Racism, In the Comfort of Our Own Backyard

Evan Pensis

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I was surprised that more people weren’t familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Considering that he’s the poster boy for racial profiling in the boiling Southwest, I thought that more people would be acquainted with the fact that he dropped over four-hundred sex crime cases in order to crack down on illegal immigration. Or that he created a McCarthy-esque “anti-corruption” unit to illegally target county advisers  Or that he blatantly ignored the ruling of the Justice Department denying him the right to deport undocumented immigrants. As he recently stated in an interview with journalist Joe Hagan, Arpaio intends to “catch them for minor traffic infractions and then turn them over for deportation.”

You’re just a Google search away from discovering more law-bending debauchery. In fact, the Rolling Stone recently ran an extensive piece detailing the foibles of the political addle-head. But amongst all this coverage, I’m much more interested in why so few people I have met in Los Angeles have heard of Sheriff Joe.

The ignorance perhaps has its origin in distance from the issue. For many students at USC, immigration comes in the form of a distant relative or cheap labor. With such limited interactions, we need only to tune into “Family Guy” to find the typified immigrant, be it a stereotypical maid or the migrant landscaper. But that’s just the thing: there is no one “face” of immigration, yet society has packaged immigrant diversity into one all-encompassing stereotype.

What sentiment does such misrepresentation convey? What message are we sending to the communities in which Arpaio carries out his ‘midnight raids’, the nighttime invasions of Latino neighborhoods and businesses in search of illegal immigrants? According to 3TV News, last September marked the 68th of these raids, bringing the total number of people arrested up to 647. What message are we sending to the children of these communities? Better yet, what message are we sending to the children of the communities who support such draconian measures? That human life is not valuable in itself, perhaps? Inequality? Sanctioned bigotry, scapegoating or all of the above?

At some point, the problem becomes more than ignorance. It becomes racism. Racism is undeniably a part of our society, but I wonder why Arpaio’s institutionalizing of racism does not disturb more people. It seems Fran Lebowitz was right in the recent Visions and Voices “State of the Union conversation when she stated, “It has become worse to accuse someone of being racist than actually being a racist.”

Racism has become a reckoning force in today’s battle on immigration. Liberals were elated to break the race barrier in the White House in 2008, but in retrospect, that seems to be the only House where a race barrier has been “broken”. Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s two decades of “service” prove that there are yet American strongholds thriving on legally sanctioned racism.

However, Arizona has seen a grassroots movement to challenge Joe Arpaio’s tyrannical reign on both the social and political spectrum. Adiós Arpaio is a group of some hundred Phoenicians and Arizonans, coming from diverse and often multiracial backgrounds. Over the past several months, they have successfully registered over 30,000 new voters through an enormous canvassing campaign. Who are these unregistered voters, you ask?

They are teenagers, mostly. They are the underrepresented communities that comprise the majority of Arizona’s evolving demographic. Predictably, Arpaio’s opponent won’t uproot the current sheriff but this predominantly student-led movement is one hopeful example that is battling the blatant pervasiveness of racism.

In light of the proposed DREAM Act and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s refusal to recognize the federal mandate to stop deporting undocumented youth, I’ve been lost in debates between the pathos-driven initiative to reform immigration, and the finance-driven initiative to deport every last illegal immigrant. At this intersection, voters have to decide in which direction it is better to continue, as if there were a hierarchy between finance, humanitarianism, the economy and the greater good.

But look at what’s really being stated here: where do “unalienable rights” end and who sets those boundaries? Since when are human rights denied to non-citizens? Does citizenship define personhood?

And I can’t answer that question. Well, I can suddenly cry, “No!” in utter defiance—but humanitarianism and imperialism have a murky and incestuous history together.

Still, I can ask it—and so can you.

Perhaps if we ask these questions enough, and attempt to answer, immigration will stop resembling a faulty dream-catcher and start resembling the spinning kaleidoscope it was conceived to be when our country first opened its borders—when the term melting pot wasn’t mutually exclusive and the potential to overlap still captivated the human imagination.


One response to “Racism, In the Comfort of Our Own Backyard

  1. Bravo! A fantastic summary of prevailing AZ attitudes that keep JoKe Arpaio in office. Sad, sad situation, one that keeps every decent and reasonable Arizonan ashamed of its “leadership.”

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