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by R. L’Heureux Lewis

The term racial profiling has been part of my vocabulary and reality for nearly 15 years now, but it shouldn’t be. While the terminology for the practice of profiling people based on their perceived race, ethnicity and nationality is regarded as taboo, many in this nation have a nasty habit of trying to re-introduce it over and over again. As African-Americans, we are well aware that, whether driving or walking, our skin color can be a legal liability. The problem is that we, as united communities, have not learned to speak out against the various forms of racial profiling that continue to be floated as legislation and policy. The controversy of SB 1090 in Arizona is a perfect time for us to join our voices against injustice, but too many of us are without comment and are missing the larger picture.

Recently, the Arizona legislature signed a bill which allows agencies to demand verification of immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person being questioned is an “illegal alien.” The minute I heard “reasonable suspicion,” I myself became suspicious of this bill given my own experiences with racial profiling. The sad reality is that there has been a continued emphasis on immigration control, not immigration reform, in a national culture that increasingly centers on fear. This culture of fear continues to allow racial profiling to curb the civil and human rights of Black and Brown people.

Currently, there are reports that Black people in Arizona are split on supporting the SB1070. Some suggest the support for SB1070 centers on the potential that African-Americans will face increased job opportunities if “illegal immigration” is curbed. If you’re worried about labor, you’re missing the larger issue with racial profiling.

Since the turn of 20th century, Black people have been writing about the perils of immigration on Black labor and taking a self-interested stance. This attitude has not gotten us more jobs or better paying ones. What this attitude has gotten us is a shrinking share of jobs, lack of protected wages and labor conditions, and continued ethnic tension. It’s time that we fight not just for personal interests but also the collective rights of people.Racial profiling will not bring us better jobs or better opportunities; it will continue us on a slippery slope towards conceding our human rights.

The conditions that Blacks and Latinos face have been and will continue to be intimately tied. The American Civil Liberties Union in their report “Driving while Black or Brown” found that Black and Latinos were both 2.5 times more likely to be pulled over on Arizona’s highways than Whites. Not surprisingly these additional stops did not lead to finding more contraband on Blacks and Latinos.

Even when not in law, racial profiling exists and continues to stunt our freedoms. In 2006, Arizona’s Department of Public Safety settled in a class action suit on racial profiling and is now being forced to retool their policies of racial profiling. If this type of informal racial profiling exists, can you imagine the havoc that state sanctioned racial profiling in Arizona will create? With the police and US Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) collaborating, we are agreeing to pioneer new violations in civil and human rights.

As someone committed to justice, I cannot have that on my conscious. The sad reality is that the Latino community cannot fight SB 1070 alone. The words that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left us in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail should lead our actions towards SB 1070: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let us not be so concerned with our perceived interests that we miss the larger conditions of injustice that continue to profile, marginalize, and limit the power of Black and Brown people nationally and globally.

R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being.

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