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A writer asks: What if the Arizona shooter had been Latino?

Photo by Patrick Dockens/Flickr (Creative Commons)

An opinion piece from an NPR contributor relating ethnicity to last Saturday's shooting in Tucson has drawn hundreds of comments on the website. Titled "Across America, Latino Community Sighs With Relief," it poses this question: What if the gunman had been Latino?

The essay is written by Daisy Hernandez, former editor of the magazine ColorLines. In it she describes her reaction when she heard about the rampage. She rushed to her Android phone, she writes, searching for the suspected killer's surname:

My eyes scanned the mobile papers. I held my breath. Finally, I saw it: Jared Loughner. Not a Ramirez, Gonzalez or Garcia.

It's safe to say there was a collective sigh of brown relief when the Tucson killer turned out to be a gringo. Had the shooter been Latino, media pundits wouldn't be discussing the impact of nasty politics on a young man this week — they'd be demanding an even more stringent anti-immigrant policy. The new members of the House would be stepping over each other to propose new legislation for more guns on the border, more mothers to be deported, and more employers to be penalized for hiring brown people. Obama would be attending funerals and telling the nation tonight that he was going to increase security just about everywhere.

When the news broke, one question that came up for many, including me, was whether Arizona's immigration politics had played any part. Considering the controversy that has plagued the state in the past year over SB 1070, an ethnic studies ban in public schools and now a push to end birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, it was a natural question.

I'm not sure how widespread the collective sigh Hernandez writes about was, how many other Latinos wondered at first if the shooter was one of theirs. It wasn't my personal experience. As the horror of what happened sank in, this wasn't among the questions that came to mind.

But others' reactions varied. One commenter describing himself as Latino writes that he "did not think for a moment that the race of the shooter was relevant." Another writes: "While not all of us reacted the same way, many of us did. This article is an honest reflection on the siege mentality that has taken hold of the Hispanic community."

It's a blunt and understandably controversial piece. Among other things, some readers have taken offense to Hernandez's use of "gringo" to describe the suspected shooter's ethnicity, which itself has a created a heated back-and-forth among readers.

Still, it presents an intriguing what-if. What would the national conversation be like today if the shooting suspect were Latino, even if the circumstances were the same?

Both the piece and the comment thread make for an interesting read.