A law that makes people suspects on the basis of their looks should outrage African Americans, even if they are worried about illegal immigration.
The immigration law passed in Arizona last week is the kind of reckless act that keeps us minorities paranoid in America. The new law compels local law enforcers to verify immigration status based on "reasonable suspicion"—whatever that is—and has created the potential for cops to stop brown people in the streets and demand to see their papers. Even the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., (which borders Mexico) says the law is "stupid," "racist," and would force his officers to racially profile people. The scope of the law was narrowed after its passage in order to assure Hispanics, who make up 30 percent of the state's population, that they would not be the victims of racial profiling.
But those assurances that people won't be suspects because of the way they look have little credibility when the experience of black and brown people in America has been so contrary to those promises. Being stopped for Driving While Black (or Brown) is such a common phenomenon that comedians make jokes about it. And a city like New York, which operates a massive stop-and-frisk policy that probably violates a dozen constitutional principles, keeps trying to explain why black and brown citizens make up 80 to 90 percent of those questioned by police. The latest rationale: They fit the description of suspected perps when 98 percent of those stopped and questioned are innocent of any crime.
The reason people of color get worked up about such policies is America's nasty habit of making everything racial in a panic. We have a long history of lynchings and runaway convictions that were triggered by fears that black people were getting out of hand in some fashion, whether it was interracial sex or talking back to massa. The roundup of Japanese Americans during World War II will forever stain this country's history.
After 9/11, looking Arab or simply wearing a turban, whether you are Muslim or not, turned out to be a grave danger in some parts of the country and a constant annoyance in others. No Muslim American believes that the frequent "random" checks they endured at airports in the months after the tragedy were really a matter of chance. And last week, the front page of the Boston Herald illustrated a cover story about the crackdown on benefits for illegal immigrants with a photo of black, Hispanic and Asian models, their foreheads stamped with the following: "No Tuition, No Welfare, No Medicaid." Ironically, the headline at above the newspaper's logo announced a "workplace diversity job fair."
Of course, the concept of white or blonde illegal aliens is apparently beyond the capacity of the people passing the laws or the editors at the Herald. But nearly 600,000 of those in the United States illegally were estimated to come from Europe or Canada in 2005; and while I knew many Irish, English and other Europeans who had overstayed their visas when I was growing up in New York, I never heard of a raid of an Irish bar, except when ATF or the FBI were trying to trap Irish Republican Army gun runners during the "troubles."
No doubt, the Great Recession of the last three years has heightened American insecurity. Although the downturn has hit blue-collar workers the hardest, many people who thought they were solidly in the middle class have seen their savings, their safety net, even their homes evaporate in the financial collapse. The next step for many of them would be to step "down" into the blue-collar workforce. Suddenly, the Mexican, Salvadorian and African immigrants they hardly noticed during boom times are now potential competitors.
African Americans, who lost more than their fair share of blue-collar jobs in the downturn, have long been ambiguous about illegal immigration. As Cord Jefferson noted here a few months ago, a growing number of experts believe that blacks and Hispanic immigrants battle for unskilled jobs at the bottom of the labor pool. Black Americans have not turned out in large numbers at immigration rallies, despite the fact that many African-American politicians talk of the need for coalitions with Hispanics.
But a law that puts you in jeopardy for being has special resonance with black Americans. We already know the peril of living in a state where you are presumed guilty by the color of your skin. A law that makes a suspect of anyone who might look illegal should make us vigorously resist this encroachment.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.