9/11 Anniversary a Chance to Transcend Racial Profiling

As we commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11, our nation must remove the vestiges of this tragedy and put an end to racial profiling.

One of the most pernicious legacies of 9/11 has been the resurgence of racial profiling in law enforcement. Leading up to that day, a national consensus was forming to abolish racial profiling as a law enforcement tool. Legislation to end the practice had been introduced in Congress with the endorsement of the Bush Administration and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who asserted that "[u]sing race . . . as a proxy for potential criminal behavior is unconstitutional, and it undermines law enforcement by undermining the confidence that people can have in law enforcement."

But on 9/11 that consensus evaporated, leading to a pervasive surveillance state that disproportionally targets communities of color. Study after study that has analyzed law enforcement behavior confirms that African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans are all disproportionately targeted for law enforcement surveillance.

Just this month, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that the New York City Police Department has reportedly been driving around local mosques in unmarked vehicles, equipped with license plate readers, to record each worshiper. After two years of the NYPD stating that these programs make New York safer, there has never been any meaningful evidence that supports this claim. In fact, the NYPD's demographic unit stated last year that the program had not led to one meaningful counterterrorism lead.

The profiling debate strikes at the very foundation of our democracy precisely because we cannot divorce who is being watched from why. The Trayvon Martin tragedy is a grave reminder of how the perception of criminality based on race can have tragic consequences.

The End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), the legislation endorsed by President Bush, has been re-introduced in every Congress since 9/11, yet has still not had a vote. This legislation would make it illegal to prejudicially stop, investigate, arrest, or detain individuals based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. It would establish an enforceable prohibition on racial profiling. The legislation would also mandate training for federal law enforcement officials on racial profiling issues and as a condition of receiving federal funding - state, local, and Indian tribal law enforcement agencies would be required to collect data on both routine and spontaneous investigatory activities.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, President Obama made the case for racial profiling legislation as "one area where ... there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive."

In a nation as diverse as ours, we cannot afford to let the terror of our past continue to define our future. After 12 years, it's time for our nation to finally rid itself of the burden of racial profiling and pass ERPA.

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