Civil rights groups are lobbying Congress to put an end to racial profiling, the practice of targeting people because of their race or religion. A bill before Congress aims to do just that. On Tuesday, a Senate Judiciary panel heard from victims, police and lawmakers.
The story begins in February 2001, when President George W. Bush delivered an address to Congress in which he promised to stop racial profiling. Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“In the national trauma that followed, civil liberties came face to face with national security,” says Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin.
And all too often, he says, the promise of national security won, at the expense of Muslim and Arab people who were stopped in airports, mosques, and schools.
The Associated Press reported that New York police have spanned out along the East Coast, eavesdropping on Muslim student groups at well-known colleges.
Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota is a Muslim American. He said at Tuesday’s hearing that he’s concerned about his son.
“He’s a good kid who’s never done anything wrong,” Ellison says. “And I worry to think that he might be in somebody’s files, simply because he wanted to be active on campus.”
New York University law student Elizabeth Dann, a convert to Islam, has a list of fears. She says that one of them is a “fear that for the Muslim students of so many universities who are young, hopeful and patriotic, the surveillance will destroy some of their faith in fairness, justice and law enforcement.”
Durbin says racial profiling doesn’t work and makes it harder for police to do their jobs.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, says he might support a new law to ban racial profiling. “I think I understand the problem,” he says. “I just don’t know where the line between good law enforcement and racial profiling ends and begins.”
Ronald Davis, the police chief in East Palo Alto, Calif., had an answer.
“If you put, if something comes out on the radio that you’re looking for a black male, 6 foot tall, 225 pounds, and very handsome, that did a robbery then it makes sense why you would stop me. I could understand that,” he says, drawing laughter at the hearing.
But the Fraternal Order of Police says the End Racial Profiling bill is no laughing matter.
Frank Gale spoke for the group, America’s largest law enforcement association.
“This bill provides a solution to a problem that does not exist unless one believes the problem to be solved is that our nation’s law enforcement officers are patently racist,” he says, “and that their universal training is based in practicing racism.”
The Justice Department hasn’t expressed a position on the bill.