Skip to main content

Obama needs to lead on racial profiling legislation

By Nafees Syed
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests. Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests.
HIDE CAPTION
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nafees Syed: President Obama spoke inspiring words after Trayvon Martin case
  • She says his administration has not achieved much progress on racial profiling
  • Syed: Profiling is route by which many minorities become trapped in criminal justice system
  • Legislation to curb profiling should be a key priority for Obama, she says

Editor's note: Nafees Syed is a writer and recent graduate of Yale Law School. She formerly was on the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, where she worked on civil rights issues and racial profiling. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- President Obama's remarks Thursday on the death of Michael Brown were an echo of his powerful 2013 speech on Trayvon Martin's shooting. Notably absent was any mention of race.

A year ago, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's shooter sparked protests across the United States. Martin was 17 and armed with nothing more than a bag of Skittles candy. Protestors believed that Florida's self-defense law helped enable civilian George Zimmerman to racially profile Martin and justify shooting him in self-defense. Studies had found that whites who kill blacks are more likely to be found justified in "stand your ground" states like Florida.

Now, a police officer's fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American, in Ferguson, Missouri has reignited the discussion about racial injustice in America. Brown was 18 and planned to start college this week. Witnesses said he was shot multiple times when he refused to comply with an officer's order to "get the f--- onto the sidewalk" or "get the f--- out of the street."

5 things to know about Michael Brown's shooting

Nafees Syed
Nafees Syed

Although the identity of the officer has not been released, a witness who was walking with Brown at the time told CNN that the officer is white. In a primarily black city, only three of Ferguson's police officers are African-American. Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with #iftheygunnedmedown, where young men and women pair a rebellious image of themselves next to a telegenic, shirt-and-tie one to highlight societal stereotypes of minorities.

Officer in Ferguson shooting had no prior disciplinary record

In response to what has become another debate of national -- and racial -- proportion, President Obama advised on Tuesday: "We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds." He alluded to the protests and looting in St. Louis. The looting was opportunistic, people taking advantage of a tragedy as a cover for criminal activity. And some of the unrest was a cry for help, desperate acts to get attention from a criminal justice system that has not adequately addressed problems of racial injustice in America.

Complete coverage on Ferguson shooting and protests

But there is a major difference between the way the President addressed race in his Trayvon Martin speech and his Michael Brown remarks Thursday. It is representative of the growing disconnect between an administration that has promised to alleviate racial injustice, and a community in which there is a strong sense of disappointment.

Obama: Now is the time for peace, healing
Police tactics in question at US protests
Highway patrol to lend Ferguson security

After President Obama's lyrical speech on race during his 2008 presidential campaign, minorities and civil rights groups expected the election of a black president to be more than just symbolic. This hope was solidified in the president's selection of the first black U.S. attorney general in 2009.

While his first term reflected a lull in civil rights legislation, President Obama's 2013 speech on Trayvon Martin promised more. He emphasized the importance of racial profiling legislation, even though Zimmerman was a civilian and such legislation affects law enforcement. He indicated a new focus on such laws and described the one he had successfully passed as a state senator in Illinois. The President also suggested he would work on improving conditions for young black men to succeed and called for the examination of state and local laws like the Florida "stand your ground" laws.

However since then, not much has happened. The special nature of state police powers has made federal action difficult. About two dozen states have passed self-defense laws similar to the Florida one that may have helped lead the jury to exonerate Zimmerman, but not one state has repealed them.

Even on a federal level, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a Senate Judiciary hearing and Justice Department investigations have produced no solutions on such laws and the racial profiling that is inherent in their enforcement. The Justice Department considered filing a civil rights lawsuit against George Zimmerman, but did not. In addition, the administration has not made a strong effort to rally Congress around racial profiling legislation.

In the meantime, allegations of racially biased actions by police have flitted across headlines, such as the New York Police Department's "stop and frisk" policy and chokehold incidents that disproportionately affect blacks.

Social media and activism has brought underreported stories and photos to the forefront: for example, the case of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill Florida prisoner whose skin separated from his body when guards locked him into a 180-degree shower, originally garnered only local media attention. Now the petition to the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate his death has over 160,000 signatures across the nation.

President Obama was right in encouraging talking and reflection, in criticizing Ferguson police for harassing peaceful protestors and journalists, and in involving the Missouri governor in crisis resolution. But he is speaking to an audience that wants more. The president should take proactive measures to address the Michael Brown case in particular, and racial injustice in general.

Unlike the Justice Department's previous investigation, news of which came and went with the news of the Trayvon Martin protests, the FBI and Justice Department's investigation into Brown's death needs to be thorough, transparent and broadcast to the public.

Most importantly, the administration should make racial profiling legislation a top priority. Eliminating racial injustice in the criminal justice system is an almost Sisyphean task because of the many levels -- surveillance, arrest, conviction, sentencing and imprisonment. The roots of injustice are deep and tangled. The factors that lead to tragedies such as the death of Michael Brown are entwined with the human psyche, implicit bias and socioeconomic factors that are beyond the government's control.

Racial profiling legislation in particular is valued because it attacks the issue at its origin. By preventing law enforcement from disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities for investigation, interrogation and arrest, we affect the later stages of the justice system. Through training and monitoring, we change the culture of our police and court systems.

In 2003, as a state senator in Illinois, Obama did pass such a bill with unanimous support. The state legislation called for the collection of data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped -- a measure that can be extended more broadly for a national bill. His bill also trained police departments on professionalization and avoiding racial biases.

The U.S. Congress has been less receptive to such measures. Despite the many cries for change, the efforts of Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. John Conyers to pass the End Racial Profiling Act in Congress have been unsuccessful. But with the same fierce diplomacy that passed healthcare reform through a recalcitrant Congress, President Obama can rally Congress to honor Michael Brown, a promising teenage boy whose tragic death could have been prevented by racial profiling legislation.

President Obama is our best chance for the "more perfect union" he called for as a presidential hopeful in 2008.

A white man's response to Ferguson

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT