Barack Obama and Racial Profiling

As the Justice Department considers whether to file a civil rights lawsuit against George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Associated Press has a story on President Obama’s successful efforts to pass a racial profiling bill in the Illinois State Senate.

Of course, we had that story first. In 1999, a group of black senators, including Obama and Rickey Hendon, introduced a bill requiring police officers to log the ethnicity of every driver they pulled over. When he ran for Congress against Bobby Rush in 2000, Obama cut a radio ad touting his sponsorship, hoping it would help him build bona fides with the black community. Here’s a transcript:

            Cop: “Hand over your driver’s license!”

            Motorist: “But officer, I wasn’t speeding.”

            Cop: “Don’t talk back to me. Get out of the car.”

            Motorist: “But what did I do?”

            Cop: “I’ll worry about that. Now open the trunk.”

Voice Over: “It could happen to you. Or to someone you love. Stopped by police for no apparent reason, except that you fit a racial profile secretly used by police. It’s called racial profiling, and it’s an unethical and dangerous practice that needs to end. Now, State Senator Barack Obama, candidate for Congress in the First District, is leading the fight to end racial profiling.”

Obama: “This is State Senator Barack Obama. Racial profiling is not only wrong and degrading, it’s dangerous and can lead to unexpected confrontations. Not only that, it erodes confidence in law enforcement. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation to address the problem of racial profiling, and protect you from those who would abuse your rights.”

Voice Over: “Barack Obama, Democrat for Congress. New leadership that works for us.” Obama: “Paid for by Obama for Congress 2000.”

The bill didn’t go anywhere until 2003, however, after the Democrats took over the Senate and President Emil Jones reassigned its chief sponsorship from Hendon to Obama. (Hendon was not happy about losing the bill: ““Bull---,” he told Jones. “I’ve been working on that bill forever. When the Republicans were in charge, we couldn’t pass it.”)

Obama began his lobbying campaign with the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP and the black caucus had an antagonistic relationship. Whenever they’d tried to discuss racial profiling in the past, the blacks had accused the cops of racism, and the cops had folded their arms, refusing to even consider a bill. Ted Street, the FOP president, was still irked about a meeting in Chicago, when 125 black ministers had crowded into a small conference room: an obvious ploy to intimidate the police, he thought. Street’s organization saw Emil Jones as a cop-basher more interested in playing the race card than working out a deal with law enforcement.

When Obama arrived at the FOP's office, Street realized immediately that this was a different kind of black legislator. Obama wasn’t hostile, first of all. He wasn’t there to accuse the cops of targeting black motorists. He was there to draft a bill that would satisfy law enforcement and the black caucus. Street wasn't used to that approach. During a series of meetings in Chicago and Springfield, Obama tempered the bill, making it easier for the cops to accept. The state would conduct a four-year study of traffic stops, keeping records of every driver’s race. All police officers would go through diversity training. The punishments were gone. The cops were happy. They were sure the sure the study would prove they’d been engaged in law enforcement, not racial profiling.

“From a layman’s perspective, Barack was able to reduce the sting to make it palatable,” Street would say. “He was able to get it down to where our view in the end was, ‘It’s another piece of paper to fill out.’”

Obama lobbied hard for the bill. His Senate desk was in the back of the chamber, near the bathrooms. Whenever a senator came out, Obama would ask for a moment. Once, Obama got into a heated argument in the bathroom with a black colleague who demanded to know if he really understood what it was like to be a young black man getting a pat down from the police just because he’d been standing on a street corner. The implication was that he didn’t understand the streets or the black experience. So Obama talked about the tough neighborhoods he’d seen as a boy in Honolulu and the projects he’d worked as a community organizer.

Three months into the session, the bill came up for a vote. Kirk Dillard, Obama’s most devoted Republican admirer, rose to speak in favor.

“About two to two-and-a-half years ago, Senator Obama and myself began working with Senator Hendon on this particular topic,” he said. “Barack and I had many, many early morning, 7 a.m., breakfast meetings with former Attorney General Jim Ryan, who along with a cast of -- of -- of -- of hundreds from law enforcement from throughout America, helped us understand the difficult issues which Senator Obama has put together so well to make this difficult subject workable.”

The bill passed unanimously. Random stops of black motorists decreased, because the police knew someone was counting.    

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