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.

When the bill was up for a second time, Obama appeared more conciliatory regarding the possibility of racial profiling. On January 13, 2000, he told the St. Louis Dispatch:

Nobody really knows how pervasive the practice of racial profiling is, and that puts a cloud over the able law enforcement officer. … There is at least the perception in black communities that "driving while black" is a crime.

Obama returned to this subject in 2009 following the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates: Obama accused the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police of acting “stupidly." He also mentioned that he had been stopped many times for no apparent traffic violations, and added:

You will be hard-pressed to find a black or Hispanic family who does not have at least one member who feels they’ve been stopped because of their race.

Obama also told a Boston Globe reporter on July 22, 2009:

There’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

Obama then referred to his ERPA bill:

We worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.