May 2, 2010

By Hedy Weinberg

When the Arizona Legislature passed and Gov. Jan Brewer signed Arizona's racial profiling law, core American values of fairness and equality were tossed out the window. Racial and ethnic minorities were told the constitutional guarantee ensuring equal treatment under the law no longer applied to them.

The new law gives police officers a mandate to harass racial and ethnic minorities, requiring police officers across Arizona to ask people for their "papers" based on an undefined "reasonable suspicion" that they are in this country unlawfully. By what criteria, however, will the police discern "reasonable suspicion?" By one's attire, hair, accent, jewelry or, perhaps, skin color? In order to avoid arrest, citizens and non-citizens alike will be required to carry "papers" at all times. The law does nothing short of making all of its Latino residents, and other people presumed to be foreign, potential criminal suspects.

Do we want a government that empowers its police to demand the papers of racial and ethnic minorities? It is difficult to imagine how police will determine "reasonable suspicion" without profiling. Empty language inserted in the law, supposedly to prevent profiling, is meaningless. It won't prevent police, who are required to stop "suspicious" people, from basing their suspicions on race and the way people look.

Who is likely to be stopped and asked for their "papers?" The veteran just back from Afghanistan, the pregnant mother driving back from the grocery store, the grandmother picking her grandchildren up from school, the maintenance technician leaving work at the end of the day. These women and men — our family, our friends and our neighbors — will be stopped and questioned because of the color of their skin. Arizona's new law contradicts the policies of most professional law enforcement associations that have adopted anti-racial profiling policies. These groups agree racial profiling is an ineffective law enforcement tool.

Resources squandered

The new law also undermines public safety by diverting scarce security resources toward false threats and eroding trust between law enforcement and community members. Even the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the law because it diverts limited resources from law enforcement's primary responsibility of providing protection and promoting public safety in the community. In communities already fearful and distrustful of law enforcement, the new law will make witnesses and victims of crime reluctant to come forward and work with police.

In Tennessee and across the country, ACLU continues to fight abusive law enforcement that disproportionately targets people of color. ACLU-TN's "Campaign Against Racial Profiling" includes organizing and education activities to increase public awareness; legislative lobbying to pass traffic-stop data collection laws and adopt anti-racial profiling policies; and litigation. Based on our campaign experiences, this new law will only exacerbate the rampant racial profiling of Latinos and others that is already taking place in Arizona and elsewhere.

Fifty-six years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "Our Constitution and Bill of Rights were, indeed, written to accommodate each and every minority, regardless of color, nationality or creed. That is our democratic faith. Out of that can come a unity the world has never witnessed. The need these days is to practice and preach that democratic faith."

In Tennessee, we need "to practice and preach that democratic faith" and make sure that our state does not follow Arizona's shameful lead.

Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on May 2, 2010.