The election of Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president, just four years ago, signaled a turning point in the nation's struggle for racial equality.
Many of us who have spent years fighting for racial equality will never forget how overjoyed we were on Election Day when we realized our dreams had become reality. Finally, after centuries of struggle, it seemed that a candidate's race would no longer bar them from the highest political office in the United States.
But some have mistaken the age of Obama for some post-racial utopia where race no longer matters.
Well two stories last week serve to remind all of us that we are, indeed, a long ways off from a post-racial America.
Last Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its findings that the Alamance County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing targeting Latinos. According to Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, the racial discrimination by law enforcement officers in this North Carolina County is crystal clear. "The Alamance County Sheriff's Office's egregious pattern of racial profiling violates the Constitution and federal laws, creates distrust between the police and the community and inhibits the reporting of crime and cooperation in criminal investigations," Perez said.
A study of traffic stops showed that, deputies were between four and ten times as likely to stop Latino drivers as non-Latino drivers on three major roadways in the county.
And that was far from all. Deputies discriminated through: routinely placing checkpoints outside Latino neighborhoods forcing residents to undergo police checks when entering or leaving their communities; arresting Latinos for minor traffic offenses while only issuing citations or warnings to non-Latinos for the same violations; perpetuating a culture of bias by using racial epithets to describe Latinos while avoiding implementation of reporting and monitoring practices that would prevent discriminatory conduct.
The DOJ is seeking a federally enforced consent decree that would require systemic changes including new policies, procedures, training and systems of accountability.
Also, last Tuesday, another troubling story concerning race came to the nation's attention. A district court judge in Arizona lifted the injunction that kept section 2(B) of Arizona's racial profiling law from taking effect. Section 2(B) requires Arizona law enforcement officers to demand papers and investigate the immigration status of anyone they stop and have "reasonable suspicion" is undocumented.
There are no objective factors that would give police officers an indication of who is undocumented and who isn't, so officers will rely on their own notions of what an undocumented person looks like or sounds like in deciding whom to subject to an investigation. And the criteria for a residency status investigation in this far from race-neutral nation will be skin color, language and accent.
Now, people of color in Arizona and other states where similar laws were passed will have to carry papers around to prove their residency status. The law will not only spur racial division and foster inequality but it will impede strong police-community relations and cause alienation. Immigrants will avoid cooperating with police and tipping them off to crimes out of fear that the encounter could lead to arrest and deportation.
These stories in Arizona and North Carolina are two of the most recent examples of why race still matters.
And just a year ago the Associated Press broke a story showing that the New York Police Department targeted Muslim communities for surveillance by spying on people in mosques, restaurants, bookstores in New York and New Jersey and Muslim Student Associations throughout the northeast.
Also, in 2011, the NYPD conducted a record number of racially biased stops through its stop-and-frisk policy. Some 685,724 people were stopped and frisked, 87 percent of whom were Black and Latino residents. But Blacks and Latinos comprise 52 percent of New York City's total population.
As activism around this issue grew in 2012, more stories of the affects of this discriminatory police abuse emerged in New York City. Many young New Yorkers of color have told their stories of how they avoid going outside. Others have talked about being humiliated and abused in public.
Racial profiling is an entry point for many people into the criminal justice system where continued differential treatment and sentencing disparities have contributed to the mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos.
These issues remind us of the unfinished business of the civil rights struggle and give us enough reason to redouble our efforts to fight discrimination. On Nov. 12-13, Rights Working Group, OneAmerica and many other groups engaged in the fight for racial justice and human rights will be doing just that. We will discuss linkages of border justice, surveillance, immigration enforcement, national security, racial profiling and criminal justice and strategize to take on racial profiling in 2013. Please consider registering and joining us in Seattle.
Now, next month, many of us may have cause to celebrate a major milestone again if America's first African-American president prevails and is the first president of color to be re-elected. Yet we must not forget the unfinished business of racial justice in America or think that progress in electoral politics goes hand in hand with progress in so many other areas where forward movement has been minimal or nonexistent.