Reflections on Racism and Reasonable Suspicion: Immigration, Arizona and Anti-Latino Bias

To get a sense of the fundamental injustice of Arizona’s anti-immigration bill, SB 1070, consider something that happened recently, and something that didn’t–neither of them in Arizona, but rather in Nashville, Tennessee.

Earlier this week, because our children were out of school for teacher in-service, my wife and I slept in late. Upon rolling out of bed, Kristy, who doesn’t drink coffee, let it be known she was desperate for caffeine. This is her way of indicating that I am to go hunting and gathering for some carbonated delivery system of this critical stimulant, and not to return until I’ve found it.

So off I went to the closest fast food restaurant, which, not having paid me for product placement will receive no free advertising from me here, but which apparently is of Scottish derivation. Being barely awake upon my departure from the house, I grabbed cash but neglected to snag my driver’s license from the drawer next to my bed. About halfway there I realized my oversight but opted to keep driving rather than turning back and retrieving it. I’ll just be careful, I thought to myself. And anyway, it’s only three miles round-trip.

After placing my order at the drive-thru, I pulled up to the window to pay. Needing to reach into my pocket for the money, I unhooked my seat belt for easier access, paid the $1.35 and drove away, neglecting to re-attach the belt: something I often forget to do in that situation. As I turned on to the street, I noticed a parked police car, officer inside, up against the curb. About 15 feet in front of him I came to the stop sign, then turned right onto the main road to go home, forgetting in the process, as I often do, to use my turn signal.

I glanced in the rear view mirror just long enough to notice that indeed the officer had been looking right at me as I made the turn: the turn that I made without a seatbelt on, and without first giving a signal, and without possessing (though he couldn’t have known this) my driver’s license, having left it at home. He did not follow me. He did not pull me over. He did not issue me a ticket, despite the two known violations I had committed, and the other one that, had he stopped me, he would have immediately discovered.

Nor did I really expect to be pulled over. Indeed, I was fairly confident that nothing would happen, just as I always am when forgetting to signal a lane change for long enough before moving over, or occasionally violating some other arcane rule of the road about which I have long since forgotten all these many years away from Driver’s Ed.

And this is where the story begins to have relevance to the debate over SB 1070. Those who support the new law insist that it won’t lead to police unfairly targeting Latino/as, even though literally all the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state has been aimed at such folks. Although it allows law enforcement officials to ask for proof of legal status from anyone they “reasonably” suspect might be in the country illegally–an inherently vague notion–the standard won’t be abused, they claim. After all, according to the law, police can only ask for such documentation during the course of an otherwise legal contact between themselves and the person they suspect of being unlawfully in the country.

But such a stipulation hardly acquits the policy of the likely abuses to which it will be put in practice. After all, as my experience in the car demonstrated, violating minor traffic laws is something we all do regularly. Had the officer outside the restaurant decided to stop me, rather than continuing to eat his Scottish-named egg sandwich, he would have been perfectly within his rights to do so. The contact would have been lawful, even if a bit nit-picky. In Arizona, under the new law, officers who saw drivers they perceived as Latino/a, and who wanted to stop them, need only pick out some minor infraction (the kind we all commit every time we pull out of the driveway), and then use the infraction as an excuse for a stop the real purpose of which was to determine the lawful status of someone whose only reason for being stopped was their perceived ethnicity.

In fact, the law doesn’t even require a moving violation. Because SB 1070 includes municipal code violations as a legitimate reason for “legal contact” by officers, police would be able to use everything from failure to cut one’s grass often enough, to having too many cars in the driveway, to placing one’s garbage containers in the wrong spot on the street, as reasons for a stop and document search.

In other words, Latino/a residents of Arizona, irrespective of their legal or even citizenship status, will now have to think about things no white person will have to sweat. No one, after all, really believes that police will be stopping German tourists, and asking for proper papers, no matter how thick their accents, or how much black clothing they’re wearing, even on a sunny, hot Arizona day. Some outsiders will receive a pass, while some who are actually insiders–that is to say, not only lawful residents but even third, fourth or fifth generation citizens–will not. They will, because of skin color, or accent, be seen as ripe for questioning.

They won’t be able to take anything for granted, though white folks, as always, still will. They will have to follow every rule to the letter, for fear of being otherwise legally harassed by cops, even as those of us belonging to the dominant group will be able to nonchalantly go through our days, unconcerned about having to prove our identity just because a piece of our taillight cover was cracked, or because we went a few miles over the speed limit, or because our muffler wasn’t working sufficiently to reduce the noise from our car within legal limits in our communities.

That such a response will result in the arbitrary stopping and searching of those who are undocumented–but who despite their legal status are still protected under the Constitution from unreasonable searches and seizures, and are guaranteed (in theory) equal protection of the laws–should be sufficiently disturbing. But beyond that, SB 1070 virtually guarantees that any and all Latino/as in the state will be vulnerable to such authoritarian measures. While supporters of the law shrug off this truth as a mere inconvenience, it is quite a bit more than that. For an entire class of citizens to fear that law enforcement will focus attention on their group is to make a mockery of the nation’s pretensions to equal justice under law: something we have also long done with regard to black folks, and, since 9/11 especially, to persons seen as Arab or religiously Muslim. It is to stigmatize the group in question in the eyes of the broader public, to label them deviant, untrustworthy, and undeserving of the basic Constitutional protections that white folks take for granted. And the ability to take those protections for granted is the epitome of privilege and entitlement.

Although conservative Tea Party activists insist they are defenders of the Constitution–and that indeed, their deep reverence for it is the primary motivation for their current outrage–they have launched a petition drive in favor of the Arizona immigration crackdown, irrespective of the obvious 4th and 14th Amendment implications. Which makes sense, given that neither of these amendments include the stuff about guns, which is the only part the right much cares for or has seen fit to memorize.

Speaking of which, and in the spirit of bipartisanship, perhaps there’s a way to bridge the seeming impasse between right and left when it comes to immigration, SB 1070 and the Constitution. On the one hand, we could allow the new law to stand so as to satisfy the concerns of Arizonans who feel they are being “overrun” by the undocumented. But on the other, and in keeping with the Second Amendment, we could immediately hand out guns–lots of them–to every Latino/a in the state so as to defend themselves against the heavy hand of government tyranny. Then we can sit back and see just how badly cops want to play immigration agent, or how much more they value their donuts, coffee, and the beating of their own hearts. I think I know what most would decide.

After all, and as the NRA reminds us, “an armed society is a polite society.”


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