Myths about the Patriot Act and how it affects the black community are downright deadly. A potent myth is that the Patriot Act only affects a tiny number of Arabs and Muslims who were rounded up immediately after Sept. 11. Some lament that immigrants are grabbing attention away from the problems of civil rights abuses and police violence against blacks. In reality, however, the Patriot Act is not a shift, but a dangerous extension of unjust policies and practices that put all people of color in jeopardy, even blacks.
We are not talking about a handful of highly scrutinized suspects here, but whole communities that have been victimized in the name of "national security." Eighty-two thousand men from 24 Muslim countries were required to register with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some 13,000 were detained and face deportation for minor or technical violations, such as failure to report a change of address.
Thousands more have become targets of hate crimes, fired from their jobs, interrogated by the FBI without a lawyer present, and jailed or deported due to INS bureaucratic snafus. Blacks know that you don't have to be a "foreigner" to be labeled an enemy of the state. So laws that imprison individuals without stating a clear charge or providing access to an attorney send up red flags.
Lost in this debate is the plight of black immigrants, who also suffer from unjustified detention and deportation. For example, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft used the "national security" rationale to justify the indefinite detention of Haitian immigrants seeking asylum. His order had nothing to do with whether the immigrants themselves are dangerous. Ashcoft's twisted logic is that detaining Haitians would discourage others from coming to America, thus preventing the diversion of Coast Guard resources from homeland security initiatives.
When I step a bit closer to the situation, as a black woman I am alarmed to see familiar abuses taken to a whole new level. The story of Abraham, a Sudanese refugee in San Jose, California illustrates the chilling link between the Patriot Act and racial profiling as we know it. Ironically, he was on the way to the INS office to collect papers that would prove to his employer that he was in the country legally, when he was stopped for driving while black. Facing the barrel of drawn police guns, he realized, "they thought I was Black American." Police did not give Abraham a ticket for speeding, but extensively questioned him about his immigration status.
Most important, the atmosphere in which the government has expanded its powers makes cops even bolder about racial profiling. Kenny Dukes, a young African American man was killed by Chicago police officers in August. Dukes had returned home from a picnic with his girlfriend and was walking to the front door when the officers yelled at him to stop. Not realizing that they were calling him, he continued walking with his back to the street. Although there was no warrant for his arrest and Dukes was not carrying a weapon, they shot him seven times in the back.
The good news is that communities across the country are exploding myths around the Patriot Acts and making these connections. At public hearings in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Jose and Alameda, California, immigrant and black leaders are standing together to take on government-sanctioned racial profiling.
This is not a new struggle. The black community knows that the same racist fervor that inspired the recent shootings of Sikh cab drivers in Richmond, California also led to the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. The system that proposed asking people to turn in their neighbors using vague definitions of a "suspect" though the TIPS program (Terrorist Information Prevention System), is the same one that targeted African American leaders through COINTELPRO. The targeting of whole communities through the Patriot Act is not just an "Arab thing" or a "Muslim thing." It's also a "black thing."
Tammy Johnson is director of the Race and Public Policy Program at the Applied Research Center.