The End of Racial and Religious Profiling in America?
by Nadia S. Mohammad, guest conributor
As the American public reads of yet another report released on governmental surveillance of Muslim American communities, it is refreshing to know that for the first time since the 9/11 attacks, the US Senate Judiciary Committee, along with various state legislatures and federal agencies, are directly addressing long-held public concerns about racial and religious profiling — a practice within law enforcement that relies solely on race, religion or ethnicity to determine possible criminal activity. With these recent developments, could we finally be seeing the beginning of the end of racial and religious profiling in America?
The Senate hearing on racial profiling, initiated by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, took place in conjunction with Durbin’s co-sponsored bill, the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2011” (ERPA), on April 17. Racial and religious profiling has become a particularly sensitive issue for Muslim Americans in the past decade, although it affects multiple racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups in the United States. In the United States, some assume that all individuals of South Asian or Arab descent are Muslim, and that being Muslim is somehow dangerous — which has led to members of these ethnic groups being profiled. Such practices violate the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law; moreover, racial and religious profiling is ineffective as it is based on unreliable assumptions about minority groups, rather than criminal behaviour profiles.
ERPA would also provide for additional training to help law enforcement, government officials, and neighborhood watch groups avoid using such tactics.
The political debate on the effectiveness of racial and religious profiling by law enforcement goes back several decades. Interestingly enough, when it last garnered high-profile political attention, it was former President George W. Bush who proclaimed, in a February 2001 address, that racial profiling is “wrong and we will end it in America.” He went even further to say that ending racial profiling practices would not compromise security.
Then came the attacks of 9/11 and what Bush once dubbed as “wrong” became an excusable right, in the name of national security. “In the national trauma that followed 9/11, civil liberties came face to face with national security”, said Senator Durbin, and all too often the promise of national security won, at the expense of Muslim Americans and other Americans who appeared to be Muslim.
The ERPA hearing comes at a time when racial and religious profiling is being actively challenged across the nation. Numerous civil-rights advocates and legislative officials have called for an investigation and independent nonpartisan oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD), after it was reported that the NYPD systematically surveilled Muslim Americans and certain ethnic minorities in the area without probable cause.
After several police officers were arrested for illegally targeting and harassing Hispanic Americans in Connecticut, state legislators passed a definitive bill prohibiting “the stopping, detention, or search of any person” due solely to “race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation.”
The decades of grassroots organizing have also allowed civil-rights groups to provide the public with better tools and technology to empower themselves when faced with harassment by law enforcement. The Sikh Coalition, for example, recently launched a mobile application that allows travellers to file direct complaints with the government if they feel they have been unfairly profiled. In turn, these groups have been able to provide advocacy organisations and legislators with better assessments of the extent and the overall ineffectiveness of racial and religious profiling.
Some federal agencies, after public pressure, are taking measures to prevent organisational discriminatory practices. Both the military and FBI have initiated steps to review their training materials, due to recent reports of their use of severely Islamophobic materials. Last month the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US armed forces ordered a review of the military’s training material in its entirety to ensure it does not contain Islamophobic content. This month, the FBI is holding workshops titled “Combating Islamophobia: Truths and Myths about Islam.”
While it is difficult to tell, at this point, what the standards of either the military or the FBI are in determining what constitutes Islamophobic material, the attempt to instill better standards is a small step forward.
The passing of ERPA would be a significant achievement at the federal level, but undoing the damage of decades of racial and religious profiling will be a lengthy process. This is only the beginning — in going forward, more legislators and law enforcement agencies will also need to critically examine their discriminatory practices and materials while allowing for greater transparency. Local and federal law enforcement officers will need training to better understand and spot possible criminal behavior using more effective practices than racial profiling.
In ending racial and religious profiling and ensuring our civil-rights are protected, it is important to remember that we are not compromising our security; instead, we are enhancing our safety and building stronger working relationships between law enforcement and community members.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on May 15, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
You know, at one time I worked for the World Council of Churches and we were based in London. I came from Africa. There was someone from Taiwan. There was someone from Malaysia, someone from the States, and then someone from Latin America, and he introduced me to Latin American liberation theology. And I came to visit for the first time in the United States and here encountered black theology. So all of that was a very significant part of what helped to open my eyes. Mercifully, there isn’t anything like the so-called self-made person.
I mean, they are people who helped to form me. And then discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite. I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation. I mean, the many parts of it that were so germane, so utterly to the point for us…
When you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.
Supreme Court Rules That Clergy Are Not Protected by Anti-Discrimination Laws
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Look no further than Nina Totenberg for an incisive report on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was handed down yesterday. With this unanimous decision, the Supreme Court says that religious groups and churches have “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws. In other words, ministers can be sacked (or hired) without being subject to civil rights laws.
But who is a minister then? What are the criteria that might shield churches or other religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws when it comes to clergy? These questions and many others remain unaddressed as Totenberg points out:
“Still to be determined is how all this plays out in practice. Will the ruling allow religious organizations to fire a “ministerial” employee for reporting sexual abuse to the police, or for reporting health and safety violations at a church or school to civil authorities? It would appear the answer to that question is “yes” — though Roberts pointed out that churches can still be held criminally liable. Unanswered, though, is whether a fired employee can sue for breach of contract or some other wrong.”
It is not an overnight cure. We can’t force the boys to change, but we want them to know what their choices are in life. Some effeminate boys end up as a transvestite or a homosexual, but we want to do our best to limit this.
—Razali Daud, education director of the Malaysian state of Terrengganu
Malaysian authorities, the Telegraph reports, has ordered 66 Muslim schoolboys to attend a reform camp where they will receive religious classes and “physical guidance.” At the four-day camp to promote Muslim morality, the boys, who were identified as their teachers as being effeminate, will receive counseling on masculine behavior to discourage them from being gay.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Next American Idol in Jerusalem
Like most 14 year olds, Rivka Bayene has big dreams.
“I’m going to America, I’m going to sing, I’m going to be on American Idol,” she told a roomful of guests at Kedma School, her home away from home in Jerusalem’s south central Katamon neighborhood.
Katamon looks similar to LA’s South Central neighborhood. Houses are neat but need a fresh coat of paint, grass pokes out from cracks in the sidewalks, and trash chokes weeds in large, empty lots. Katamon also is home to the city’s people of color, and Kedma School is a safe haven for black and brown Jews.
Rivka’s parents immigrated to Israel when she was a year old. Her father wanted her to have a better life than the one awaiting her in Addis Ababa. But when she started school, Rivka learned it was hard to be different in Israel. Between 90,000 and 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. In the 1980s, the Israeli government mounted “rescue” operations to bring home these “lost” and “forgotten” African Jews. But many Ethiopians say they have faced discrimination, if not outright racism, in their new country.
“People didn’t want to be close,” Rivka said, describing life at her old school.
Happily, things are different at Kedma where the faculty works to create a loving and supportive atmosphere. The only school of its kind in the city, it welcomes children who have had difficulty fitting into public schools. Rivka said she was relieved to find people at Kedma who looked like her, and teachers who wanted to hug her. But she says the journey is not over. She’s planning to be the next Rihanna and she expects she will need to move to the U.S. if she wants to succeed big-time.
“In America, they have many black people,” she told us, adding with a sly smile, “It’s going to be good.”
Diane Winston holds the the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics, and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She writes a smart blog called the SCOOP and tweets too.
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Immigration and the Indigenous Theology of Tupac Enrique Acosta
by Colin Bossen, guest contributor
Tupac Enrique Acosta speaks at march to the Arizona State Capitol Building on Cinco de Mayo 2010. (photo: ©Charles Dee Rice Photography/Flickr )
I did not go to jail expecting to meet a theologian. But jail was where I met Tupac Enrique Acosta. Tupac, like me, was arrested in front of one of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s offices for protesting against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB1070 on July 29, 2010. Unlike me, Tupac had an analysis of the bill’s place in history that put it firmly within the context of the ongoing repression of the indigenous peoples of North America.
Tupac, who would probably reject the label theologian, is the leading figure behind the Phoenix-based Nahuacalli, an organization that describes itself as “A Cultural Embassy of the Indigenous Peoples.” He is also closely linked with Puente, the grassroots organization behind many protests against SB1070 in Phoenix, and Puente’s leader Salvador Reza. Understanding his views on SB1070 illuminates that, for some, the struggle over immigration is about something larger.
In Tupac’s view the history of SB1070 does not begin in 2010. It begins in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas prompted European political and religious leaders to develop what indigenous activists refer to as the “Christian Doctrine of Discovery.” This is the belief that because the lands of the Western Hemisphere were without Christians prior to 1492 they were free for the taking upon “discovery.” For activists like Tupac, the issues as stake in SB1070 are not so much political as theological.
Tupac shared his analysis with me as we waited to be processed through the legal system in holding cells and, later, when we were bunkmates in the cell block. More than once our conversations were interrupted when we were moved, it appeared arbitrarily, between cells. They were also interrupted when the Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio came into our cell to “talk” with us. Sheriff Arpaio, who is currently under investigation by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, runs what he likes to call “America’s toughest jail.” He is known for his tactics of intimidating and dehumanizing prisoners, including trying to humiliate male prisoners by placing them in pink underwear and pink handcuffs.
Rather than intimidate us, Arpaio served as an unwitting example for our impromptu seminar on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. Tupac suggested to me that the logical outcome of a legal system grounded in such a doctrine is laws like SB1070 and men like Sheriff Arpaio. SB1070 would not exist without the doctrine. Arpaio exists to enforce it.
As we sat together in jail, Tupac traced the history of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery from its origin to its often unacknowledged presence in contemporary debates about immigration. He suggested that the doctrine was first articulated in Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera and the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal. Together these documents created a theological and legal framework that justified the expropriation and division of indigenous lands by Spain and Portugal.
In the view of Tupac and many indigenous legal scholars the framework created to facilitate the seizure of indigenous lands continues to form the core of much of federal property law today. This is particularly true as it relates to indigenous property claims. The indigenous legal scholar Steven Newcomb, for example, has found traces of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery within U.S. Supreme Court cases as recently as 2001.
Tupac believes that the principles of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery are operative in SB1070 as well. As he told me, “the purpose of SB1070 was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” In his view, SB1070 is just another attempt to assert non-indigenous dominance over the continent. After all, SB1070 is designed to enforce a border that divides not only the United States and Mexico but the indigenous peoples who belong to the Uto-Aztecan language group. They have been moving back and forth between what is now the U.S. and Mexico long before either country existed. SB1070 criminalizes their traditional freedom of movement.
As Tupac understands it, the struggle against SB1070 is the continuing indigenous struggle against colonialism. As he said in a talk, “When we did that marching… we didn’t come to legalize ourselves before the state of Arizona. We came to legalize Arizona… Now, let’s get this clear, colonization is illegal… If we’re going to legalize Arizona we have to decolonize Arizona.” Elsewhere he has written that “SB1070 is not a law.” He makes this claim because he believes that the entire framework of laws governing immigration rest upon the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. For him, the Mexican and Central American migrants are indigenous and those who would keep them from coming to the United States are the descendants of colonizers.
Tupac and I were briefly reunited when I traveled back to Arizona to stand trial. After a day-long trial, which touched on none of these issues, the judge ruled us not guilty. Then Tupac set to work again to educate people about the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and passed around a flyer titled “SB1070 is Not a Law.”
Colin Bossen is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. You can read more of his thoughts on his blog, The Latest Form of Infidelity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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Backing the Springboks
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
This week, ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series continued with “The 16th Man.” This doc chronicles the role of rugby in helping unify blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s centered around Nelson Mandela’s risky “magnanimous gesture” to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and back the majority white South African Springboks, culminating with their improbable victory and its unifying symbolism for a nation starting a healing process.
It features interviews with players, including Afrikaner captain François Pienaar, alongside an interview with political activist Justice Bekebeke, who doubted Mandela’s actions, and a few brief comments from Desmond Tutu that echo his belief in a “God of surprises.”
The film’s director quotes Mandela’s post-victory words: “Sport has the ability to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has … It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” Often sports documentaries seem to exaggerate this sentiment; in this case, the documenting feels very authentic, even without knowing how long the impact lasted for the people of South Africa.