Arizona’s strict anti-immigration law has made it a battleground for debate. But the real source of the problem is located far beyond the borders of the Grand Canyon State.
I love Arizona, the nation’s new racial profiling capital. It’s where I met my wife and two of our three children were born. It’s where I earned a graduate degree and launched my journalism career.
It’s also where a state trooper once blatantly racially profiled me.
It was a sunny day in 1991. I was headed north on I-10 from Tucson to Phoenix in a rental car. Like many 20-something-year-olds whose car stereos can be heard a block away, I had the windows down as the radio was blasting rap music. Then I noticed in the rearview mirror a state trooper tailing me. I peaked at the speedometer and confirmed that I was going the legal limit. The trooper moved beside me on the left, then fell back and turned on the sirens.
I followed his directions to pull over, but my blood began to simmer. I turned the radio volume to zero.
The trooper — Hispanic male, about 5-feet, 8-inches and 160 pounds — walked slowly to the driver side window.
“Why did you stop me officer?” I asked.
“License and registration please,” he said.
Now I was boiling.
I gave my license and the rental car info and he headed back to his squad car.
About five minutes later the trooper returned.
“Here you are,” he said, handing my license through the open window. “You’re free to go.”
But he wasn’t free to go yet, I decided.
“When you ran my license and found that I have no warrants or traffic tickets, did you also find that I’m a graduate student at The University of Arizona? Oh, a black man can’t go to grad school?” I said sternly.
The trooper, his eyes weary said, “Sir, you had your music up loud. You know, you’re traveling north, and you are…” his voiced trailed and stopped. We stared at each other awkwardly in silence, and, ironically, solidarity.
I fit the “ridin’ dirty” profile; a 6-foot-1 inch, 195-pound, rap-music-loving, young black male driving a rented car means “drug runner.”
We were both victims of a circumstance we didn’t create.
He headed back to his squad car. I turned the ignition.
When I heard recently about Arizona’s new illegal immigrant law, SB 1070, and how it will supposedly trigger a rash of racial profiling, I recalled that day in 1991. But I’m not with those who are shaming and boycotting Arizona. Their righteous anger is misdirected.
Racial profiling of blacks and Hispanics has been a bad reality for decades. It’s one of the unintended consequences of the real problem – the federal government’s failed policies on illegal drugs and immigration.
Arizona’s new law will allow state and local police to take on the federal role of checking for the immigration papers of anyone who is being investigated for a crime. Since the majority of the estimated 20 million illegal immigrants are Mexicans and Central Americans seeking jobs to provide for their families, it could trigger more racial profiling of innocent Hispanic Americans.
Profiling is a police technique where a person’s characteristics and observable behavior can indicate they’re committing a crime. Racial profiling drew headlines in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs as the Drug Enforcement Administration began Operation Pipeline, to catch drug runners, particularly on highways. Officers began targeting high numbers of black and Hispanic male drivers for minor violations in the hopes of nabbing guys transporting loads of marijuana and cocaine.
While illegal narcotics have continued to flow liberally across the border, the “war” has dramatically increased the number of black and Hispanic males in prison for drugs. Congressional laws creating a 100-to-1 racial disparity sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine possession has led to blacks and Hispanics representing three-fourths of the people in prison for drugs, though they’re less than half of the U.S. population. In March the U.S. Senate passed a bill to cut the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1, and sent it to the U.S. House. But the damage has been done. A generation of crack babies is in its teens and twenties. Children growing up with a parent in prison has become the norm in many communities.
Christians should be as morally outraged over this as abortion.
Drug trafficking and illegal immigration are linked. The federal government has failed at both. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 died among bickering Congressmen. It would’ve given penalties and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the U.S. There would probably be no new Arizona law to protest.
Drug trafficking and illegal immigration are complex issues. They’re intertwined with local and global economic demands, social ills, corruption, and even terrorism. But we send people to Washington to deal with complex national issues. Our federal politicians, most of whom are more concerned with being reelected, are guilty of policies that have solved nothing, while causing the innocent to suffer racial profiling. Both Democrats and Republicans share in this dysfunction.
Instead of hating on Arizona, focus your righteous anger on Washington.