Racial Profiling and the September 11 Attacks

Media 10.24,01

The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have led to calls for widespread racial profiling as a way to apprehend suspects and prevent future incidents. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights strongly rejects these appeals for intolerance. Now, more than ever, the nation’s laws must be enforced without resort to discrimination or other unconstitutional means.

In fact, recent events have highlighted the need for a strong, trusting relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Racial profiling is an impediment to such cooperation and should be abolished.

In the months prior to the September 11 attacks, there was significant progress toward the goal of banning racial profiling. On February 27, 2001, President Bush declared before a joint session of Congress that racial profiling “is wrong and we will end it in America.” On June 6, a bill entitled the End Racial Profiling Act of 2001 (ERPA) was introduced in both Houses of Congress (S. 989 / H.R. 2074). Developed in close consultation with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other civil rights organizations, ERPA is cosponsored by almost 100 members of Congress of both parties. It would prohibit racial profiling, establish remedies for its victims and provide funds for police training and other programs to strengthen accountability and community relations. The Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on the bill on August 1.

While the September 11 attacks have momentarily diverted congressional attention away from the effort to ban racial profiling, there remains broad agreement on the need to achieve this goal. Arguments in favor of profiling remain as unpersuasive after the tragic events as they were before.

For example, some suggest that it makes sense to focus suspicion on Arab-Americans to apprehend those who conspired with the attackers. Of course nothing in ERPA prevents law enforcement from following leads to apprehend suspects, even if those leads include descriptions based on race or national origin. But a dragnet approach to law enforcement – rounding-up suspects based on national origin or religious affiliation rather than suspicious behavior or credible intelligence – is doomed to fail. First, it is an extremely inefficient tactic, since the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Arab-Americans are law-abiding. Second, such methods create resentment in a community whose cooperation is urgently needed. At a moment when the FBI is seeking to recruit Arab agents and Arabic translators, and while federal officials urge all Americans to report suspicious activity, the government can ill afford to antagonize citizens by relying on crude generalizations.

Others have suggested that racial profiling is justified in screening airline passengers. Again, nothing in ERPA prevents aviation security specialists from relying on empirically sound profiling tools that take account of a passenger’s behavior. It has been reported, for example, that some of the hijackers purchased expensive one way tickets in cash, a fact that perhaps should have triggered more scrutiny. But there is no evidence that discrimination based on race or national origin amounts to an empirically sound screening tool.

Reliance on racial dragnets or racial profiling at a moment of crisis recalls one of the most shameful episodes in American history – the internment of Japanese-Americans in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. These loyal Americans had engaged in no behavior to arouse the suspicion of authorities, but were rounded up from their homes and businesses and placed in relocation camps throughout the Western United States solely because of their ancestry. Over the course of the war, only 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan, all of whom were Caucasian. Milton Eisenhower, who helped implement the internment, later wrote: “How could such a tragedy have occurred in a democratic society that prides itself on individual rights and freedoms?”

For these reasons, racial profiling is not an appropriate response to the recent tragedy. And it is certainly not a reason to abandon the long-standing goal of eradicating racial profiling in routine law enforcement activities, activities that have nothing to do with terrorism.