Sept. 21, 2004 – In a report published last week, Amnesty International stated that the practice of profiling by race, nation of origin or religion not only violates human rights but is also counterproductive to the Bush administrationâ€™s war on terrorism. The result of a yearlong study by the Domestic Human Rights Program of Amnesty International, "Threat and Humiliation" says that racial profiling has been on the rise since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and legislation to protect against profiling has been insufficient.
The group is calling on Congress to sign a bill called the End Racial Profiling Act of 2004, which 140 senators and representatives have already endorsed.
"Under the United States Constitution, every individual has the fundamental right to equal protection under the law regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion," wrote Timothy K. Lewis, who chaired Amnesty Internationalâ€™s National Hearings on Racial Profiling. "Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement officials -- in the absence of a suspect specific description -- selectively consider these characteristics in deciding whom to investigate, arrest and prosecute.
Lewis insists that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 "neither justify nor excuse" racial profiling, which he called "a practice that strikes at the root of our national principles of fairness and violates the human dignity of those victimized."
In researching the prevalence and effects of racial profiling, Amnesty held a series of public hearings throughout the United States, in which victims of profiling, human rights advocates, experts and law enforcement officials testified.
Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International, stressed in a public statement that profiling is occurring in many different situations. "Today, â€˜driving while black or brownâ€™ -- that infamous law enforcement practice of targeting African American and Latino drivers -- has been joined by â€˜worshipping while Muslim,â€™ â€˜walking while South Asian,â€™ â€˜driving while Native American,â€™ and â€˜flying while Middle Eastern,â€™" Goering said.
The reportâ€™s authors also called racial profiling counterproductive, citing several examples, like the Oklahoma City bombing in which Timothy McVeigh was able to flee the scene while law enforcement operated with the suspicion that an "Arab terrorist" was responsible, and the so-called "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, who did not fit a profile used by airport screeners, who most often focus on South Asian, Muslim and Arab men. "From a domestic security perspective, the bottom line is that nobody knows what the next terrorist, serial killer, or smuggler will look like," they wrote.
Amnesty Internationalâ€™s study also described how racial profiling often diminishes trust people have in law enforcement. In Donato Garciaâ€™s story, told in the report, his children began to mistrust the police after witnessing officers harass their father. "Thatâ€™s not right, in part because my children who should know that they can go to the police," Garcia said, "do not feel that way nowâ€¦[T]his is something I still agonize over and â€¦ still feel today."
Being racially profiled leaves the victim "feeling humiliated, depressed, helpless, and angry," the authors write. They conclude that it not only engenders fear of law enforcement, but also furthers xenophobia of certain communities, visible in residential housing patterns. "In these times of domestic insecurity," the study reads, "our nation simply cannot afford to tolerate practices and policies that build walls between individuals or communities and those who are charged with the duty of protecting all of us."
Despite President Bushâ€™s acknowledgement in 2001 that "racial profiling is wrong," the report shows that, four years later, all federal legislation to curb it has failed. Of the 50 states, 27 have no laws against racial profiling and only four states ban religious profiling.
Sometimes racial profiling is altogether condoned by government policy. For example, in 2002 the Justice Department started collecting profiles of men from mostly Muslim countries. The National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) deemed over 83,000 men threats to national security because of their country of origin and required them to register with the Department of Homeland Security. Over 13,000 of the men who voluntarily registered were deported or face deportation, most because of expired visas. None was charged with crimes related to terrorism.
"[M]y dad was the breadwinner of our house. Not having him, itâ€™s a very, very difficult task," Navila Ali, 18, an American citizen whose foreign-born father was detained when he went to register at his local INS office, told Amnesty researches during a hearing in New York City. "We donâ€™t have any other family members here so itâ€™s very hard for me to cope with this. And [pause] I just want my dad back home."
Many cases of racial profiling, according to the study, are neither related to terrorism nor used to track people from Arab, Muslim or Middle-Eastern backgrounds. The authors cite a disproportionately large increase in incarceration rates of Latinos and African Americans relating to the "War on Drugs" and several studies in the 1990s determined that black and Latino drivers were pulled over by police much more often that whites. Latinos and other immigrant populations have also been targeted with zoning laws and police harassment of day laborers and street venders in many cities.
The reportâ€™s authors believe that about 32 million people have said they were victims of racial profiling. They came to this number based on extrapolations from national opinion polls and census data.
But some have questioned the numbers Amnesty International produced. "At face value, it seems like a poorly conducted study," Gary Levy, director of institutional analysis at the University of Utah, told the Associated Press. "The finding might be true, but it's not based on good methodology."
Amnesty International defended the data, but acknowledged it was based on estimates, not actual figures. Much of the study is anecdotal evidence, gathered from Amnesty Internationalâ€™s hearings in various states.
For example, Donald Boyd, regional vice president of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development shared his own experience being targeted as an African American, especially while walking around his neighborhood of Lawndale on Chicagoâ€™s South side. "Sadly," Boyd said, "for as long as I can remember, I have been a victim of racial profiling." Boyd was recently harassed by the Chicago Police Department. "During the last two years, I have been arrested multiple times on various trumped up charges," he said. "All of them have been dropped."
The study also references an eight year-old Muslim Boy Scout who was separated from his family at the airport while security guards took apart his soapbox derby car.
In another case, strangers at a mall told Kimberly "Asma" Al-Hamsi, a white Muslim who wears a hijab and walks with a cane because of her multiple sclerosis, that she did not belong in America. After plainclothes officers intervened, Al-Hamsi was detained and searched and told she was being charged with terrorism, disorderly conduct and hate crimes. Later she was let go without charges.
Based on numbers of people who belong to a frequently profiled group, Amnesty estimates that approximately 87 million people in the US are at risk of some form of racial profiling. These groups include African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Latinos, Arab Americans and Persian Americans, as well as immigrants and visitors from Africa, Asia, South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Amnesty is urging Congress to pass the "End Racial Profiling Act of 2004" (S.2132 and H.R.3847) which would protect against police profiling at federal, state and local levels, provide methods for submitting claims of racial profiling and monitor police tactics. Rep. John Conyers (Michigan) in the House of Representatives and Sen. Russ Feingold (Wisconsin) in the Senate are the main sponsors of the act.