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Racial Profiling in the United States

An Illustrated History

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Racial profiling is irrational, unjust, and unproductive, but one thing it is not is un-American. Racial profiling has been part of the U.S. criminal justice system for as long as there has been a U.S. criminal justice system, and part of North American colonial justice systems in the centuries prior to its formation.

While little has been done to root out the problem, it is at least acknowledged as a problem today--a considerable improvement over the explicit policy-level endorsements of racial profiling that characterized law enforcement treatment of people of color in centuries past.

1514: The Ultimatum of King Charles

King Charles I of Spain
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Requerimiento of King Charles I mandated that all natives of the Americas must either submit to Spanish authority and convert to Roman Catholicism or face persecution. It was the only one of many colonial Spanish criminal justice mandates, established ostensibly to promote law and order in the New World, that used a racial profiling policy against American Indians.

1642: The Trials of John Elkin

Indians from Rio de la Plata
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1642, a Maryland man named John Elkin confessed to the murder of an American Indian leader named Yowocomco. He was acquitted in three consecutive trials by fellow colonists, who refused to punish a white man for killing an American Indian. The governor, frustrated with the bizarre verdict, ordered a fourth trial, at which point Elkin was finally found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

1669: When Murder Was Legal

Illustration from Uncle Tom's Cabin
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As part of its 1669 slavery law revisions, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed the Casual Slave Killing Act--legalizing the murder of slaves by their masters.

1704: To Catch a Slave

1863 Stephens Lithograph of Slave Sale
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The South Carolina slave patrol, arguably the first modern police force in North America, was established in 1704 to find and capture fugitive slaves. There is abundant evidence to suggest that pro-slavery governments sometimes arrested free African Americans as "fugitive slaves," transferring them to slave traders for later sale.

1831: The Other Nat Turner Massacre

Capture of Nat Turner
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Immediately following Nat Turner's rebellion on August 13th, approximately 250 black slaves were rounded up and killed--55 executed by the government, the rest lynched--in retaliation. Many of the slaves, particularly the lynching victims, were selected more or less at random, their bodies mutilated and displayed on fenceposts as a warning to any slaves who might choose to rebel.

1868: The Equal Protection Doctrine

Suffragists Discuss Fourteenth Amendment
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. The amendment, which states that "No State shall ... Deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws," would have made racial profiling illegal had it been enforced by the courts. As it stood, it only made racial profiling policies less formal; racial profiling policies, once written explicitly into law by legislatures, would now have to be conducted in a more subtle way.

1919: The Palmer Raids

Uncle Sam Enforces Sedition Laws
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, an avowed enemy of those first-generation European-American immigrants he described as "hyphenated Americans," ordered the notorious Palmer Raids in response to a series of small-scale terrorist attacks perpetrated by German- and Russian-American immigrants. The raids led to dossiers on some 150,000 first-generation immigrants, and the arrest and summary deportation of more than 10,000 immigrants without trial.

1944: Racial Profiling Receives the Supreme Court's Endorsement

Manzanar Relocation Center
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In Korematsu v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that ethnic profiling is not unconstitutional and may be practiced in times of national emergency. The ruling, which defended the involuntary internment of an estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans on the sole basis of ethnicity and national origin during World War II, has been roundly condemned by legal scholars ever since.

2000: Tales from the Jersey Turnpike

New Jersey Turnpike
Photo: © 2007 Kevin Coles. Licensed under Creative Commons.
In response to a lawsuit, the State of New Jersey released 91,000 pages of police records documenting a consistent pattern of racial profiling in motor vehicle stops along the New Jersey Turnpike. According to the data, black drivers--accounting for 17 percent of the population--made up 70 percent of drivers searched, and had a 28.4 percent chance of carrying contraband. White drivers, despite having a slightly higher 28.8 percent chance of carrying contraband, were searched far less often.

2001: War and Terror

Arab-American Immigration Protest
Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images.
Following the September 11th attacks, the Bush administration rounded up an unknown number of Middle Eastern women and men on suspicion of being associated with terrorist groups. Some were deported; some are released; hundreds captured overseas remain imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, where they remain imprisoned without trial to this day.

2003: A Good Start

George W. Bush
Photo: Bill Pugliano / Getty Images.
In response to public pressure following accounts of post-9/11 racial profiling, President George W. Bush signed an executive order banning the use of race, color, and ethnicity to profile suspects in 70 different federal agencies. The executive order has been criticized as toothless, but at least it represents an executive branch policy against racial profiling.
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