This week’s Senate hearing on racial profiling was the first of the post 9/11 era. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, the issue of racial profiling is back in the media spotlight. The “End Racial Profiling Act” has been hailed by the NAACP as “strong, decisive action to end racial profiling by law enforcement.”
Even before Martin's murder, racial profiling came up recently in the context of police monitoring of Muslim groups and immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama which specifically targeted people of color, who are frequently accused of being undocumented immigrants. Historically, troubling laws like New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy have targeted Black and brown youth on the street and potentially infringing on their constitutional rights. The term became common when racial profiling of black men was prevalent on highways around the country and more specifically on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The “End Racial Profiling Act” was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) in the Senate and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in the House. The Senate bill co-sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and the House version is co-sponsored by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). Durbin has said of racial profiling that after the 9/11 terror attacks, Republicans began to support racial profiling of certain groups in the name of national security. The proposed legislation would make profiling of people based on their race or religion illegal. It seeks to change the underlying policies and procedures.
The NAACP has called on Congress to expedite the passage of the legislation. “Most law enforcement agents are hard working, conscientious men and women who use proven, data-driven, non-discriminatory methods of policing to protect and serve the communities in which they work,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy. “The problem is that when even one of their law enforcement colleagues uses racial profiling, the trust of an entire community can be lost and the integrity of their work challenged…What we need is a data-based approach to define the problem and determine the scope and magnitude and then we must have education, training and accountability at all levels to eliminate racial profiling once and for all.”
Members of law enforcement have called the bill “offensive,” but with so many unarmed black and brown men dying at the hands of law enforcement that charge rings hollow.
If Trayvon Martin had not been racially profiled as “suspicious” by George Zimmerman he may still be alive today. The fact of the matter is that Zimmerman was not a law enforcement officer, but his actions certainly mirrored racial profiling tactics used by law enforcement all over the country. Immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama have targeted people who are “suspected” of being undocumented which essentially means having brown skin out in public. The right to not be stopped and searched for no reason is a fundamental constitutional principle in our country. Perhaps one day people of color may enjoy that right.
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and writer. You can follow her on Twitter: @ZerlinaMaxwell