An African-American teenager was driving home when a police cruiser pulled up from behind, stopping him in front of a home in a predominantly white St. Louis suburb.
After he produced his license showing that he lived at the spot where the traffic stop occurred, his car was searched, the contents strewn on the neatly manicured lawn as the neighbors watched. The officer even went a step further, asking him if he was a drug dealer or gang member.
That young man, a high school honor student 20 years ago, is now my husband. The incident mentioned above was just one of many such stops, always for alleged minor infractions such as failure to yield or rolling a stop sign, and they rarely resulted in a citation.
When I met him in college, he was wary of law enforcement because he knew that he could be pulled over, questioned and searched at any time, regardless of whether he did anything illegal.
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Racial profiling existed then and it continues to plague black and brown people of every socioeconomic background across this country. Ask anyone who has been profiled, and they will tell you that it is not only unfair and discriminatory but degrading.
If Arizona’s new immigration law goes into effect this summer, thousands of Hispanic men and women in that state will be subjected to the same painful humiliation and intimidation.
Understandably, SB 1070 has been the subject of much heated debate since Arizona’s governor signed it into law, with many supporters arguing that it has been the federal government’s inability to enforce illegal immigration laws that led to the state’s action.
Those in favor also cite an influx of immigrants into the border state, a sore point for some residents who blame them for an increase in crime and for draining Arizona of its resources.
Critics, however, have questioned its constitutionality and say that it creates the potential for a police state as it invites officers — unfairly burdened with this law in my view — to arbitrarily stop anyone they suspect of being in the country unlawfully.
Citizens and noncitizens alike will have no choice but to carry documents proving they are in the country legally to avoid being detained. It’s a move that is eerily reminiscent of Pass Laws under South Africa’s apartheid era, which made it a criminal offense for black South Africans not to carry identification with them at all times.
While the Arizona legislation states that law enforcement officials may not solely consider race, color or national origin when deciding when to make a stop, it’s unclear how those tasked with upholding the law will determine whom to pull over without taking race or national origin into account.
Will they simply look at people’s skin color, listen to see if they have command of the English language, or check out the way they are dressed?
One disgruntled Arizona resident recently quoted in a New York Times article said, “You are going to look different if you are an alien, and cops know.”
Really? What does someone who is suspected of being in the country illegally look like?
My husband and other young African-American men I’ve known who have been stopped do not come anywhere close to fitting the profile of dope dealers or gang bangers intent on breaking the law. And yet, some officials routinely engage in this behavior because of bias and misperceptions.
Few people would dispute that illegal immigration is a concern for our country and a polarizing issue that must be seriously addressed in a meaningful way.
But the Arizona law, the most aggressive in the nation, is not how we get there.
It serves only to further divide our country at a time when we’re already coming apart at the seams.