant practices of the Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff’s office, harmful policies from the previous administration still persist. For example, the Obama administration is continuing the Bush policy of allowing the federal government to aggressively transfer substantial responsibility of civil immigration laws to state and local law enforcement, resulting in the increased profiling of people of color suspected of being undocumented immigrants. Most notorious amongst these initiatives is the 287(g) program, which has been criticized for encouraging the harassment of both immigrants and U.S. citizens, particularly in Latino communities, further marginalizing already vulnerable populations.

Last fall, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sent a letter to the Obama administration expressing concern about the U.S. government’s lack of progress in addressing racial discrimination. The committee urged the U.S. to pass legislation prohibiting racial profiling, and to end immigration programs that foster profiling. The committee’s observations came after evaluating a U.S. report on compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which the U.S. ratified in 1994.

As a party to ICERD, the U.S. has a legal and moral obligation to the American people and the international community to end all programs and policies that disproportionately discriminate against racial or ethnic minorities. Congress must pass legislation that bans racial, ethnic, national and religious profiling, as such practices run counter to the Constitution and our international human rights commitments. As the global community reflects on historic and contemporary forms of injustice and rededicates itself to the eradication of racial discrimination, Congress and the Obama administration must reaffirm that all people are entitled to basic human rights, and no person should face law enforcement scrutiny based simply upon their race, color, faith or national origin. We owe it to the people of Sharpeville and Selma, whose fight for freedom, justice and equality has made our country and world a better place, to continue the struggle to end racial and ethnic profiling and discrimination in all its forms.

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