How Ray Kelly's Rise Would Threaten a Longstanding Democratic Priority

The electoral coalition has inveighed against racial and religious profiling in party platforms going back to 2000.
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In a powerful column at The New York Times, my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates puts President Obama's praise for an NYPD police chief who practices racial and ethnic profiling in context. "It is often said that Obama's left-wing critics fail to judge him by his actual words from his candidacy. But, in this case, the challenge before Obama is not in adhering to the principles of a radical Left, but of adhering to his own," he writes. "It is President Obama's attorney general who just this week painfully described the stain of being profiled. It was President Obama who so poignantly drew the direct line between himself and Trayvon Martin. It was candidate Obama who in 2008 pledged to 'ban racial profiling' on a federal level and work to have it prohibited on the state level. It was candidate Obama who told black people that if they voted they would get a new kind of politics. And it was State Senator Obama who understood that profiling was the antithesis of such politics."

In a followup item at The Atlantic, he correctly assesses the stakes:

Communities do not become pariahs simply through the actions independent citizens. Policy-makers send signals about what is acceptable and what is not. Should Barack Obama appoint Ray Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security the signal will be clear: Profiling is not, as Obama once claimed, "morally objectionable" and "bad police work," but an acceptable tactic presently condoned at the highest levels of government.

The signal sent by Obama's words and Senator Chuck Schumer's endorsement is one of the reasons my item on Kelly emphasized that "prominent Democrats are now comfortable with racial and ethnic profiling." If a Democratic Senate were to confirm Kelly, it wouldn't just be a reversal for Barack Obama, it would mark a historic departure from a longstanding plank of the Democratic Party.

From the 2012 platform:

We are committed to ending racial, ethnic, and religious profiling and requiring federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to take steps to eliminate the practice, and we continue to support enforcement of Title VI.


We are committed to banning racial, ethnic, and religious profiling and requiring federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to take steps to eliminate the practice.


Racial and religious profiling is wrong and we will work to stamp it out.


Good policing demands mutual trust and respect between the community and the police. We shouldn't let the acts of a few rogue officers undermine that trust or the reputation of the outstanding work of the vast majority of our dedicated men and women in blue. That is why we need to end the unjust practice of racial profiling in America - because it's not only unfair, it is inconsistent with America's community policing success, it is a violation of the basic American principle of innocent until proven guilty, it views Americans as members of groups instead of as individuals, and it is just plain shoddy policing. We believe that all law enforcement agencies in America should adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward racial profiling.

Coates writes that elevating Kelly "would be a betrayal of African-American voters who endured long lines and poll tax tactics to elect this president. This should not happen. This can not happen." I'd just add that if Obama perpetrates a betrayal by nominating Kelly, Senate Democrats would also be betraying the Democratic coalition by confirming him, despite their own platforms. This is not an instance of civil libertarians imposing on the Democratic Party something its members have never claimed to believe. It would be party elites deciding that, contrary to a longstanding plank, racial and ethnic profiling does actually constitute good police work, and that opposition to profiling isn't necessarily part of the bundle people get when they elect Democrats.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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