Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Racialized nationalism in Arizona

By Evelyn Nakano Glenn

According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 2.1 million U.S. citizens of Hispanic heritage in the State of Arizona. Under a new law passed by the Arizona legislature and signed by Governor Brewer, each and every single one of these persons — child, adult, elderly, male, female — is now subject to arrest by local police, should an individual officer have reason to believe that said individual is in any way "suspicious" (e.g. a dark complexion or black hair, or even what the policeman perceives to be an “accent”). If the arrested person is not carrying papers that can prove his or her U.S. citizenship, they are subject to immediate arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. (There are also an estimated 460,000 undocumented — i.e., "illegal" — persons in the state, some of whom have been there for 30 or more years, and have been working, paying taxes, and in some cases serving in the military).

This anti-immigrant law was introduced by a white supremacist and Holocaust-denying member of the Arizona legislature, Russell Pearce. Rachel Maddow reported on her MSNBC show that the legislation was written by Kris Kobach, who for many years was an attorney for the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization dedicated to maintaining a Euro-American majority in the U.S. FAIR was funded for many years by the Pioneer Fund. According to Maddow, the Pioneer Fund was founded 70 years ago to promote eugenics and has long supported research aimed at proving the genetic superiority of white people and efforts to promote the gene pool of pre-revolutionary white settlers. Notwithstanding the legislation’s neo-Nazi and white supremacists roots, Governor Jan Brewer claimed that the law would be implemented "in a fair way" without racial profiling. After signing the bill the Governor was asked if she knew what an illegal alien looked like (which is the basis for an arrest), and she stuttered, "I do not know," but "I think there people in Arizona who assume they know what an illegal immigrant looks like!!" In other words, she was unwilling to say the words, but she stated that others would "know one if they saw one." Scary.

But, as we gaze across the Colorado River border between California and Arizona and snicker at those benighted and obviously racist people on the other side, should we really be so complacent and sure of ourselves? Are we so sure that the same racist sentiments don’t reside in our own state, indeed in our own legislature? Should we not recall the limp response of the University of California statewide office to the outrageously racist acts at UC Davis and UC San Diego just a few weeks ago? And where is the support from Californians for meaningful and effective immigration reform that could offer pathways to citizenship, or at least legal standing, for a large proportion of the estimated 12 million undocumented persons who reside in California and elsewhere in the U.S.?

It may be hard to imagine how Arizona could out-do itself in terms of oppressive racist legislation, but, just as this issue of Faultlines was going to press, that is exactly what happened. On May 11, Arizona Gov. Brewer signed a bill making it illegal to teach ethnic studies in any public schools in the state. The rationale for this gross intrusion by the legislature into school curricula is that ethnic studies courses promote "ethnic chauvisim," and racial resentment of whites. The primary sponsor of the legislation is Arizona State Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne, who is running for Attorney General on a platform targeting Mexican Americans and other minorities. Mr. Horne told reporters on May 12 that his next target would be courses on Asian American as well as African American Studies.

The new Arizona law prohibits any educational activity that is "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group." The substantial Hopi and Navaho student population will be spared because the teaching of Native American history and culture is mandated by federal law. However, the teaching of Latino studies in heavily Hispanic parts of the state will be banned. Indeed, Mr. Horne has stated that if elected Attorney General his highest priority will be to "go after Mexican American studies."

It is unclear how the legislation will effect the state’s major universities, but both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University are state-supported schools, and could become targets after all secondary schools in the state are cle ansed of their ethnic studies classes and programs.

This terrible situation is not just Arizona’s. We have amongst us, right here on the UC Berkeley campus, undocumented students, who are trying to get a decent education while also in constant fear of arrest and deportation. Most are struggling to pay tuition because they are ineligible for financial aid and can’t get jobs in the formal labor market. I have some of these students in my own classes and have met others at conferences and workshops. I know them to be smart, hardworking students who bring rich experiences and insights to the classroom and to the university community. But as long as racism is so prevalent, and as long as anti-Latino hatred is so widespread, it is virtually impossible for these dedicated students to succeed and start on the road to legal recognition. In this climate of anti-immigrant fever, it is unlikely that the California Legislature will pass legislation to make state and university funded financial aid available to undocumented students or that the U.S. Congress will pass immigration reform legislation that would provide them with pathways to citizenship. Hopefully there will be sufficient revulsion against Arizona’s law to energize citizen action aimed at immigration reform.

This article was orginally published by UC Berkeley's Center for Race and Gender's Faultlines.