Profiling Comes to the White House

Communities do not become pariahs simply through the actions of citizens. Policymakers send signals about what is acceptable and what is not.
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My column in The Times today tries to grapple with the president's flirting with the idea of naming Ray Kelly, the author of the most prominent profiling operation in the country, to head the Department of Homeland Security:

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. 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. Those of us raising our boys in the wake of Trayvon, or beneath the eye of the Demographics Unit, cannot fathom how the president could forget this.

My label-mate Conor Friedersdorf offers the chilling details on Kelly's operation:

Under Ray Kelly, the NYPD infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. Officers "put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity," AP reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that "the department's surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created 'additional risks' in counterterrorism."

Moreover, "In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques," the Associated Press reported, "the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation." The horrifying effects on innocent Americans are documented here. But despite the high costs and lack of counterterrorism benefits, Kelly stands behind the surveillance on Muslims.

Anyone who wonders how we get to Trayvon Martin shouldn't simply think about Stop and Frisk, but should check out the AP's award winning-series on the NYPD spying on Muslim communities in the Northeast. I also suggest you watch this segment from Chris Hayes on Ray Kelly's record below.You should read the Village Voice's reporting on the case of Adrian Schoolcraft. And I suggest you listen to the episode of This American Life which recounts the Schoolcraft case with audio. You should also watch this short film produced by The Nation which offers audio from a Stop and Frisk.

Communities do not become pariahs simply through the actions of independent citizens. Policymakers 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. Such a development -- in Obama's second term, no less -- 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.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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