Top Democrat Praises Bush, Ashcroft for Tackling Racial Profiling

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said Friday he is impressed thus far with the actions taken by President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft to end the practice of racial profiling. Conyers also said Bill Clinton does not deserve "high grades" for his handling of the issue when he was president.

Bush spoke about racial profiling during his speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress. "Too many of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation's justice when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups, instead of individuals. All our citizens are created equal and must be treated equally. It [racial profiling] is wrong and we will end it in America," the president said.

Bush followed that up a day later by directing Ashcroft to "work with the Congress to develop methods or mechanisms to collect any relevant data" about racial profiling. Ashcroft later told reporters if Congress fails to authorize a study of racial profiling, he will launch one on his own.

"I think that it's an excellent turn of events to have the president stepping up on the subject. And now the attorney general is moving on it and he called me yesterday and he met with me and the Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday," Conyers said in a telephone interview with

But in praising the Republican administration, Conyers also said he is eager for action.

"One of the things that we are hoping to do is go just a little bit beyond the agreement that racial profiling needs to have a statistical study. But we want to start developing what it is we do, how we go about the retraining and handling the problems that arise from this. In other words, the fact that racial profiling exists in a very large way in many if not most parts of the country is now something that is realized by most people," Conyers said.

Clinton issued an executive order in 1999 calling for an end to racial profiling, but Conyers believes the ex-president could have done more and done it sooner.

"He was a little slow on the draw. He did give an executive order to his federal police forces to let them know that they were to cooperate on any anti-racial profiling programs that came along. He came around rather slowly on it. It may have been because he was doing so many other things to improve race relations, that he didn't want to jump into that. Or it could have been that there was one particular national police organization he didn't want to offend, and that may be why he went easy on it," said Conyers.

"I cannot give him the highest grades for what he did but he did do something and he did move it along and he did speak of it," said Conyers.

Following his meeting Wednesday with the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, Ashcroft said, "We're going to follow the president's directive, but we are also going to enforce the laws that are on the books."

Most Democrats, including Conyers, opposed Bush's selection of the conservative Ashcroft to be the nation's top law enforcement officer. And Conyers says he is still a bit skeptical of Ashcroft. "I didn't have my truth telling mechanism with me that day when he made that statement. But that's what he said during his confirmation process in the Senate. But that's what he'd have to say. If an attorney general of less than a couple of weeks said he was going to do anything else, he'd throw the nation into a destabilization.

"Merely repeating that statement doesn't give us any clue to what's going to happen. What we will be getting a clue from is not just the people that he appoints but how he actually goes about enforcing the job," Conyers said.

Nevertheless, Conyers said he's pleased the new administration is willing to work to eliminate the controversial police tactic that involves stopping an individual for a suspected crime strictly on the basis of that person's race. Racial profiling is already prohibited under civil rights statutes.

"We're delighted to work with the attorney general on it. Racial profiling is unconstitutional. You cannot have equal protection of the laws, if, in fact, people of color are being arbitrarily singled out," Conyers said.

Last March, the House Judiciary Committee passed legislation introduced by Conyers known as the "Driving While Black" bill, which required the Justice Department to conduct a nationwide study of racial profiling by acquiring data from law enforcement agencies regarding the characteristics of persons stopped for alleged traffic violations and the like. The bill died on the House floor. Conyers will reintroduce the bill this year.