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?
BC: Yes. We were close as a nation to enacting this standard before Sept. 11. I think Sept. 11 put on hold a lot of these bills because of concerns about national homeland security. Quite frankly, what 9/11 also taught us is that profiling is not what we need to do in America — this was an attack against America, not an attack by one religion [on] another. The momentum to end racial profiling was sort of derailed after the events of 9/11 because we were looking for easy answers to hard problems.
I think we're now back to a point where people recognize the danger. And although we'll wait to see what the final investigations show, I think the Trayvon Martin case has put a spotlight on how race can play out in American law enforcement today. It is a reminder that law-enforcement officers, including those that are on civilian patrol, need to be trained not to racially profile.
TR: You stated last month that Trayvon Martin may have been a victim of racial profiling. Can you elaborate and explain how the End Racial Profiling Act could have made a difference in that situation?
BC: We want to, of course, get all the information, but one has to wonder, if Trayvon Martin was white, whether Mr. Zimmerman would have responded to him the same way. The first question is whether the initial reaction by the agent of law enforcement, Mr. Zimmerman, was motivated by race. Then there's how it was handled by local law enforcement, and whether race had any effect on the manner in which they did their initial investigation.
My legislation prevents both of those issues. You can't use race as an identifier for doing a wide sweep, such as saying that because a black child's in a predominantly white neighborhood, we're going to stop him. You can't do that. Secondly, you can't investigate a crime differently because the alleged perpetrator is of one race or the other.
TR: What do you hope to come out of Tuesday's Senate Judiciary hearing?
BC: Sen. Durbin is very interested in trying to get the language right and seeing what we can do to pass legislation to end profiling in America. I'm going to be testifying on the first panel along with some members of the House of Representatives, and then there's a second panel of experts in this area.
We hope as a result of the hearing that we'll be able to get a record as to what are the most effective provisions that need to be included in such a law. We'll be using my legislation as a base, but people might have ways that we can improve my legislation. The hearing can fill in some of the blanks.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.