Posted by on December 11, 2014 in Blog

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a group of law makers and policy advocates to discuss the current state of civil and human rights in this country. Led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), the hearing focused on the need to reform several aspects of the United States’ criminal justice system and law enforcement agency practices that target and negatively impact minority populations.

The session opened with a panel of congressmen--Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) -- providing testimonials of their own experiences facing racial injustice. Rep. Gutierrez recounted an incident where he was stopped by Capitol Police upon entering his office building and told he couldn’t have been a congressman, as he said, because he didn’t, “look like a congressman.” Rep. Ellison, who is Muslim, spoke to the growing animosity towards Arabs and Muslims and the frequency of hate crimes as a result. “The societal discrimination is real,” he said, “the law enforcement community views Arabs and Muslims as a security threat and not as the contributing members of this country.” He recounted a recent hate crime just “Last week where a young Muslim boy was run over by a car with a bumper stick that said ‘Islam is worse than Ebola.’” Together, the three congressmen echoed Senator Durbin’s call for the committee, and Congress, to focus on, “legislation and not lamentation.”

The hearing comes on the heels of several events, both around the country, and in Washington that highlight the need to address several circumstances surrounding race relation across several minority communities.  Events in Ferguson, MO, New York, and Cleveland suggest potentially disparate treatment by law enforcement officials towards African Americans, and people of color. As Senator Booker pointed out, “the ironic reality is that there are more African-Americans now in prison, under criminal supervision — prison, jail, probation, parole — than all the slaves in 1850,” one of many startling statistics shared during the hearing. Additionally, recent executive action, including President Obama’s executive order on immigration and new Department of Justice Guidelines on racial profiling, highlight the difficulties faced by minority groups at the border, in airports, and as targets of federal investigations.  

A second panel spoke to how congress could address the current civil and human rights situation, illuminating specific areas for reform that could significantly impact minorities, specifically African Americans, nationwide. Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, summarized those areas as, demilitarizing local police forces; reforming harsh sentencing guidelines; and addressing criminal disenfranchisement of voting rights for ex-offenders and criminals. Calling the United States the “incarceration nation” Murphy testified that the, “the number of disfranchised citizens has been increasing because of an incarceration boom fueled by mandatory minimum sentences and the ‘war on drugs.’ “In turn,” she says, “this has impacted the families of those who are disfranchised and the communities in which they reside by reducing their collective political voice.”

Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who also served on the second panel, stated that the high numbers of incarcerated individuals results from law enforcement officers’ inconsistent and unequal application of law enforcement policies and procedures towards people of color. Going further, Henderson criticized recent DOJ guidelines on profiling as not “going far enough to cover local law enforcement agencies,” especially those that are receiving federal money. Both Henderson and Murphy suggested that one way to develop consistent treatment practices is to condition the receipt of federal grants on local law enforcement agencies’ commitment to ending discriminatory practices. This would involve local agencies to conduct routine auditing or reporting on their practices to highlight compliance under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The second group of panelists, while commending the work of this particular subcommittee, recommended that the Senate rejuvenate its efforts to pass the End Racial Profiling Act in the 114th Congress. Without proper and comprehensive legislation to address the institutional mechanisms perpetuating disparate treatment among minority groups, many of the injustices facing minority communities are likely to continue.

Looking back over the events in our country and in Washington related to racial justice and civil rights, the need to build broad coalitions across minority populations and various communities is essential. Discriminatory practices by law enforcement officials towards individuals of color or ethnic background are felt by millions of Americans, and communities such as ours will continue to build and to support efforts to address those systematic and systemic violations of American civil liberties that have contributed to the worsened state of civil and human rights in the nation. 

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