Deterred and discouraged

Middle East — By Marcia Alesan Dawkins on June 9, 2010 at 11:24 am

Driving while Black.  Flying while Arab.  Walking while Latino (in Arizona).  Not everyone has to worry about raising “reasonable suspicion” in all these settings.  As someone who does, I’ve come to appreciate the complex natures of race, identity and a sense of belonging in the U.S.  From “random” security checks, to unnecessary delays, to getting escorted off planes, to general harassment, I’ve seen it all.   No matter how American I might feel inside, these experiences coupled with the questions “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” remind me that I’m not “really American” and that I will always be viewed as a stranger.

As a child I remember being in the car with my father and getting stopped several times for speeding tickets.  Though my Dad undeniably had a lead foot, I always wondered why we got stopped so much.  It wasn’t until I was older and learned about racial profiling as a technology of modern policing that I figured it out. According to Professor Oscar Gandy, “racial profiling is characterized as a troubled technology because of the way in which the use of racial identification as an index of criminality contributes to the cumulative disadvantage that shapes the life chances of African Americans.”

In other words, there is physical, psychological and economic danger present when law enforcement agencies use racial classification to identify people as members of a suspect class that is subject to special attention by the police.  There is also the danger of differing perceptions.  According to a 2004 Gallup poll, “perceptions about the prevalence of racial profiling differ by racial and ethnic group — Hispanics and blacks generally believe it is more common than whites. For example, a majority of black Americans (67%) feel racial profiling is widespread in traffic stops, a sentiment shared by nearly the same percentage of Hispanic Americans (63%). By contrast, only half (50%) of non-Hispanic whites feel the practice is widespread.”

Because of my physical features I could always pass as white and, as a result, didn’t experience discrimination behind the wheel.  That’s part of why I always perceived myself to be an unhyphenated American.  Of course, that was until—allow me to use a trite cliché—September 11th changed everything.  It used to be the case that after I told people about my origins, I would invariably hear a “bucket list” of wishes to visit the pyramids and east desserts such as basbousa. The reaction has changed. Now, like Moustafa Bayoumi, upon telling people I’m of Arab descent, “I can usually see the news headlines and maps of the Middle East overlapping in their minds.”  This in unsurprising considering that the latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that “59% of adults say factors such as race, ethnicity and overall appearance should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search at airports.”  I guess that seems just when it’s not your race, ethnicity or overall appearance that consistently qualifies you for a “random” search.

Then there’s the experience of traveling in Arizona in the wake of Senate Bill 1070 as I did recently.  As context, the law states that it is meant to “work together to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the U.S.”   This law has raised many questions. Some seem straightforward, like who is considered an “alien” and how “unlawful presence” is determined. Some questions are more complex, like what counts as “reasonable suspicion,” a “practicable” situation and “reasonable attempts … to determine immigration status.” Though I don’t have a Latino-sounding name or accent, I wondered what might happen if I was unable to produce my passport and/or birth certificate for the first time while traveling domestically. Given that “more than three-quarters of Americans have heard about the state of Arizona’s new immigration law, and of these, 51% say they favor it,” I can say that for the first time I felt truly illegitimate in the eyes of my fellow citizens.

So, what do these uniquely American experiences with racial and ethnic profiling have to do with the Middle East right now? Upon first glance, not so much.  Upon reflection, a lot. The increasing rates of interracial relationships and the impact of globalization are impacting us because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much like our society was affected by the wars in Vietnam and South East Asia.  After those wars were over, a population of multiracial children was rejected by both of their parents’ countries for many reasons. One main reason is because their racial and ethnic profiles reminded us of injustices committed in the U.S. and abroad.   I am afraid that the interracial families that emerge from our current wars will be similarly rejected.  How will they be incorporated into an Arab and/or Muslim society or assimilated into the United States?  Most likely, with difficulty and with plenty of profiling.  Without awareness about the dangers of racial and ethnic profiling, there will be a new generation of people like me…searched randomly as they’re driving while black, flying while Arab, and walking while Latino.   A generation of people who are multiracial, multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic and multinational—“real” Americans, all too often deterred and discouraged as “aliens.”

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Author: Marcia Alesan Dawkins (2 Articles)

Marcia Alesan Dawkins

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Human Communication at California State University, Fullerton. She is interested in political communication, diversity, and new media. Her forthcoming book, “Things Said in Passing,” is a critical analysis of instances of racial passing in the United States from the late nineteenth through early twenty-first centuries. She lectures and consults on these and other issues related to contemporary communication.

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