|Spies, terrorists, and Hollywood bad guys
In the last few years, a series of disastrous instances of racial profiling have brought widespread attention to the practice. In New Jersey, two troopers shot three unarmed minority men after pulling their car over; the victims charged that they were stopped solely because of their race, and the resulting media circus helped encourage many other minority motorists to file lawsuits. The next year, four plainclothes New York City police officers from the department's elite Street Crime Unit fatally shot an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 19 times. That tragic killing also prompted accusations of racial profiling, and a federal probe found in October of last year that the Street Crime Unit disproportionately singled out African Americans and Hispanics in their searches.
As media attention came to bear on these incidents, racial profiling suddenly became a household term. At that point, people began to apply it to a wide variety of cases. "As this whole traffic stop issue rose, people borrowed the phrase, and it fits," says Samuel Walker, a professor in the criminal justice department of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who has researched civil complaints against police.
Arab Americans, for instance, have criticized the discriminatory treatment they receive every time there is a terrorist attack or hijacking as racial profiling. Law enforcement officials and the media often assume that the perpetrators must be Arabs--as they did in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when early news reports referred to Arab terrorists as likely suspects. Like African Americans, people of Arab descent also find themselves detained at airport customs for no reason, and they are disproportionately the targets of secret evidence--courtroom information or testimony kept from the accused--a controversial tactic that Immigration and Naturalization Service officials sometimes use against non-citizens in deportation proceedings.
Wen Ho Lee wasn't driving a car in the wrong neighborhood. But the Asian American scientist was branded a criminal, and his Chinese ethnicity was arguably a factor in the government's decision to prosecute him. For months prosecutors called Lee a threat to national security. Reports circulated that government officials considered him a spy for China. But they lacked the evidence to charge him with espionage, and in the end, he pleaded guilty to one felony count of downloading the design information for nuclear weapons to a non-secure computer. He was released after nine months in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. In return for the plea, 58 other counts of mishandling classified information were dropped. U.S. District Judge James Parker, who presided over the case, apologized to the former scientist in court and said the government "embarrassed our entire nation."
Lee was a highly educated man with a family, a comfortable living, and no previous criminal background. His case had nothing to do with drug interdiction. But his defense team was soon using "racial profiling" to denounce the accusations leveled against him. In racial profiling, "there's a presumption of guilt based on race. By that same principle, in the case of Wen Ho Lee, because he's Chinese he must be a spy for China even though there's no proof," says Ling-chi Wang, chairman of the ethnic studies department at the University of California at Berkeley, who has been a vocal critic of Lee's prosecution and organized a campaign urging Asian American graduates to boycott jobs at Department of Energy labs.
Soon after the Lee case was publicized, allegations of racial profiling at the workplace were popping up across the country. "A lot of Chinese Americans working in science and technology in the labs and universities were seriously affected," Wang says. "There were reports all over the country from people who said as soon as the Wen Ho Lee case burst onto the media, their colleagues looked at them differently. They could see in their [colleagues'] eyes that they wondering if they were spies."
As the case of Lee showed, racial profiling was not just any form of discrimination. It was a more pointed and systemic brand of it, in which a government or another powerful authority singled out someone for punishment based on his or her race. It was racism, but an institutional kind of racism--one that found justification within the workings of a system.
In this sense, there are clear similarities between the racial profiling that happens on the highways and in federal laboratories, or between the racial profiling among actors on stage or travelers at an airport. "To some extent there isn't a difference," Walker says.
At a time when laws to ban discrimination in employment, housing, and lending are already on the books, perhaps it's no surprise that the latest crusade in civil rights involves a much more pernicious form of prejudice--one deeply entrenched within institutions that not only tolerate it, but have convinced themselves of its merits. Racial profiling has become evident in many parts of American life, and now civil rights groups like the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union are mobilized to fight it.
Overzealous prosecutors and police officers and customs officials have New Jersey's highway patrol to thank for that. After all, the controversy over traffic stops made racial profiling a star. No longer was it just a problem that gang bangers endured. No longer was it solely the concern of poor and drug-ridden minority neighborhoods. Now, you could be a law-abiding citizen living in the suburbs, and still you were stopped just because of your race.
"That kind of put a human face on it," Walker says. "And I think it's something ordinary Americans, regardless of race, can relate to."
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Spies, terrorists, and Hollywood bad guys