During his confirmation hearings, some Ashcroft supporters pointed to his stated opposition to racial profiling to offset criticism of racial insensitivity that stemmed from his long record as a U.S. senator and as governor and attorney general of the state of Missouri. In February 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union applauded Ashcroft's statements calling on Congress to pass racial profiling legislation. They noted, however, that Ashcroft had failed to support similar legislation while he was in the Senate.
In July, the Justice Department's newly confirmed civil rights chief, Ralph Boyd, told The Boston Globe that the department would take an aggressive stand on racial profiling, suing local police departments that don't halt the practice.52 And in August, Ashcroft reportedly told law enforcement officials that racial profiling was a "profound moral wrong." Justice Department officials said the department would begin its own study of the problem even though legislation had not been passed. But when Assistant Attorney General Boyd finally announced in September that the Justice Department would begin a study of racial profiling at local police departments, he effectively gave departments the choice to opt out, saying participation in the study will be voluntary. Said Boyd, ""We are not here to micromanage police departments all over the country."53
Civil rights advocates have been working to raise awareness of racial profiling for years, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have brought a new focus to the issue. Many civil rights groups have expressed grave concern that the search for justice is coming with an increased tolerance for judging individuals based on their actual or perceived ethnicity, adding another dimension to the calls for the Justice Department to investigate racial profiling. The breadth of the issue is illustrated by an incident on Dec. 25, 2001, when an Arab American Secret Service agent was denied access to an American Airlines flight.54
Ashcroft's broad policy of detention and questioning of young Arab and Arab American men drew harsh criticism and a recent immigration policy change has brought charges of racial profiling on the Justice Department itself. In January 2002, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had decided to give the highest priority to deporting young men from the Middle East, targeting those nationals before other foreign nationals in cracking down on those who have ignored deportation orders.55 Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, criticized the move, saying that, "nothing prevents INS from following leads to apprehend suspects, even if those leads include descriptions based on race or national origin. But a dragnet approach to law enforcement -- rounding up men based on national origin rather than suspicious behavior or credible evidence -- is highly questionable."56