Thursday, May 13, 2010

Racial Profiling is Bad Policy


By Pramila Jayapal

As the debate around the recently passed Arizona immigration law clearly demonstrates, racial and religious profiling remains a real and urgent problem in the United States.

Washington state isn't immune to the scourge of this discriminatory behavior by law-enforcement officials. This past October, we discovered that FBI agents, instead of collecting information only about people with direct links to national security threats, scrutinized Somali communities across the nation, including those in Seattle. Within 150 miles of our northern border, in counties such as Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom, Latino, Arab and Muslim communities face an everyday threat of profiling from both border patrol agents and Immigration Control Enforcement officials. And right here in Seattle, we continue to see the racial disparities that disproportionately affect African-Americans, Asians and other people of color.

Although racial profiling has been unfairly familiar to African-Americans and others for decades, mainstream America has only in the recent decades started to acknowledge the issue. Referred to as "driving while black or brown," racial profiling surfaced in popular culture long before law enforcement conceded the practice.

After 9/11, the U.S. government began an era of blatant profiling, rounding up more than 1,200 Arab, South Asian and Muslim men and holding them without charges.

This didn’t make us safer. In fact, the mass roundup never apprehended anyone linked to the 9/11 attacks. An inspector general's report later revealed that many detainees had been blocked from contacting attorneys and some had been beaten or otherwise physically abused by guards in federal prisons.

Unfortunately, the scope of racial profiling is expanding. As responsibility for enforcing immigration laws and finding undocumented immigrants has been increasingly delegated to state and local police, evidence of increased racial profiling is emerging. Bad immigration laws like the one in Arizona threaten to sanction racial and religious profiling by local police.

History has shown that using race as a substitute for criminal behavior is bad policy. Research has shown that focusing on behavior rather than race is smart law enforcement.

When law-enforcement officers abolish race as a factor and instead rely on behavior, they catch more criminals. In the late 1990s, U.S. Customs Service eliminated use of race in deciding which individuals to stop and search for illegal contraband and instead began focusing on suspects' behavior. Studies showed that this shift to "color-blind profiling techniques" increased the rate at which searches led to discovery of illegal contraband or activity by more than 300 percent.

In response to the revelation about FBI profiling of Somalis, Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates and a commissioner in the upcoming hearing on May 8th, Racial Profiling: Face the Truth Hearing, noted that the FBI is harassing Muslim-Americans by singling them out for scrutiny. “We think the FBI should be focused on following actual leads rather than putting entire communities under the microscope,” Khera said to the New York Times.

On May 8th, OneAmerica, in conjunction with The Rights Working Group, will hold the first of six hearings on racial profiling from noon to 4 p.m. at the Burlington Public Library in Burlington, Wash., on profiling in diverse immigrant communities. We expect Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans will all come forward to share the shared but unjust experience of being targeted because of racial, religious or ethnic backgrounds.
I will be joining a distinguished panel of national and local commissioners who will listen to testimony, including Monica Ramirez, Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at DOJ; Karen Narasaki, Executive Director of Asian American Justice Center; Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates and National Association of Muslim Lawyers; and Judge Steven Gonzalez, King County Superior Court.
We hope community members from across the state will join us. It is time to tell our story and make our voices heard so we can put an end to racial profiling.
Jayapal is The author is Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica.
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