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Ill. Profiling Eyes Racial Paradox

June 14, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ The stories are similar: Police pull over a black or Hispanic driver who is questioned, perhaps even searched. Though no ticket is issued, the driver suspects race was the reason for the stop.

While police in states from North Carolina to California are collecting data to see if there’s a trend toward such so-called racial profiling, the evidence in Illinois is often little more than anecdotal.

That’s why some members of the state’s black community are looking to newly elected Secretary of State Jesse White to find out if profiling is a problem in Illinois.

Why? Because he’s black.

``I don’t care about the political realities. I look at him as a brother,″ said David Morris, a black Chicago resident and planning director for the city’s Commission on Human Relations.

White holds the key to stacks of driver records that American Civil Liberties Union lawyers say could help them prove the Illinois State Police unfairly targets black drivers. The lawyers are suing for the records, but say they can’t afford the documents’ $160,000 cost.

Officials from the nonprofit Human Relations Foundation of Chicago said they hope to sit down with White this summer to discuss reducing the cost of the records to a mere $500 _ the price that would be regularly charged to another government agency.

``It’s important for elected officials who happen to be minorities to act in ways that help restore credibility,″ said Clarence Wood, the foundation’s president.

But White _ a bit taken aback at being singled out _ said there’s nothing he can do about the cost of the records. He also points out that U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning, who upheld the $160,000 fee, is black.

``I cannot open up Pandora’s box,″ he said. ``If the fees are required, I have to collect them.″

He said it would be wrong for him to do any special favors for the black community, which makes up about 15 percent of the Illinois’ population.

The situation isn’t new for many nonwhite elected officials, said Lenneal Henderson, a University of Baltimore government professor.

``As a statewide official, he’s got to calculate the political consequences of essentially taking a hard line that the African American population wants,″ Henderson said.

He said politicians like White also must consider the wishes of others who helped get them elected _ from business and union interests, to the other voters in a mostly white state.

``That’s practical politics vs. racial loyalty _ and that’s a tough call,″ Henderson said.

Minority politicians who win elections are those who find ways to juggle the needs of minority communities as well as their other political supporters, said Leonard Steinhorn, an American University professor.

``There’s a new generation of black politicians who’ve learned a lesson from history and are learning how to balance,″ Steinhorn said.

Gathering evidence on alleged racial profiling in Illinois has been tough. Two bills aimed at forcing state and Chicago police to record the race of stopped drivers died this spring.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is scheduled to bring its lawsuit against the state police to trial as soon as late summer, with Judge Manning presiding.

To bolster their claims, ACLU lawyers have added statistics on Hispanic drivers, compiled using a computer program that recognizes Hispanic names on state police data from 1990 to 1995.

ACLU lawyers claim that while Hispanic drivers make up 7.9 percent of the Illinois population and constitute 2.7 percent of personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they represent nearly one-third of drivers stopped by state police drug officers.

State police deny that their drug officers use racial profiling.

Morris is skeptical. As the father of two sons _ both college students _ who are regularly stopped by police, he said he also can’t imagine that such practices have never personally affected White.

``He can’t tell me that this hasn’t happened to him or someone he knows,″ Morris said.

White, who said he’s open to talking about the issue, said he’s never been stopped because of his race. ``But there is a problem out there,″ he said.

However, White wonders if racial profiling really occurs as often as people think it does. It’s one reason he’s not sure handing over the driving records to the ACLU would do any good.

``Sometimes individuals will give this race bit as an excuse,″ he said.

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