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Racial profiling in society broadens

A UMNS graphic by Hugo Martinez

Second of a three-part series

A UMNS Report
By Kelly C. Martini*

March 17, 2009

Elmira Mazombe

Elmira Nazombe, an African American and executive for racial justice of the United Methodist Women’s Division, defines racial profiling with life experiences.

When driving around the Morningside Park area of New York City, police stopped her and her son several times to question their intentions. On another occasion, police pulled over and searched her teenage son and friend. Each time, they were simply looking for a parking space in their own neighborhood.

Being pulled over for being a person of color is a fact of life that Nazombe and a South Asian neighbor in their new community, Highland Park, N.J., have discussed often. Both have sons now in their 20s. "The police regularly stop young men of color at 10 or 11 o’clock at night," she said, and what you do is "worry and pray."

"I always prayed that he won’t get angry because that would escalate things," she said. "I pray that his response is as non-combative as possible to the police, even though what they’re doing is wrong."

Racial profiling occurs in society when people in power create myths about another race or culture, then use their power to act on them. For many people of color, the anxiety of not knowing when this will occur creates daily fear.

Such profiling is based on false assumptions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Government studies show that when using and selling drugs, for instance, racial groups perform the illegal activity in proportion to their percentage within the population. If 70 percent of the population is white, that same percent of the drug users and sellers are white. If 15 percent of the population is African American, 15 percent of drug users and sellers are black. 

Racial profiling, though, targets African Americans as the main drug users.

The ACLU reports that traffic stops based on racial, ethnic or religious characteristics are less likely to produce illegal drugs or weapons, than if whites are pulled over. However, the data shows that police are more likely to stop African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians than whites.

Long history

Speaking with members of United Methodist Women from around the United States, Nazombe hears similar stories. The locale of racial profiling doesn't seem to matter. It can happen in small towns or large cities.

In a neighboring New Jersey town, police target Latinos who are carpooling children to school. They claim the Hispanic drivers are operating illegal taxis, but to Nazombe, it’s a traffic stop or violation based on skin color. If it were white mothers driving a group of children to class, police would view it as "normal."

Nazombe says stereotypes and crime statistics used by police are based on a "long history" of media reporting, television shows and perceptions. "The only people of color you see are people in a situation of disadvantage," she explains. "When society segregates people based on stereotypes, people will not have any other view. That’s the only reality they know."

If the news shows mostly African-American-committed crimes, people begin to think that this racial group commits most crimes, even if that is inaccurate. People in power respond the same way, resulting in racial profiling. 

Still, Nazombe is hopeful. She sees women responding in their communities to fight profiling, particularly given the increase in such incidents in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the recent debates about immigration in the United States.

"Challenging elected officials at the local level is the most important thing," Nazombe said. "Urge them to put systems in place for accountability of police and people who offer services, so that there is no bias in which public services are offered. Monitor within your own communities."

Raising the issue

Bill Mefford, executive for human and civil rights with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, draws on his experience as campus minister in South Plains Junior College in Texas. From there, many students applied to police training school.

Bill Mefford

"One of my students came and told me he was in a class where the professor said when they’re pulling over drivers, if you have a single white woman with kids in the back seat, approach the car differently than if you have a single black male driving," Mefford recalled. "I remember being so outraged, I wrote him a letter; he didn’t respond. I wrote to the president of the college. No response. I called the local news media. No response."

Looking back, Mefford wishes he had done more. The student feared raising the issue with the professor because he thought it could hinder his grade. Yet Mefford believes the key to stopping racial profiling is in searching out venues and incidents to make statements and advocate against profiling.

"The act of raising the issue is important," he said. The Board of Church and Society urges passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, which, it says, "would prohibit the use of racial profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and agents."

The proposed federal legislation has been on the table since 2004. If it passes, it will provide law enforcement training and funding, accountability standards for people in power who use profiling, and tools to combat racial profiling in communities. The legislation is consistent with the stance of The United Methodist Church, which states that "racial profiling not only subordinates the civil rights of entire communities to the goals of criminal justice, but it is an ineffective crime prevention tool that ultimately victimizes the very people that it is supposed to protect—the noncriminal public."

Personal experiences

Marva Usher-Kerr recalls her own experience of returning from a Volunteer in Mission trip to Chile. The team, comprising United Methodists from across the United States, was all white except Usher Kerr, an African American.

Marva Usher-Kerr

As they returned to Miami for debriefing, the rest of her group proceeded through immigration. She was stopped.

"I was threatened with a full search and repeatedly asked, 'Why did you go through here to get to Chile? Was it to pick up drugs?'" 

Usher-Kerr said authorities circled her "like sharks on a feeding frenzy" until declaring they could detain her for two weeks without release. She stayed calm, and said she would contact the chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, who was also her boss. Officers released her "almost immediately."

Having the name of a church leader and organization that would advocate on her behalf affected the outcome, she said.

Such controversy is not uncommon. After the London bombing in 2005, Paul Sperry of the Hoover Insitution at Stanford University wrote in The New York Times that profiling in New York subways was justified. "Young Muslim men bombed the London tube, and young Muslim men attacked the New York with planes in 2001," he wrote. "From everything we know about terrorists who may be taking aim at our public transportation systems, they are most likely to be Muslim men."

Sperry compares his analysis to how insurance companies consider risk. Others argue that this rationale is racist and infringes on freedoms.

According to an Amnesty International report, an estimated 32 million Americans have been subjected to profiling, and 87 million Americans—almost one of every three people—are at high risk. Amnesty’s 2004 report uses the British "shoe bomber" and Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing as examples of how valuable investigative time was lost when the perpetrators did not fit the investigator’s initial racial profile of an Arab Muslim. 

Beyond stereotypes

Racial profiling generally refers to a police act—targeting a person for investigation or arrest solely because of race or skin color. However, "within The United Methodist Church, there are also cases where our members can be targeted for discrimination solely because of stereotyped understandings of who that person is," said Erin Hawkins, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race in Washington.

Erin Hawkins

"When a person of color is introduced to a congregation and they are told before they even arrive 'that person speaks with an accent' or 'we won’t be able to understand them' or 'that person preaches differently and it doesn’t match our culture,' that’s the church’s version of racial profiling," she said.

Based on her own experience, Usher-Kerr has advice for those who travel and could be profiled.

"Stay calm. Be polite. Demand your rights. Try to remember all of your travel details. That helps when you are questioned repeatedly," she said. Know someone you could call for assistance if you had a problem, she said.

And she added: "Allow the Holy Spirit to hold you up."

*Martini is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.

News media contact: Amanda Bachus, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Erin Hawkins: "...that is kind of the church’s way of racial profiling..."

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United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race

United Methodist Board of Church and Society

End Racial Profiling Act

Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries

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