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Is U.S. racial and religious profiling about to end?

Summary: As the American public reads of yet another report released on government surveillance of Muslim Americans.

As the American public reads of yet another report released on government surveillance of Muslim Americans, it is refreshing to know that for the first time since 9/11, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, along with various state legislatures and federal agencies, are 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 particularly sensitive for Muslim Americans in the past decade, although it affects multiple racial, ethnic and religious minority groups. In the United States, some assume all individuals of South Asian or Arab descent are Muslim, and that being Muslim is dangerous. Such practices violate the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law; moreover, racial and religious profiling is ineffective, being based on unreliable assumptions about minority groups.

ERPA would also provide additional training to help law enforcement, government officials and neighborhood watch groups avoid using such tactics.

The ERPA hearing comes at a time when racial and religious profiling is being 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, after it was reported that the NYPD systematically surveilled Muslim Americans and certain ethnic minorities 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 harassed by law enforcement. The Sikh Coalition, for example, recently launched a mobile application that allows travelers 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 organizations and legislators with better assessments of the extent and overall ineffectiveness of racial and religious profiling.

Some federal agencies, after public pressure, are taking measures to prevent organizational 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 ordered a review of the military's training material in its entirety to ensure it did 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 that civil-rights are protected, we are not compromising our security. Instead, we are enhancing our safety and building stronger working relationships between law enforcement and community members.

Nadia S. Mohammad is an associate editor of THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (

Copyright 2012, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:May 22, 2012
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