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OpinionOpEd

OPINION: Modern racism takes many forms

V. Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism.

 

As the nation said farewell to civil rights leader Dorothy Height, eulogized by President Barack Obama in Washington last week as a "drum major for freedom," the forces of discrimination moved against the very principles she fought for during her long lifetime.

The week before, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a sweeping new law against illegal immigration that requires police to check the documents of anyone they have a "reasonable suspicion" of being undocumented, and permitting the arrest of anyone not carrying proof of being in the United States legally.

This bill blatantly encourages racial profiling. "Reasonable suspicion" is amorphous - it does not require objective evidence that someone is in the country illegally. The bill permits a police officer to apply his or her own judgment based on how people look or sound.

Individual police officers could categorize all or some subset of physical characteristics as either belonging to legal residents or illegal ones. A police officer would then evaluate all of the individuals based on these criteria and take action accordingly.

This is absurd. And as a practical matter, it is racist. It subjects all Latinos in Arizona, or anyone who appears to be Latino based on a set of physical characteristics, to being arbitrarily stopped and questioned by law enforcement officers merely because they fit some stereotype.

It's clear that the life's work of Height and other civil rights heroes fighting discrimination and bigotry must be continued across our country. It's a struggle that unites African-Americans and Latinos and all Americans of good will. The nationwide protests that have greeted the law, should unify Americans in the realization that we do not live in a "post-racial" society.

Yet it's also important to realize that modern racism has many faces. Intolerant signs at political protests, right-wing talk radio and grandstanding anti-immigrant legislation can't be missed. Institutional and structural discrimination, however, are less visible but no less destructive. Even in places like Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Long Island is one of the nation's iconic suburbs, an enduring symbol of middle-class opportunity. Yet discrimination persists. A study released last year by my organization, ERASE Racism, revealed several troubling findings in what is the third most racially segregated suburban community in the United States. Some 71 percent of African-Americans and 52 percent of Latinos have experienced direct discrimination or felt discomfort on Long Island because of their racial or ethnic background.

The research also showed that some real estate professionals actively maintain residential segregation on Long Island, and that there has been a systemic failure to enforce fair housing laws.

Fair housing and structural racism often seem to be problems that public officials simply don't want to address, even 46 years after the Civil Rights Act. Yet, as a new generation begins to face the stubborn roots and persistent evidence of racism and discrimination, communities like those on Long Island are in great need of public reform and a real conversation on race. The trial of Jeffrey Conroy for the racially motivated killing of immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue brought anti-immigrant violence into our headlines, and clearly showed the need for a public discussion on discrimination.

Last week, a study released by the Population Reference Bureau and the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, found that structural discrimination and public policy "may hinder the broader integration of Latinos into U.S. society if left unattended." This finding mirrors data collected by ERASE Racism here. In terms of access to fair housing, public education and decent health care, the front lines of the civil rights movement must now stretch from Phoenix to Hempstead.

On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh decried protests against the Arizona legislation, saying, "It's simple code words. 'Civil rights violations.' You know who that's designed to stir up."

Yes, we know exactly the kind of people who should be stirred up by the specter of civil rights violations. They're people in the mold of Dorothy Height and those still marching on the front lines of freedom. They're called Americans.

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