I grew up in Baltimore and attended Baltimore City public schools. When I was in elementary school, students were denied their full rights because the public schools in Baltimore were segregated by race. I remember with great sadness how discrimination was not only condoned but, more often than not, actually encouraged against blacks, Jews, Catholics and other minorities in the community. There were neighborhoods that my parents warned me to avoid for fear of my safety because I was Jewish.
Racial profiling — the targeting of individuals because of their religion, race, ethnic identity or national origin — was wrong back when I was a kid in America just as it was wrong in Europe when Jews and other minorities were persecuted solely because they were Jewish or a minority. This kind of discrimination has marred the history books far too many times and must come to an end.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states that “no State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In spite of that constitutional guarantee, however, too many Americans have been treated like criminals simply because of their race, ethnicity, or religion. Racial profiling defies America’s most fundamental promises, yet it occurs in communities all across the country. Momentum is building for passage of legislation I have introduced that would put an end to this harmful practice and ensure that all Americans enjoy “equal protection under the law.”
My bill, the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), would prohibit the use of racial profiling by federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies. ERPA clearly defines racial profiling to include race, ethnicity, national origin and religion as protected classes. ERPA also requires training of law enforcement officers, and creates procedures for receiving, investigating, and resolving racial profiling complaints.
The bill would prohibit broad assumptions and stereotyping. It would only allow the use of information related to race, ethnicity or national origin when there is trustworthy information on a specific suspect description, relevant to the locality and time frame that may be linked to an incident or scheme. I am pleased that ERPA has the support of 137 organizations including the NAACP, ACLU, the Rights Working Group, the Union for Reform Judaism, Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, National Alliance of Faith and Justice, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin demonizes whole communities and is dangerous for all Americans. No community is immune. The vast majority of our law enforcement officials handle their jobs with professionalism, diligence, and fidelity to the rule of law. In fact, most law enforcement officers themselves will tell you that they are more effective when they focus on behavior instead of ethnicity. When police officers are distracted by factors like ethnicity or assumed religion, they’re missing potential criminal activity. Moreover, many in the law enforcement community have acknowledged that singling out people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin has eroded the trust in law enforcement necessary to appropriately serve and protect our communities.
Profiling is not an effective policy and often saps scarce law enforcement resources — time and people hours — that could be utilized more effectively. Minority communities — including Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and others — know all too well the anger and frustration of being singled out because of their race, religion or ethnic origin. Profiling is unquestionably bad policy. It has no place in our communities and Congress must take steps to root out its use by any law enforcement official. Diversity should be one of the strengths of our communities and not a cause for division or fear.
Ben Cardin is a Democratic U.S. senator representing Maryland.