The Problem with “Do-Something” Government

By Dara Lind

Jamelle’s post about Arizona SB 1070 and “colorblindness” is spot-on, but I wanted to draw one of his points out a bit. Unlike, say, Jim Crow laws — which had no purpose other than targeting African-Americans — my take on SB 1070 has been that it really is intended to target undocumented immigrants, but will inevitably target Latinos. Jamelle and Adam Serwer, in his original post, both touched on this, as did Monica Potts at TAPPED earlier in the week: racial profiling is sometimes codified in policy, but it can also be, as I put it earlier in the week, a “habit of mind” — a heuristic. A police officer doesn’t need to be told to target someone who looks likely to be a criminal; the problem is what mental shortcuts they’re going through in order to determine what “looking likely” means. I don’t think of SB 1070 as a racial-profiling law; I think of it as a law that will cause widespread racial profiling.

The Arizona politicians who passed the bill don’t agree with this interpretation, but when asked by the New York Times, a majority of the American public did. But — as Matt pointed out at the timethey support the law anyway. This, to my mind, might even be scarier than the willful ignorance of Arizona Republicans; the public understands that SB 1070 will impose on the civil rights of Arizona’s Latinos, but they think that’s less important than the fact that it “does something” about illegal immigration. (A majority of Americans continue to support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, incidentally, so it really is a question of doing “something” — anything — rather than enacting a more restrictionist immigration policy.)

This is a problem. Believe me, I understand the American public’s frustration with government inaction in general, and inaction in fixing the immigration system in particular. But there are some things more important than government “getting things done,” and protecting the dignity of its people is one of those. Red tape exists for a reason sometimes.

Sometimes I worry that this point isn’t getting made frequently enough in political discourse, on either side. Conservatives have long said that government needs to be more efficient, like the private sector. But the same habits of mind and “prioritization techniques” that drive private-sector efficiency can lead to, say, racial profiling when used by government. Meanwhile, both of the signature domestic issues of the liberal movement — health care and climate change — have led liberals to endorse centralized, technocratic solutions to problems too big for anyone but the federal government to solve. Call it the Daft Punk theory of governance. But it’s hard to focus on government Doing Things to address these problem, and still get the message across that in some cases — like when civil rights are at stake — government shouldn’t necessarily be as brutally “efficient” as it theoretically could be.

Permadisclaimer: my positions on immigration politics and policy are entirely my own, and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization.