Don't Call It Jim Crow

05/22/2010 03:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who are these people that are shocked that police officers use their eyes and a little bit of stereotyping to decide whom to pull over? Hello, law enforcement in the United States has used racial and ethnic profiling to harass innocent people and apprehend criminals in this country since cops have been on the beat. So why now is there a bi-partisan outpouring of concern over the possibility of ethnic profiling in Arizona? Perhaps because the practice has been somewhat legitimized by a law or perhaps because illegal immigration is the issue du jour that is sure to grab headlines and Hispanic votes.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos are roughly 14% of the U.S. population and 20% of the federal, state, and local prison population. Blacks who are roughly 12% of the population represent 40% of the prison population. If you looked at the white population in prisons, you would most likely find similarities across economic divides.

Whatever one's views on our country's three-strikes law and the War on Drugs, it would be naïve to assume that these prisoners were picked up on good old-fashioned police work alone. Right or wrong, racial and ethnic profiling is a real tactic of law enforcement in our country. According to Amnesty International twenty-five states do not currently ban racial profiling.

In some cases racial profiling leads to a traffic stop, which leads to a search, which finds a convicted felon carrying a firearm or associating with another known felon, which is enough to put that ex-con in the clink for life under the three-strikes law. Yet, go figure, this injustice has not received a robust campaign from a bi-partisan coalition like the one we've seen on television over the past few days.

African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for a non-violent drug offense (57.2 months) as whites do for a violent offense (58.8 months). Truth be told, America has a racially biased justice system and racial demographics in our prisons also speak to limited employment opportunity as well. In the federal prison system, 55% of the prison population has been convicted on drug-related charges--87% of those cases not involving a weapon. Amongst blacks and Latinos most of the men incarcerated are between the ages of 20-29, and over 60% of them were street-level dealers and drug mules. Sadly, these young men's lives wasted in prison represent the lure of a less-than-minimum-wage job that offers opportunity for growth--if you can beat the odds and not get murdered or incarcerated for the rest of your life.

Maybe an unjust justice system that relies on racial profiling has worn us out. We have given up trying to change the pernicious march of capitalism into every area of American life. The privatization of our prisons requires cells be filled, which has made it profitable to lock 'em up rather than address the problem of America's own economic refugees who jump the fence to the illegal drug trade because economic opportunity for the poor and uneducated has become so scarce. We have given up caring about Americans who are choked by outsourcing and the underbidding of undocumented workers. We can't muster the compassion to understand many American men and women resort to crime to feed their families. So why is it we care so much about ethnic profiling of people from Central America who are also breaking the law? I suggest to you it is because Illegal Immigrants are the result of another country's failure, while America's economic felons are the result of our own.

It's not that we shouldn't care about ethnic profiling in Arizona, it's that we should have cared about racial and ethnic profiling before Arizona...and actually done something about it! Outrage about it under these circumstances just raises cynicism especially when Jeb Bush is one of the detractors. As governor of the state that leads the nation in wrongful convictions in Death Row cases, he oversaw more executions than any of his three predecessors. Most of those put to death were people of color. Also, Jeb's home state of Texas where his brother was governor leads the nation in wrongful incarcerations and executions. Most of those people also, you guessed it, people of color.

Just as it is hard to make the case for that ex-con who gets busted on the traffic stop with a firearm, I think it's hard to make a case against enforcing immigration laws. The truth of the matter is some heavy lifting and serious sacrifice was made by labor activists, from Lucy Parsons to Cesar Chavez, to give workers in this country a fair shake. Since the Bracero Program started in 1942, illegal immigrants in their own struggle for survival, have been undermining those efforts, chipping away at those gains, not just for white or black workers but also for American Latino workers. It is inevitable that illegal immigration gets addressed in a very deliberate, and sometimes messy, way. But now is not the time to try and distort the issue by throwing around Jim Crow and apartheid references--that's just in poor taste.

It's time illegal immigrants start to see the United States as many of its citizens do, as a country with some serious unaddressed class, racial, justice, economic and governing problems, and perhaps rethink crossing that border. Until then no one should be shocked that people of color are being ethnically profiled in Arizona. What works for natural-born citizens works for illegal immigrants.

UPDATE: After the publishing of this blog California began a motion to boycott the state of Arizona over their sb1070 Immigration Law, citing racial discrimination. To this day California justice operates under the Three Strikes Laws / Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws for crack cocaine which have been carried out with much controversial results, particularly creating a racially discriminatory justice system and overcrowding prisons disproportionately with African American and Hispanic young men. California spends $8 Billion Dollars a year of 90 detention centers. The state of Arizona does not use the Three Strikes Laws or Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for crack cocaine.