Civil Rights Rollback

The spread of racial profiling since 9-11

Private hate, public problem

For 9-11–related-profiling victims, the element of "foreignness" gives discrimination a special twist, says Volpp. "People who look a certain way are assumed not to be citizens to begin with," but rather un-welcome outsiders, she says. That perception makes them especially vulnerable, not just to government intrusions but to private acts of violence.

Attorney LaShawn Warren, a leader in the fight for a federal law banning racial profiling
photo: Rick Reinhard
Attorney LaShawn Warren, a leader in the fight for a federal law banning racial profiling

Over a thousand 9-11–related bias incidents, including harassment and physical attacks, have been recorded since 2001 by groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Sikh Coalition, and by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. They have included assaults, arson, and even killings. And those are just the incidents that have been reported by people confident or informed enough to seek out these resources.

Official profiling and private bias are connected, says Muneer Ahmad, an associate professor at American University Law School. Although no one can legislate away personal prejudices, he says, "The government sends signals and cues all the time as to what is permissible. The end of racially discriminatory laws against African Americans didn't translate instantly into substantive equality. But when the government said segregation was okay, it was communicating a lot about what was appropriate. It's one thing for racial prejudice to be a part of society, but you provide people license to engage in that kind of behavior if you don't have a policy that condemns it."

The federal government has vigorously prosecuted some hate crimes, for example one in which a Sikh postal carrier in California was shot in the neck with a pellet rifle. And President Bush has repeatedly admonished the nation not to engage in bias against Muslims and Arabs.

But Ahmad says those statements must be juxtaposed with the official profiling of people from certain backgrounds. "Condemning the private violence gives the administration political cover. If you morally condemn something, you elevate yourself."

Racial profiling can only be eradicated by a renewed social movement that exposes and opposes it. Politicians can't be trusted to buck 9-11 politics and challenge the practice on their own, without strong popular support, since they fear being labeled soft on terror. And profiling victims have almost never found justice in the courts, since judges are notoriously reluctant to apply the Constitution's equal treatment mandate in a way that might interfere with police discretion.

Indeed, President Bush was oddly prescient when he said in 2000, "Racial profiling isn't just an issue with local police forces. It's an issue throughout our society. And as we become a diverse society, we're going to have to deal with it more and more."

He couldn't have known how much more urgent that message would become after four years of his leadership. But at this moment when reasonable fears of terrorism too often find expression in unreasonable fears of certain people, and the government flatly denies that it is part of the prejudice problem, only a broad social movement can achieve the civil rights victory that seemed so possible four years ago. The effort to end racial profiling is part of the ongoing struggle to make the American dream of equality and dignity come true for everyone.

Research assistance: Kris Wilton and Ben Shestakofsky

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