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Racial profiling: Degrading, unconstitutional and ineffective

Observations by Restore Fairness’ Zebunnisa Burki-

Have you ever been told that you don’t look like an American? Have you ever been stopped and searched by police just for driving around in a neighborhood? Or felt discriminated at airports? I have. It might be difficult for most people to know what its like to feel singled out. But this is what a lot of people of African-American, Hispanic, Arab and Asian and South Asian descent face when going about their lives in the US.

Using this as the premise, Breakthrough partnered with the Rights Working Group,  the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) on Tuesday, December 7th, at the NYU School of Law, for a screening of two documentaries: Face the Truth: Racial profiling across America, produced by Breakthrough and the Rights Working Group, and Americans on Hold: Profiling, Prejudice and National Security, produced by CHRGJ. The screenings were part of the Rights Working Group’s “conversations on racial profiling” and were followed by an engaging Q&A session with filmmakers and activists, Madhuri Mohindar from Breakthrough, Nadine Wahab from the Rights Working Group, and Amna Akbar from CHRGJ, NYU.

Face the Truth, produced in September 2010, narrates the story of Karwan Abdul Kader, a Kurdish immigrant, who was stopped and stripped by law enforcement officials just because he was in the wrong neighborhood and looked “different.” Through his story and those of Juana Villegas and Lena Masri, Face the Truth serves as a reminder that even the land of opportunity doesn’t always support diversity. The film also makes an honest attempt to understand the fraught relationship between immigrants and local law enforcement by interviewing police officials and civil society activists.

Americans on Hold, the second documentary that screened that evening, follows a similar structure, narrating the personal stories of Anila Ali, a Pakistani immigrant community organizer and Zuhair Mahd, a visually challenged Jordanian immigrant. The film’s focus is immigration, and citizenship and race in the US, especially when looked at in light of recent counter terrorism legislation and policies.

Post 9/11, the U.S. witnessed an increase in racial profiling against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, mostly due to new counter-terrorism measures. These include the now infamous FBI name check and National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, better known as NSEERS, which allows authorities to target individuals from 25 specific countries, most of which are Muslim.

According to Nadine Wahab, domestic law in the US is often ambiguous on racial profiling. Policies such as NSEERS, along with the TSA’s recently tightened “counter terrorism” measures; Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the Secure Communities program, and the general atmosphere of racial bias by law enforcement, have led to extreme distrust among immigrant and other vulnerable/minority communities.

What is most disturbing about the new developments is the encouragement and support for policies such as full body scans and pat downs by the TSA, especially as propagated by mainstream media, politicians and political movements. A good example of this is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that does its best to highlight the “benefits” of TSA’s stricter security measures.

The films (and the discussion after) served as a reminder that racial profiling and bias are not the lot of any one community. These are issues that continue to affect all communities of color. Black/Latino/Arab/South Asian/Asian- these targeted communities all face the same discrimination but often remain cocooned in their own niche spaces, finding it difficult to reach out to each other.

In the Q&A that followed the screening, there was a strong consensus on the need for all targeted communities to stand united and work for legislation such as End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) and the DREAM Act. To do this, it is important to look at the “war on terror”and the “war on drugs” through the intersectional lenses of race and class. Linda Sarsour of the AACP rightly pointed out that immigrant communities that were most affected were those who were also financially less well off than others indicating this to be as much an issue of class as it is of race.

During the conversations following the screenings, there was a palpable sense of empowerment engendered as a result of sharing stories of racial injustice, further highlighting the need for our different communities to work together on the many unresolved issues related to immigrants’ rights and racial bias. Issues such as stop and frisk policies, class, race and national legislation dominated the discussion.

The audience, coming from a number of different racial backgrounds, did not hesitate from commenting, sharing personal stories, and asking questions. The most interesting part of the evening were the personal accounts of racial profiling shared by a number of audience members. From stories of stop and frisk by police, and informants tracking down and interrogating Muslim men in mosques, to horrifying stories of entrapment by the FBI, the cathartic energy of the stories became apparent as time went by.

As someone who is used to the natural fear that one feels traveling in and out of the US, to me, the evening was an exercise in building confidence and hope. To see people with Hispanic, Arab Muslim, African American, and South Asian backgrounds coming together and discussing ways to collaborate on immigration and race issues with a unified voice, is an encouraging sign. It felt like the beginning of an understanding that racial prejudice and bias touches more than one community, nationality and ethnicity—the beginning of something better.

Photo courtesy of Press TV

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