Last Friday, ABC News aired a controversial episode as part of its “What Would You Do?” segment in which a hired actor portrayed a security guard who racially profiled a Latino family in Tucson, Arizona. (The family members were also actors.) The purpose of the skit was to record the reactions of various onlookers with a hidden camera. In all of the situations presented in the segment, witnesses stood up against the racial profiling taking place. The report concludes:
Over two days of filming, we were amazed to see dozens of people stepping up when witnessing racial profiling in action. All kinds of people intervened — in fact, the majority were non-Hispanic. Despite the fact that the anti-immigration law seems popular in Arizona, we didn’t see any evidence of it in this Tucson restaurant.
The Arizona Republic reports that Speaker of the House Kirk Adams sent out a media release demanding ABC retract and apologize for “a fake news story the show produced about Arizona’s new immigration law for the purposes of entertaining viewers with a ‘Candid Camera’ style set-up.” “This is an outrageously inaccurate portrayal of SB-1070 by ABC News,” he said.
In all fairness, SB-1070 does not grant a private security guard the authority to ask anyone about their immigration status. Instead, it requires police to demand proof of legal residency during a legal stop when reasonable suspicion that a person is undocumented exists. That is typically understood to mean that the person being approached about their immigration status must be suspected of breaking some other law before that inquiry takes place.
It’s illegal to impersonate law enforcement, so that’s why ABC carefully avoided that scenario. Meanwhile, SB-1070 establishes a pretty low threshold for what kind of infractions should elicit immigration questioning. A minor traffic violation or a broken tail light could suddenly catapult into an immigration interrogation. Also, since anything from an accent to “dress or appearance” can be used to establish reasonable suspicion that a person is undocumented, the racial profiling taking place in the sketch itself is unfortunately not that far-fetched.
Ultimately, the takeaway of the segment for me wasn’t so much how SB-1070 will be implemented, but rather, how people come to think about its implementation. ABC mentions that “[e]ven though the law triggered a wave of protests, polls showed that over 50 percent of Arizona voters supported the bill.” However, ABC fails to cite the data that makes their whole candid camera stunt noteworthy. Despite the fact that SB-1070’s proponents have claimed otherwise, over 70 percent of all Americans thinks it’s “somewhat” to “very” likely that Latino citizens will be asked for their papers by police who think they are undocumented immigrants. In Arizona, almost half of all voters think the SB-1070 immigration debate has “exposed a deeper sense of racism in our community.” The high level of support for the law seems to imply that the general public is willing to accept these serious drawbacks.
Yet, ABC’s segment suggests that when people actually witness racial profiling, most of them are pretty appalled by it. Granted, it’s certainly possible that the individuals ABC caught on camera aren’t necessarily a representative sample of the electorate. It’s also true that not everyone stood up to defend the people being persecuted. But at least one woman claimed the event changed how she thought about SB-1070, telling ABC that she had “never given a thought to the consequences of the anti-immigration law.” Now, she said, “I’m definitely going to be taking a different view against it.” My guess is she wasn’t the only person who came out feeling that way. As unlikely as it may be that the scenarios depicted by ABC would become the norm under SB-1070, it alarmed at least a few people that something even resembling what was shown could take place in America.