|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 Nazombe, an African American and executive for racial justice of
the United Methodist Women’s Division, defines racial profiling with
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
"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
"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."
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.
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
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.
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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erin Hawkins: "...that is kind of the church’s way of racial profiling..."
United Methodists confront profiling issue
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Hispanic caucus urges immigration reform
Denominational Statement: Racial Profiling in the U.S.A.
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