As State Senator, Obama Pushed for Racial Data Collection

As an Illinois state Senator, Barack Obama once proposed a bill mandating that police record the ethnicity of all drivers pulled over for traffic violations.

At a press conference attended by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Obama announced that his “End Racial Profiling Act” (ERPA) would “determine whether there is a pattern of discrimination throughout [Illinois].” The collected data was to be submitted directly to the secretary of state for review, and ultimately -- with the help of the ACLU -- used to aid in prosecution if the data was found to confirm racial profiling.

ACLU lawyer Harvey Grossman told the Chicago Sun-Times:

In order to determine whether there is a pattern of racial preference you need the data. … In Illinois that data is real hard to come by.

Obama’s bill also “would require the state police to provide training and continuing education to its officers concerning cultural diversity, including sensitivity toward racial and ethnic differences” (“Lawmaker Urges Racial Profiling Study,” State Net, January 17, 2000).

Although Obama denied that the purpose of collecting racial data was to sue the police or otherwise to impede their work, the presence of the ACLU and their recent history in Illinois showed otherwise. In 1994, the ACLU sued the Illinois State Police, alleging troopers were targeting Hispanic drivers to bust drug-runners. (The case was eventually settled.) Nationally, Obama wasn’t alone, either: in December 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to sue New Jersey over allegations that state police were racially profiling. The Chicago Sun-Times reported:

New Jersey agreed to begin documenting race, ethnicity and sex of drivers who are stopped, so authorities can monitor whom police are ticketing.

Eric Holder -- then the deputy attorney general -- helped with the settlement.

The data taken by the state of New Jersey were examined by statisticians at North Carolina State University. Blacks were caught speeding at twice the rates of whites, and even more blacks were present among faster speeders. Such findings should have thrown Obama's assertions in doubt.

Requiring the police to ascertain the race of a pulled-over driver was not well-received by the police themselves. A compromise has since been struck in most states: drivers are asked their race on a form by the police officer after getting a ticket, or the officer may make his or her best judgment.