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    A Times Editorial

    Discriminatory profiling

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000

    You know something's wrong when both Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton say it is. The two outspoken reverends, who normally preach from opposing political lecterns, emerged from a meeting recently pledging a "united effort" to fight the all-too-widespread practice of racial profiling by police.

    "It is a moral issue and all people must rise to fight the problem," said Sharpton, a minister and civil rights activist.

    "(Profiling) is something we can't permit in a free society," agreed Falwell, the Baptist minister who founded the now-defunct Moral Majority.

    The two may qualify as the strangest bedfellows yet to take up the cause, but they are by no means the only ones. From the two presidential hopefuls to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and the Asian Law Caucus that sued him for allegedly profiling former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, a growing number of leaders and activists are coming forward to condemn the practice of singling individuals out based on race or ethnicity, not individual suspicion.

    From "Driving While Black," as traffic-profiling is euphemistically called, to the more serious inequities in the nation's drug laws, individuals of color are too often singled out for unequal treatment and punishment. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush includes Arab Americans as victims of profiling because of stereotypical thinking about terrorism.

    Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress appear no closer to approving several modest measures that could minimize such discrimination. A bill that would require states to keep records on the profiling of drivers still languishes in committee, as does legislation to reduce the huge disparity between mandatory sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

    For over 15 years, the nation's drug laws have punished crack dealers, who tend to be black, more harshly than those who sell powder cocaine, who tend to be white. That blatant inequity helps explain why African-Americans represent 50 percent of prison inmates even though they make up only 13 percent of the general population and 15 percent of all drug users.

    The street is not the only place where racial and ethnic minorities are subjected to insidious profiling. They face it in the courtroom and on Capitol Hill, too. How long before federal lawmakers wake up to that outrage -- and start practicing the kind of equal justice they preach?

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