What If Cops Stopped 'Conservative, Overweight White Men'?

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Washington Post conservative columnist Michael Gerson is one of many punits who sympathize with Arizona's challenges on illegal immigration, and yet condemn the state's new law. His opposition, outlined in a Wednesday column, is hardly shared by all conservatives. In fact, Gerson's column put him at odds with fellow conservative commentator Byron York of the Washington Examiner. Their exchange neatly encapsulates the debate over the law over the past few days.

  • 'Understandable--And Dreadful ' This is how Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, described the law in his Wednesday column. He criticized it for encouraging racial profiling, and added that "Americans are not accustomed to the command 'Your papers, please,' however politely delivered. The distinctly American response to such a request would be 'Go to hell,' and then 'See you in court.'"
  • 'What America Is Gerson Living In?' asks the The Washington Examiner's Byron York.
No, we are not confronted by actors with heavy German accents demanding our papers. We are instead confronted routinely by people of all stripes asking to see our driver's license. When we board an airplane, we are asked to produce a government-issued photo ID, usually a driver's license. When we make some credit- or debit-card purchases in department stores, we are asked to produce a driver's license. When we enter many office buildings, both private and government, security guards often ask us to produce a driver's license. When we go to doctors' offices and hospitals, we are asked to produce a driver's license. When we check into hotels, we are asked to produce a driver's license. When we purchase some over-the-counter drugs, we are asked to produce a driver's license. If we go to a bar or nightclub, anyone who looks at all young is asked to produce a driver's license. And needless to say, if we have any encounter with police or other authorities, we are asked to produce a driver's license.
  • 'A Basic Distinction' Gerson responds by accusing York of trying to "slip the surly bonds of sense and argue that the demand by police to provide identification is inherently unobjectionable in every circumstance because it is unexceptional in some circumstances." That makes no sense, he says: "an entrance exam for college entry is expected. An entry exam at a polling place in unconstitutional." Or, to tighten the analogy further:
I am more than happy to provide my identification to an officer who clocks me speeding. I would be less cooperative if I were stopped because conservative, overweight, white men were declared by implication to be a criminally suspect class by the state of Virginia.
  • But This Isn't Racial Profiling "Gerson's white-guy analogy," retorts York, "makes sense only if you believe the new Arizona law allows police to engage in racial profiling and stop Hispanics simply because they are Hispanic." But through Arizona's governor may have failed to explain the idea of "reasonable suspicion" coherently, York points out that there is, in fact, a meaning for it "developed in many, many years of case law. Police and prosecutors act in accordance with those meanings." This is not just giving police officers a blank check to halt Hispanics on the street. Ultimately, he concludes, "If you are in the United States illegally, you have reason to fear interactions with the police or any other government authority."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.