Court sidesteps racial profiling

Justices deal blow to efforts to stop controversial tactic

The Detroit News
2 October 2001

By Oralandar Brand-Williams,, Shawn D. Lewis, and Joel Kurth

DETROIT -- The effort to stop racial profiling of minorities by police was staggered Monday, said national and local civil rights leaders, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case on the matter. 

The court declined to hear an appeal by a group of young African Americans from upstate New York who say they were rounded up by police because of their race. The decision "is a major blow," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a New York-based civil rights activist who has led rallies against racial profiling in Metro Detroit. 

"It clearly sends a signal to states that there will not be a law against racial profiling, at least at this point. While the country is calling for unity, this sets in place procedures that dis-unify the country," Sharpton said. 

The decision comes as Arab Americans and others of Middle Eastern descent are undergoing extra scrutiny at airports and border crossings in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by hijackers from Arab nations. 

The profiling of Middle Easterners is strongly supported by the public, according to two recent polls. 

A survey conducted last month by The Detroit News found 59 percent of Metro Detroiters said they would support law enforcement officials taking "extra precaution in delaying people of Arab descent who are flying." A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll last week also found that a majority of Americans supported requiring people of Arab descent -- including U.S. citizens -- to "undergo special, more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes in the U.S." 

The court's ruling "sends a wrong message and makes racial profiling the most challenging task for civil rights leaders," said Imad Hamad, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's Midwest Region. "The pulse around is now very alarming. We're facing harder challenges now than ever. And the fight is only getting harder." 

The court decided not to hear the claims of blacks in Oneonta, N.Y.; that they were rounded up or questioned indiscriminately after a burglary and attack on an elderly woman in 1992. 

The men in this case, as well as opponents of racial profiling generally, contend police violate the Constitution's guarantee of universal, equal legal protection when they single out suspects based on skin color or other racial identifiers. 

In the New York case, police had requested and received a list of all black male students at a state college near the home where a 77-year-old woman said she was attacked. 

By the glimpse she got of her attacker's forearm, the victim identified the assailant as a black man, and said he may have been cut during the struggle. She said she concluded he was young by listening to the pace of his footsteps. 

Police questioned nearly 100 black male students, and examined their hands for cuts. They also stopped or examined about 200 black town residents who were not students. No one was ever arrested. 

A group of students, townspeople and others sued in federal court in 1993, claiming local police, state police, the city, state and college violated their constitutional rights. 
A federal judge dismissed the claim in 1995. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in part last year, ruling that the searches did not violate the Constitution's "equal protection" guarantee. 

'Major blow' 

The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case disturbed Metro Detroit African-American leaders who have tried to stop the practice of racial profiling by suburban police. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating charges that Eastpointe police have targeted and harassed black motorists. 

On Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, has introduced a bill to require police to keep detailed records on traffic stops. In Michigan, state Rep. Samuel "Buzz" Thomas of Detroit has introduced a bill requiring police and state troopers to put the race of motorists on traffic tickets. 

"(The court's decision) has broad impact. When African Americans are the victims of racism and racial profiling, it is treated far too often as business as usual," said Heaster Wheeler, the executive director of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP. 

Don Delano, a 55-year-old truck driver from Belleville, agreed. 

"I think it's a major blow for African Americans and others," Delano said. "It's tragic. 

"Nobody should be racially profiled but this was a national tragedy and unfortunately people are going to be racially profiled for a long time." 

Minorities angry 

The decision also was seen by Arab Americans as another setback to stop the profiling of Arabs as potential terrorists. 

"I am very angry about it," said Nasser M. Beydoun, director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn. "I feel like I'm watching my civil liberties being taken away from me. 

"We've come to the conclusion that this is to be expected and that the racial profiling will be happening. This is where the country is right now. We will have to see how we can overcome it." 

James Zogby, president of the Washington D.C.-based Arab American Institute, said profiling on airlines had been "virtually eliminated" before the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Arab-American lobbying caused the Federal Aviation Administration in the mid-1990s to replace a subjective system for searches with a computerized one that raised red flags if passengers bought one-way tickets with cash or failed to check in luggage, among other indicators. 

Since Sept. 11, however, civil rights leaders have catalogued numerous cases, including one in Metro Detroit, where Arab Americans were ordered off airplanes because other passengers got worried. 

"Particularly in airports, things are not looking good," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Just today, we received another report of a family kicked off a plane. Apparently, any time passengers complain, the benefit of doubt goes to them over (Arab-American) passengers." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Oralandar Brand-Williams at (313) 222-2690 or


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