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Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Posted: May 4, 2010 12:03 PM

Arizona Dumped Racial Profiling Back on the Nation's Table

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In an exclusive interview with this writer, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's official spokesperson, Press Secretary Paul Senseman, did not wait for me to ask whether Arizona's hotly disputed anti-immigration law opened wide the flood gate to racial profiling. Senseman plowed right in and repeatedly denied that the law sanctioned racial profiling. With voice rising in indignation, he insisted that Brewer was keenly sensitive to the danger, had fought throughout her political career against the practice, and had even pushed the Arizona legislature to clarify the law to make it "crystal clear" that racial profiling is illegal. Senseman said that Brewer would never have signed the bill if there was any hint that it profiled anyone based on race.

Brewer no doubt sincerely believes that the law makes racial profiling a non-issue. She's wrong. She and the Arizona legislature did something that civil rights leaders couldn't do. They dumped profiling back on the nation's table. Racial profiling had virtually disappeared as a sore point of debate and contention before Arizona's immigration battle. The feeling was that court decisions, challenges, lawsuits, state legislatures, police official's vigorous disavowal of profiling, and the repeated declaration that racial profiling is illegal rendered it a thing of the bygone past. Nothing was further from the truth.

The US Supreme Court virtually gave open license to profiling in enforcing immigration laws in its 1975 ruling that "Mexican appearance" was a valid consideration in stopping anyone to verify their citizenship status. Though subsequent court rulings held that law enforcement could not stop someone solely because of their Mexican ancestry, the "valid consideration of appearance" as a factor still stood. In other words race can be considered a relevant factor in making immigration stops. The countless lawsuits challenging profiling based on appearance have crashed hard against the near impossibility of proving that a border or street stop and arrest is made based on race. Despite its pristine, sanitized race neutral wording, the Arizona law doesn't change that. Enforcement efforts are not aimed at illegal immigrants from Canada, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean or even other Latin American countries. The target is illegal immigrants from Mexico, or as the Supreme Court put it those of "Mexican appearance."

Police racial profiling of African-Americans takes a similar tact. In the past decade, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami and other big and small cities have repeatedly been called on the carpet for racial profiling, and police officials routinely deny that profiling happens. In an address to a joint session of Congress in 2001, then President Bush blasted racial profiling, "It's wrong and we will end it in America." They were nice words, but that's all.

The refusal to admit that racial profiling exists by many public officials and many in law enforcement has done much to torpedo nearly every effort by local and national civil rights and civil liberties groups to get law enforcement and federal agencies not only to admit that racial profiling happens but to end it. A perennial federal bill served up by House Democrat John Conyers to get federal agencies to collect stats and do reports on racial profiling still hasn't gotten to first base.

Meanwhile, nearly every state collects data either voluntarily or compelled by state law on unwarranted pedestrian contacts and traffic stops. Most police officials vehemently contend that good police work is about the business of catching criminals and reducing crime, not about profiling blacks and Latinos. And if more black and Latino men are stopped it's not because they're black or Latino but because they commit more crimes. The other even more problematic tactic used to debunk racial profiling is the few statistics that have been compiled on unwarranted stops.

In this case not by police agencies but based on citizen responses. In two surveys, the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics took a hard, long quantified look at racial profiling using information that it got from citizens. Both times, the agency found that while whites are stopped, searched and arrested far less than blacks, there was no hard proof that the stops had anything to do with race.

The same rationale holds true to justify immigration stops that target Latinos, as is used with blacks. Blacks are the ones most likely to commit street and especially drug crimes and Latinos are the ones most likely to be illegal immigrants. Both are fallacies. Numerous surveys show that blacks and whites use drugs in about the same numbers and only half of undocumented workers are from Mexico and other Latin American countries. But they are still the exclusive targets of law enforcement.

Brewer may be sincere in declaring that profiling in Arizona won't be tolerated. But it won't mean much on the streets and the border. Those stopped, searched and arrested will be those of Mexican appearance. The only good thing about any of this is that Arizona tossed the nation's glare back on racial profiling.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).

Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson