|Our very own Zachariah Mampilly, Inthefray Commentary Editor, spends a pleasant afternoon with a group of Washington's finest. Some of the city's minority residents have complained about racial profiling and police brutality.|
ISSUE INFOCUS > RACIAL PROFILINGA higher profile
On the top of today's civil rights agenda,
racial profiling takes "driving while black" to another level
In the last two years, a new term has come to dominate the American civil rights scene: racial profiling.
First, it was a matter of traffic stops. Black and Latino motorists alleged that highway patrol officers were pulling them over and searching their cars solely because of their race. Investigations by various news organizations found that not only were many of the complaints true, but law enforcement agencies across the country were engaging in the practice, in the belief that certain racial or ethnic groups were more likely to commit crimes than other groups.
Soon the term encompassed much more than the racially geared tactics of state troopers. Advocates, journalists, and government officials were applying it to all sorts of discriminatory practices in law enforcement. The street searches that police officers conducted in poor, minority neighborhoods--that was racial profiling. The criminal manhunts in which people of one race or ethnicity all looked like the suspect--that was racial profiling, too. Detaining people at the airport could also be racial profiling, when it involved Arab Americans presumed to be terrorists, or African Americans suspected of running drugs.
Even Asian Americans--so-called "model minorities" with lower arrest and incarceration rates than other racial or ethnic groups--were apparently experiencing their own form of racial profiling. Wen Ho lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist, was fired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and later accused of downloading nuclear secrets. Under the backdrop of strained U.S.-China relations and allegations of massive espionage conducted by Chinese visitors to the United States, supporters of Lee maintained that he was the victim of a distinct kind of racial profiling, one that was geared to a criminal class of a decidedly white-collar bent: Asian Americans in sensitive government positions.
A quick look through the Nexis database of news articles indicates how popular the term "racial profiling" has become. In a search of Associated Press (AP) stories between 1985 and 1998, "racial profiling" was mentioned in five articles--a 1995 story about a lawsuit against a Maryland state trooper who allegedly stopped and searched a black family's car without cause, and then four articles about Clinton's Initiative on Race, which examined the practice. In 1999, however, there was suddenly a spike in interest: 108 AP stories were published with the words "racial profiling"; the following year, there were 266 AP articles. They ranged from accounts of unwarranted traffic stops, to tales of harassing customs searches, to the case of a clothing store chain in Massachusetts whose employees shadowed black customers--especially those wearing "baggy pants and baggy clothes."
Today, racial profiling is on the policy platforms of civil rights organizations across the country. In the recent presidential election, both major party candidates came out against it. Words that were hardly spoken two years ago have now become part of the nation's lexicon, used as a catchall phrase to describe many different forms of racism that have been practiced throughout history. And yet the growing popularity of the term begs some questions: how is racial profiling different from any other form of racism? Is it just discrimination under a sexier name? And how did it become such a fashionable phrase for expressing the frustrations of a number of very distinct communities of color?
A higher profile