ABC Shows Everyday Bravery in Face of Arizona’s Racial Profiling

Protecting communities of color sometimes comes down to individual acts of heroism, but it shouldn't

By Julianne Hing Feb 21, 2011

Here’s a quick Monday morning edition of fascinating race moments in television, this time candid camera style. This one comes from a recent episode of ABC’s What Would You Do?–a show you’re already familiar with even if you’ve never seen it. They take the familiar formula of staging a social psychology experiment with hidden cameras rolling. What will people in Arizona do when they’re confronted with some straight up SB 1070-sanctioned racial profiling.

The set-up is this: ABC host Sam Quinones dons a plaid shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses and sits with a similarly attired man in a restaurant. A white actor plays a security guard who approaches the two and asks for their papers "to see if everything is all right." It’s the kind of scene that can feel almost too real for many people of color. What will the other patrons do? Will they stand by and let Quinones and his companion get harassed?

Maybe most people do just that, but many others approach the security guard and tell him to back off. The first says, "That American flag means we can have freedom of speech. We can say what we want. You can say what you want. They could say what they want, in the language that they want to.

The security guard-actor says, "I just think they look illegal.’" The patron responds, "I’m highly offended. My grandma looks illegal. There is no reason why you should judge someone based on how they look. I’m serious. Back off."

And then, miracle of miracles, the security guard leaves the men alone. It happens over and over in different ways with other patrons. Two women even drive the security guard out of the restaurant where he presumably works, one Latina cursing him and shooing him out the door. When the security guard is outside pretending to make a phone call that the customers think is to ICE agents, one woman even offers to help the men get out of the restaurant before immigration officers show up.

"Maybe you had family, mother, children, and I would feel bad if you got separated from them and got shipped across…the other direction," the woman says."

Asked why she would stick up for two people who were complete strangers to her she said, "I cared that I felt that you were being unjustly harassed…that was enough."

And then Quinones’ voiceover comes in, telling viewers that over the course of multiple days of filming many people–"the majority were non-Hispanic", he marvels–spoke out against racial profiling happening in front of them. A slow piano-driven ballad plays, and the footage gets softened into a beautiful montage of hugs and handshakes as Quinones celebrates Arizonans’ outrage about racial profiling.

In Arizona, racial profiling is against the law, both before and after SB 1070. Law enforcement officers aren’t allowed to open their questions with, "Show me your papers," though under the enjoined portions of SB 1070 they have the right to inquire about someone’s immigration status while they’re enforcing other laws–local and state law and even civil code. For these reasons the staged experiment is a real dramatization. I’m being nitpicky, I know. But I wonder how many people stop when they see young black and Latino kids getting stopped and harassed in subway stations. How many people pull over to give law enforcement officials a piece of their mind when they see a black man who’s been pulled over on the side of the highway, or a truck with a couple Latino men, for that matter?

Protecting communities of color sometimes comes down to individual acts of heroism, but it shouldn’t. The solution isn’t just about encouraging people’s moral consciences, though that’s certainly a fine thing to do. Public policy should not allow for people to get harassed.

The thing that is so fascinating about this is that the segment is framed as the triumph of everyday people over the supposed evil of racial profiling. It takes as a matter of course that racial profiling is a threat to people’s basic rights and is not only unlawful but deeply offensive. I love that misty shot of the white security guard-actor hugging the Latina who chewed him out and told him: "This used to be Mexico!" Their embrace says to the viewer: it’s all okay after all because people really do have moral courage, and those security guards are nothing to be afraid of after all anyway. If so many "dozens," as Quinones says, have the guts to speak out about racial profiling in their everyday lives, it’s certainly not a portrait of Arizona that’s shared very often. But unfortunately for the state and its immigrant community, this hasn’t yet translated to electoral consequences for the people who are pushing hardest for anti-immigrant policies.