(CNSNews.com) - Calling racial profiling "the last disgraceful scar of overt discrimination" and America's version of apartheid, the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses Thursday proposed a bill forcing states to eliminate race-motivated traffic stops.
"We're here today to send a basic message," said Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), reading a prepared statement, "that people don't give up their civil rights when they step into an automobile."
The bill would require states to enact racial-profiling laws within two years - or else lose federal highway funds. Such an ultimatum worries opponents, who fear the legislation could later establish racial quotas and hinder police investigations.
"It's forcing people to make a choice between law enforcement and civil rights," said David Almafi, director of Project 21, a conservative black organization.
Almafi explains the dilemma this way: "If you are in the situation where the person making up the profile for that certain criminal charge happens to be from a certain group - like if someone says, 'A white guy stole my car' - you are going to have to look for a white guy with blond hair, blue eyes. You've got to look out for individuals meeting that standard."
A Psychological Change
To make their claim, black caucus members point to the numbers: Published reports show minorities made up nearly 63 percent of those stopped and searched by Maryland state troopers last year.
And they preach from personal experience.
"I have been the victim of racial profiling," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said. "In fact, I don't know too many African-American men in this country who haven't been."
Still, perhaps the most perplexing facet of racial profiling is pinpointing its origin: How do you prove officers pull over blacks simply because of race? And if racism is involved, how do you force traffic cops to psychologically change?
Money, bill sponsors say, is the answer. Since non-cooperative states lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funds, the bill would bring behavioral about-faces: "If you change the pocketbook," Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said, "the heart will change."
But critics say new laws won't alter thinking - nor ease tensions between police and minorities.
"The purpose of this legislation is unfortunately cynical and political," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
A Curious Combo
Racial profiling has typically been an issue for African-Americans, who say they're targeted for "driving while black," but Thursday's press conference saw Menendez refer to "driving while brown" - a phrase recently coined as Hispanics join the racial-profiling debate.
Indeed, the congressional union of blacks and Hispanics marks a significant solidarity -one Cummings said is a "one-two punch" that will push the profiling bill through Congress.
"It's important we come together on issues like this that we have in common," he said.
But why they came together at all may be questionable.
"You have to look at whether this is a political tactic or is it something where there is real reform," Almafi said.
"Bill Clinton spent eight years in office and never did anything on racial profiling. And now you have George Bush, who has only been in office around 125 days now, and he's already being called to task because he hasn't done anything."
CNS Staff Writer Jason Pierce contributed to this report.