Document Type

Symposia Article


On the morning of September 11, 2001, New York City-based Community Relations Service (“CRS”) Regional Director Reinaldo Rivera was at a New Jersey summit on racial profiling. At 8:46 a.m., an American Airlines 767 crashed into the North Tower of New York City’s World Trade Center. Because Rivera was with the New Jersey state attorney general, he quickly learned of the attack. Rivera immediately called his staff members, who at that moment were traveling to Long Island, New York, for an unrelated case. Getting into Manhattan had already become difficult, so Rivera instructed his conciliators to remain on standby. At 9:03 a.m., another 767, United Airlines Flight 175, flew into the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

September 11 initiated a new, fraught-filled era for the United States. For CRS, an agency within the United States Department of Justice, it was the beginning of a long-term immersion into conflict issues that involved discrimination and violence against those whose appearance led them to be targets of anti-terrorist hysteria or mis- placed backlash. Appropriately, in the days following 9/11, the federal government, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), concentrated on ferreting out the culprits of the heinous acts. However, the FBI discovered that Middle Eastern terrorists were responsible for the tragedies, and communities around the nation saw a surge of violence against people who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, requiring a response to protect those who were unfairly targeted.

These outbreaks began as soon as September 12. Police in Illinois stopped 300 people from marching on a Chicago-area mosque. In Gary, Indiana, a masked gunman shot twenty-one times at a Yemeni- American gas station attendant. In Texas, a mosque was hit by six bullets. On September 15, a man who had been reported by an Applebee’s waiter as saying that he wanted to “shoot some rag heads” shot a Chevron gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American. The man, Frank Roque, shot through his car window, and five bullets hit Sodhi, killing him instantly. Roque drove to a home he previously owned and had sold to an Afghan-American couple and fired on it. He then shot a Lebanese-American man. According to a police report, Roque said in reference to the 9/11 tragedy, “I [cannot] take this anymore. They killed my brothers and sisters.”

Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said, reflecting ten years later on the hate crimes that followed the attack on the World Trade Center, “The tragedy of September 11th should be remembered in the sense of making sure that we [do not] let our emotions run away in terms of trying to show our commitment and conviction about patriotism [and] loyalty.” The events created a new chapter in American race relations, one in which racial tensions and fear were higher than ever for Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, Sikhs, and others who could be targeted in anti-Islamic hysteria because of their physical appearance or dress. In 2011, a CBS–New York Times poll found that 78% agreed that Muslims, Arab-Americans, and immigrants from the Middle East are singled out unfairly by people in this country. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, this number stood at 90%. The same poll also found that one in three Americans think Muslim-Americans are more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans.

To address these misconceptions in the years following 9/11, CRS has done a significant amount of outreach, dispute resolution, and training to mitigate unfounded backlash against Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs. Under CRS Director Freeman, the agency produced Sikh and Muslim cultural-competency trainings and two training videos: On Common Ground, which provides background on Sikhism and concerns about safety held by Sikhs in America; and The First Three to Five Seconds, which provides background on Muslims and information on their interactions with law enforcement.

In 2009, President Obamas signed the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Junior Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Act explicitly gave CRS jurisdiction to respond to and prevent hate crimes. For the first time, CRS jurisdiction expanded beyond race. Specifically, CRS was now authorized to work on issues of religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability in addition to race, color, and national origin. When I became CRS Director in 2012, following the continued incidents of unfounded violence and prejudice against those perceived as sharing heritage with Middle Eastern terrorists, I directed the agency to update the trainings and launched an initiative for regional offices to conduct these Sikh and Muslim cultural-competency trainings. In the years following 9/11, controversy has continued over racial profiling of Arab, Muslim, and Sikh individuals. Owing to the nature of the attack, one particular area of ongoing concern is access to airplane flights. Director of Transportation Mineta recalled how the racial profiling he witnessed echoed his own experience as a Japanese-American citizen:

[T]here were a lot of people saying, “[We are] not [going to] let Middle Easterners or Muslims on the planes.” And I thought about my own experience [during World War II] because people [could not] make the distinction between the people who were flying the airplanes that attacked Pearl Harbor and the people who were living in Washington, Oregon, and California, who looked like the people flying the airplanes.

In response to this problem, CRS trained thousands of law enforcement and Transit Security Association employees on cultural professionalism in working with Arab, Muslim, and Sikh individuals. The work of addressing the profiling and mistreatment of Arab-Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs also spiked after the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. CRS conciliators again reached out to leaders throughout the country at mosques and gurdwaras to confront safety and security issues regarding houses of worship and concerns about backlash violence based on faith, nationality, and race.

Since 9/11, CRS’s work on racial profiling continues to respond to increasing conflicts and tensions both within the United States and around the globe. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, CRS adjusted its priorities and reallocated resources in the wake of the September 11 tragedy to address the needs of targeted communities and further intercultural understanding. CRS did so by increasing the religious awareness training provided to law enforcement and other agencies, and it committed more resources to working with Muslim and Sikh faith and advocacy organizations and people. This work was not originally envisioned when the 1964 Civil Rights Act created CRS. How- ever, this new focus reflects how the model of the African-American civil rights movement has inspired other efforts to attain equality and justice for minority groups in the United States.

Just as the tragedy in Selma helped lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Oak Creek tragedy helped lead the FBI to update its hate crime categories. Former FBI Director James Comey articulated this idea best in his speech to the Anti-Defamation League, stating “do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crime to fully understand what is happening in our communities and how to stop it.” The Community Relations Service has evolved over time since its 1964 origins, and a substantial component has been the work in response to post 9/11 unfounded racial and religious violence.

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