Senate Hearing to Probe Racial Profiling

Blogging the Beltway: A senator says that, post-Trayvon, his bill to end the practice may gain traction.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will chair a Senate hearing on the topic of racial profiling. By coincidence it comes at a time when, in the wake of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, racial profiling is also a topic of heated national discussion.

Called by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, the hearing will feature experts who claim that the practice harms law enforcement, as well as explore the different faces of racial profiling, from anti-terrorism efforts that target Muslims to the routine suspicion of African Americans. It is the first Senate hearing on the issue since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At the heart of the proceeding will be a bill that has stalled in Congress for more than a decade: the End Racial Profiling Act. First introduced in 2001 by former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the legislation has been repeatedly reintroduced since then, most recently in 2011 by co-sponsors Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev).

The bill establishes a national definition of racial profiling — identifying it, in part, as “the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to any degree, on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities” — and makes it illegal. Other provisions include mandatory training on racial profiling (including collecting data to submit to the Department of Justice) and the withholding of federal funding if state and local governments fail to adopt policies that prohibit racial profiling.

In advance of the Senate hearing, The Root chatted with Cardin on why he believes the End Racial Profiling Act is critical to protecting both civil rights and effective police work, the reasons that some of his colleagues oppose the measure and how the Trayvon Martin case has built on the momentum to actually get it passed.

The Root: Why has the End Racial Profiling Act stalled for so many years? What specific counterarguments do you hear from your colleagues?

Ben Cardin: I don’t know of any legitimate counterargument. The point that I’ve heard, that I think is used more as an excuse rather than a real justification to oppose the bill, is that this is not a federal issue — that this should be done at the state and local levels, not at the national level. But I think that there should be a national policy against racial profiling.

This is a civil rights issue, and [the practice] is counter to American values. It’s also wasteful of federal resources because state and local law-enforcement agencies use federal funds. It’s counterproductive and turns communities against helping law-enforcement agencies. For all these reasons, the federal government has a responsibility to establish a clear standard.

TR: On the other hand, have you seen growth in support for the bill over the years?