“If acknowledging that racial misgivings and misunderstandings are still a part of politics and life in America, I plead guilty.”
– Ron Fournier
One February evening last year in the town of Sanford, Florida, a seventeen-year-old American high school student by the name of Trayvon Martin was fatally shot dead by a local neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s legal team held before a court that he acted in self-defence, on the grounds that Martin had attacked Zimmerman and attempted to shoot him with arms that Zimmerman himself was legally carrying. Martin’s behaviour as he walked down the streets of the Florida town aroused Zimmerman’s suspicions; however, the police report showed that there was no evidence proving that Martin was involved in criminal activity at the time of the encounter.
Over a year of complex and controversial legal proceedings later, the events surrounding Martin’s death are still unclear, as is the basis for the defendant’s claim that he acted in self-defence. However, on the 13th of July this year, Zimmerman was formally acquitted of murder. “You have no further business with the court,” Judge Deborah Nelson told the defendant.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, as well as the legal proceedings involved, the case of Trayvon Martin has been watched with such interest as it has exposed and raised further questions over the controversial practice of racial profiling in the United States. Racial profiling is the use of an individual’s race or ethnicity by forces of the law as a key factor in deciding whether to engage in enforcement, such as arrest. It would seem that this practice should have been outlawed and wiped out years ago, given the constitutional and legal protection afforded to racial minorities in the US, and yet it has been part of the U.S. criminal justice system for as long as there has been a U.S. criminal justice system. So how has this practice evolved over recent American history?
A key landmark decision was made regarding the constitutional viability of racial profiling in 1944, in the case of Korematsu v. United States, where the Supreme Court held that racial profiling was not unconstitutional and could be carried out in times of national emergency, such as war. This was a relief for the administration of the day, which had been involved in the involuntary internment of an estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War Two.
The “War on Terror” was also a significant step in the wrong direction regarding the ending of racial profiling. Following on from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration rounded up an unknown number of Middle Eastern women and men on suspicion of being associated with terrorist groups. Some were deported; some are released; hundreds captured overseas remain imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, where they remain imprisoned without trial to this day.
Considering that numerous constitutional amendments and acts have been passed successfully in order to ensure equality before the law between races, such as the 14th and 15th amendments and the Civil Rights Act, it is surprising that the practice continues, especially in the courts, which are widely seen as the safeguards of civil liberties. However, to date there have been no known cases in which any U.S. court dismissed a criminal prosecution because the defendant was targeted based on race. Furthermore, its efficacy and benefit to law enforcement can be brought into question. Empirical evidence suggests that the likelihood of a successful criminal search is fairly equal across different racial and ethnic groups; this means it is unlikely that a police officer will find an African American engaging in criminal activity any more than a White American.
From a civil liberties perspective, it is concerning that more action has not been taken to outlaw the practice. Whilst law enforcement officials do not admit to the practice being sanctioned, patterns in police records show it taking place. The last significant measure taken against racial profiling occurred in 2003, when President George W. Bush signed an executive order banning the use of race, colour, and ethnicity to profile suspects in 70 different federal agencies. However, this measure has been dubbed “toothless”- a criticism supported by the Trayvon Martin case. But racial profiling, an inherently discriminatory practice, will only come to an end once several things have happened.
Firstly, criminalisation of the practice must be enshrined in legislation. An Act of Congress with decent and effective enforcement must be passed on a federal level to ensure that minority protection is nation-wide. Secondly, this move must be supported by the Supreme Court. Most major cases concerning racial profiling to date have, in fact, supported rather than weakened the practice. Lastly- the most difficult but crucial step of all- attitudes within law enforcement agencies such as the police must change. After having been entrenched in the legal system for so long, it will take a while before it is no longer the instinctive reaction of authorities to suspect racial minorities without legal basis. This is where both understanding and effective enforcement are vital.
Before we can say that the racial equality battle in the US has been won, all discriminatory practices must be stamped out. In order to be respected by their country, individuals must be respected by the laws of the land. Racial profiling sanctions neither of these.