As the American public reads of yet another report released on governmental surveillance of Muslim American communities, it is refreshing to know that for the first time since the 9/11 attacks, the US Senate Judiciary Committee, along with various state legislatures and federal agencies, are directly addressing long-held public concerns about racial and religious profiling — a practice within law enforcement that relies solely on race, religion or ethnicity to determine possible criminal activity. With these recent developments, could we finally be seeing the beginning of the end of racial and religious profiling in America?
The Senate hearing on racial profiling, initiated by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, took place in conjunction with Durbin’s co-sponsored bill, the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2011” (ERPA), on April 17. Racial and religious profiling has become a particularly sensitive issue for Muslim Americans in the past decade, although it affects multiple racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups in the United States. In the United States, some assume that all individuals of South Asian or Arab descent are Muslim, and that being Muslim is somehow dangerous — which has led to members of these ethnic groups being profiled. Such practices violate the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law; moreover, racial and religious profiling is ineffective as it is based on unreliable assumptions about minority groups, rather than criminal behaviour profiles.
ERPA would also provide for additional training to help law enforcement, government officials, and neighborhood watch groups avoid using such tactics.
The political debate on the effectiveness of racial and religious profiling by law enforcement goes back several decades. Interestingly enough, when it last garnered high-profile political attention, it was former President George W. Bush who proclaimed, in a February 2001 address, that racial profiling is “wrong and we will end it in America.” He went even further to say that ending racial profiling practices would not compromise security.
Then came the attacks of 9/11 and what Bush once dubbed as “wrong” became an excusable right, in the name of national security. “In the national trauma that followed 9/11, civil liberties came face to face with national security”, said Senator Durbin, and all too often the promise of national security won, at the expense of Muslim Americans and other Americans who appeared to be Muslim.
The ERPA hearing comes at a time when racial and religious profiling is being actively challenged across the nation. Numerous civil-rights advocates and legislative officials have called for an investigation and independent nonpartisan oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD), after it was reported that the NYPD systematically surveilled Muslim Americans and certain ethnic minorities in the area without probable cause.
After several police officers were arrested for illegally targeting and harassing Hispanic Americans in Connecticut, state legislators passed a definitive bill prohibiting “the stopping, detention, or search of any person” due solely to “race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation.”
The decades of grassroots organizing have also allowed civil-rights groups to provide the public with better tools and technology to empower themselves when faced with harassment by law enforcement. The Sikh Coalition, for example, recently launched a mobile application that allows travellers to file direct complaints with the government if they feel they have been unfairly profiled. In turn, these groups have been able to provide advocacy organisations and legislators with better assessments of the extent and the overall ineffectiveness of racial and religious profiling.
Some federal agencies, after public pressure, are taking measures to prevent organisational discriminatory practices. Both the military and FBI have initiated steps to review their training materials, due to recent reports of their use of severely Islamophobic materials. Last month the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US armed forces ordered a review of the military’s training material in its entirety to ensure it does not contain Islamophobic content. This month, the FBI is holding workshops titled “Combating Islamophobia: Truths and Myths about Islam.”
While it is difficult to tell, at this point, what the standards of either the military or the FBI are in determining what constitutes Islamophobic material, the attempt to instill better standards is a small step forward.
The passing of ERPA would be a significant achievement at the federal level, but undoing the damage of decades of racial and religious profiling will be a lengthy process. This is only the beginning — in going forward, more legislators and law enforcement agencies will also need to critically examine their discriminatory practices and materials while allowing for greater transparency. Local and federal law enforcement officers will need training to better understand and spot possible criminal behavior using more effective practices than racial profiling.
In ending racial and religious profiling and ensuring our civil-rights are protected, it is important to remember that we are not compromising our security; instead, we are enhancing our safety and building stronger working relationships between law enforcement and community members.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on May 15, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.