Fear, politics and the Arizona whitewash

by William P. Muhammad

Two legislative initiatives recently signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer have brought to the national forefront a conservative driven agenda that many critics say is racist in one instance, and in the other, an attempt to set back advances in educational diversity.

On April 23, Senate Bill 1070 became law, making Arizona the toughest state in the land concerning immigration enforcement policy. Shortly thereafter, the signing of House Bill 2281, a measure that essentially bans ethnic studies programs in public education, revealed an agenda by conservative politicians and their allies to dismiss the contributions of non-Whites in American history.

As to the immigration issue, questions abound regarding the possibility of racial profiling and the potential for human rights abuses, while at the same time, the ban on ethnic studies points to a desire among Arizona conservatives to purge the non-White narrative from public discourse. This, coming from a state that initially refused to recognize the federal Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, should not be a surprise to those familiar with Arizona’s conservative agenda.

Negating any notion of the much ballyhooed era of so-called post-racial politics, the laws enacted by Gov. Brewer characterize and encompass an attempt not only to push back the clock to when American was synonymous with “Whites only,” but it also echoes the old states’ rights arguments that bolstered the anti-Black policies of the pre-civil rights era South. As the topic of immigration and ethnic empowerment become the focal point of Arizona’s conservative ire, people of color in general and others of good will would be wise to consider the time and organize opposition to similar ideas germinating in other states.

Be that as it may, and with a closer analysis, the motivation behind these misguided laws and initiatives suggests an unspoken fear, at least among White conservatives, of what can only be described as inevitable change. According to census projections, by mid-century people of color will outnumber Whites in the United States for the first time since the colonial period. As increasing numbers in certain states will translate into more House, Senate and gubernatorial seats, proportionate to future growth, state and federal government will start reflecting the faces of that new majority within 40 to 50 years.

As the conservative mantra of “taking back America” continues to ring out among conservatives and the “Tea Party” faithful, it begs the question: Taking it back from whom? As America is a country of diverse tongues, cultures and faiths, those who fear change within it, use their political capital and power for regressive rather than progressive agendas.

With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, it has been proven that any obstacle placed before our people can be surmounted in the name of excellence, and shattering the glass ceiling that historically impeded our advancement is not only doable, but it has been done. A triumph for many and a clear cause for celebration, there are others who unfortunately view such change with suspicion, seeing it only as a cause for dismay and aversion.

As in the case of Arizona, it is clear that a significant majority of its people support their governor’s decision. Either a backlash for the lack of federal leadership on the immigration question, or perhaps a sign of prejudice run amuck, a significant majority of Americans have also thrown in with Gov. Brewer’s actions and stand by them wholeheartedly. Based upon an unsophisticated if not poor understanding of America’s corporate labor practices, trade policies and the reluctance of the U.S. Congress to address real immigration reform, Arizonians, as well as Americans in general, are focusing more on the symptoms of undocumented immigration than on its root causes.

Regarding the subsequent ethnic studies ban, however, the legislative attempt to put the genie of knowledge, remembrance and pride back into the bottle is too little too late. For decades, if not centuries, American education said scant little about the significance and importance of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Having its origin with Black scholars who for decades pushed academia to recognize Black history, ethnic studies programs were designed to show that American history included much more than the narrative of Europeans “discovering” America and expanding westward. Nonetheless, and in spite of what Arizona has done, the knowledge is out there and it’s available for any interested party to read and study.

Arizona’s decision to criminalize the undocumented, and ban the in depth study of America’s diverse cultures, is a sign of something much bigger than promoting paths to legal immigration and American individualism. It suggests that below the veneer of civil and legislative discourse there is a fear of the so-called “browning of America” and the coming demographic shift expected by mid-century. Rather than whitewashing the guilty, by focusing upon the symptoms of America’s problems, perhaps time would be better spent if state and federal government partnered with its citizens to develop solutions for the causes instead.