While watching Barack Obama's health care press conference last night, I wasn't surprised when he took a question regarding the arrest and subsequent media uproar surrounding his good friend, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. An esteemed African-American studies professor at Harvard, Gates was arrested by Cambridge, MA, police after a neighbor called to report a supposed break-in by two black males. Turns out, Gates was struggling with a sticky lock on his own front door.
President Obama called the actions of the police officer "stupid" for arresting Gates in his own home. On racial profiling, he said the following:
...I think we know separate and apart from this incident that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.
I was surprised when Obama expanded his remarks on racial profiling to include Latinos, because profiling is perpetuated under an enforcement program of his own administration, known as 287g. This federal program under the Department of Homeland Security deputizes local police to enforce immigration law. While intended to remove hardened undocumented criminals from the streets and process them for deportation, in practice it takes the form of stopping people with brown skin for routine traffic violations, such as a broken taillight or a forgotten turn signal, and processing them for deportation on the spot.
And because there is no way to tell, not by accent or skin color, if a person is undocumented, this issue affects all Latinos in areas where police are singling out individuals based on race for immigration-related stops and interrogation.
I am troubled by the arrest of Dr. Gates, and the absurdity of this particular incident has once again brought racial profiling to the attention of mainstream America. People will be looking for answers and solutions, and to the Obama administration for leadership given the president's public stance and his track record of taking this issue seriously. One small yet tangible thing to do would be to repeal 287g and end the systemic practice of race-based discrimination which unfairly targets Latinos in America.
Allison Johnson is the campaign coordinator of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Her commentary "Shackling the Stranger" appeared in the April issue of Sojourners.