Thursday, May 6, 2010

First They Came for the "Illegals" But I Only Care about Racial Profiling

You know that poem that starts off with "THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist." Well, I had always interpreted it as meaning that you should care not because one day it will be you they go after, but you should care because it is happening to someone else who could easily be you. What does it mean if those who make themselves out to be spokespeople for a movement are not fully behind the ones most affected?

It's inspiring that so many different kinds of people are coming out against Arizona's SB1070 immigration bill, due to go into effect in a few months. However, it may not be obvious to all, but there are major discrepancies between politicians and so-called leadership, and the people. For example, while you have undocumented immigrants and their allies at these demonstrations wearing things like t-shirts or signs that say "I'm an illegal", others are focused on racial profiling. This is particularly telling:
This is not about immigrants taken out of the streets. This is about who is next,” said Phoenix City Council Member Michael Johnson. The former police officer recently alleged he was the victim of racial profiling. (Source)(My emphasis).
Michael Johnson has openly supported Arpaio and his law enforcement efforts against undocumented immigrants. How many people coming out against this bill feel this way is unclear, though as I mentioned, Phil Gordon (Phil Gordon: Foe to Undocumented Immigrants) and Kirsten Sinema (Racial Profiling Focus is Still a Distraction) have said that they oppose the racial profiling part of the bill but have not openly opposed the targeting of undocumented immigrants by law enforcement (particularly federal).

The quote above is from an article about Al Sharpton coming to town to participate in a church service and a march to the capitol. From the same article, this quote exemplifies the presence and position of some undocumented immigrants,
Despite the increased fear caused by the new law several undocumented immigrants decided to join the march. Among them was Catalina Vargas, 67, a former farm worker.

“I’m going to fight as much as I can for legalization,” said Vargas, who marched out front holding an American flag.
About a year ago, Al Sharpton appeared on Lou Dobb's show regarding racial profiling and Arpaio's sweeps, and I discussed his emphasis on racial profiling in Racial Profiling Discussion Undermines Solidarity with Immigrants. Yesterday he made similar statements:
"There is no way this law could be enforced," said Sharpton, "without profiling people based on whether they are Latino or appear to be Mexican...You can amend it. You can bend it. You can do everything you want to with it.

"To say that based on reasonable suspicion, state law enforcement can go after people based on Mexican immigration is to say that it is reasonable to look at anyone that appears Latino and subject them to a harassment and a scrutiny that other citizens in Arizona would not be subjected to."
If you read how right-wingers have vilified Al Sharpton, you might tend to think he's on the correct path. I would argue, however, that his focus on racial profiling is the wrong way to go.

For example, here is a common argument:
"Nowhere in the bill does it say (police can stop or question people about their immigration status) because of race. It just says illegal immigrants," said Whitney Pew, 20. (Source).
Russell Pearce himself has repeated that "Illegal is not a race, it is a crime" (discussed further here). Sharpton, Gordon, Michael Johnson, etc. could easily be saying the same goddamn thing, just in different words. "Illegal is not a race, which is why we're going after illegals but finding every way possible to do it besides based on their race." So many people keep saying that it is the job of the federal government, not local police to enforce immigration. To not oppose the criminalization itself, rather than just the racial consequences of law enforcement of this crime, is no way to be an ally to undocumented immigrants, and perhaps this is the point. Perhaps some folks want to continue to support the rule of law and only oppose what they understand to be racism, instead of seeing how the rule of law in many ways is intertwined with racism.

This is why so many of us have to pick this up where they leave off. Push the debate further by opposing the criminalization of people. How do we take this resistance to racial profiling which is so popular right now and expand it to address criminalization?


  1. Thanks for this analysis. I disagree with this critique of the concept of racial profiling, and distinguishing it from criminalization. Racial profiling _is_ a form of criminalization.

    You are right that politicians are using the language of racial profiling to dodge the question of "illegal" status, opposing the law on the basis that it will harm citizens rather than the undocumented--who of course are the most affected. But the concept of racial profiling is much broader than the politicians realize. It shows that 1070 does more than just affect undocumented folks--it terrorizes Latino and indigenous communities in general, citizen or not. Through racial profiling, it criminalizes a huge swath of folks living in the U.S., documented and not.

    That's why I think it's a mistake to associate racial profiling with liberalism. It can be used that way, but it's not inherently liberal, and in fact radicals need the term to broaden the struggle.

  2. My point is that it is being used that way. I have been thinking about ways to discuss racial profiling as it relates to criminalization, because as we know there is the other side of the coin- immigrants saying "we're not the real criminals. Go after the real ones- typically meaning black people, since those are the ones to disproportionately end up in prison.

    I suppose I don't know all that much about Sharpton, but knowing what I know about the others, i don't think they really care that racial profiling is criminalization of people of color. I also know that most of the people actually attending the rallies and such are not on the same page with the politicians who claim to speak for them. But i can imagine that these politicians can shape their attitudes and continue to make it okay in their minds for people to be detained or deported for having broken an immigration law.