Don’t Call Me Racist, and Other Arizona Lies

What the state's new immigration law teaches us about the dissembling language of bias in the 21st century.

By Daisy Hernandez Apr 27, 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote that we’re in the age of the media-savvy racist. It’s a time in our nation when even the racists know it’s not cool to get caught on a YouTube video slinging the N-word at a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. That would be so…Jim Crow and that would be pretty bad. So pains are taken on MSNBC and Twitter alike to use other words (socialist, illegal) and when needed to even denounce racism.  

Welcome, ladies and señores, to the media-savvy race game, where the objective is to say anything to avoid being called a racist.  

This explains how last Friday Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill into law that basically says, "Cops can use the color of your skin as one factor for demanding proof of citizenship," and then went on to tell reporters that "racial profiling is illegal."  

It also explains how President Obama can call the new Arizona law "misguided" while his own administration’s first year in office had the highest levels of deporting immigrants in history.  

In the age of the media-savvy racist, racism is not the action of many but the sound byte of a few. It’s pulling out the N-word during a rally or killing someone while calling them "a beaner." It’s passing a law that says the color of your skin is the sole factor for being detained. And Gov. Brewer wants you to know that having brown skin is not the only reason you’ll be detained in Arizona. That would be racist. Having brown skin is just one reason you’ll be detained. To drive her point home, Gov. Brewer made sure that the new Arizona law had a soulmate.  

Executive Order 2010-09 declares (in just a short amount of jargon) that cops must get training on the proper ways to racially profile. Okay, technically it says that police officers must be trained on what constitutes reasonable suspicion. But the point is well taken: Gov. Brewer does not condone racism.  

Now, it’s easy to look at the new law, commonly called SB-1070, from the vantage point of New York City or Oakland and sneer, "What racists." It’s much harder to say that this is where our national conversation on race stands today.  

We don’t yell racism when Obama’s administration deports hundreds of thousands of men and women and even teenagers. We didn’t say anything of race in 2008 when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, then Arizona’s governor, signed a law forcing employers to verify every employees’ social security number. We barely mentioned racism in the nineties when federal officials decided to beef up border patrol and force migrants to travel the Arizona desert, where they would either die or be easier to catch in the sweltering heat.

But put it on paper that race will explicitly be one reason why the cop is pulling over brown folks and we’re all screaming "racist!"  

This isn’t to suggest that SB-1070 isn’t racist or that we shouldn’t be raising hell. But the real opportunity here is to say that racism is more than one new law dictating you have to show citizenship papers if you have brown skin. It’s a whole set of policies at the state and federal level that has a disproportionate impact on brown people.  

If we show up in Arizona to just fight this one new law, then we’re buying into the media-savvy race game ourselves. And we’ll lose.