The Arizona state assembly’s now infamous anti-immigrant bill and legislation banning ethnic studies programs in secondary schools recently signed into law by Republican Governor Jan Brewer should matter not just to Latino/a Americans, but to African Americans and all Americans. Why? Because the state, with roughly 60% white population and 40% minority population, has a Republican-controlled state legislature whose representative total is not near parity with the state’s minority population.
Since the aftermath of the bills’ passage made the rounds on national cable news networks and throughout the blogosphere, many have said that it is clear that people in that state have lost their minds; but Arizona’s history suggests otherwise. These types of racial and ethnic controversies are not new to Arizona. It was the last state to officially recognize the national holiday honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, while the criticism from the left has been broad, the opposition to the new laws has largely not been focused on the effects to the Black American community.
The anti-immigrant bill has drawn its fair share of criticism already. The racist underpinnings of the anti-immigration law, however, functions as the canary in the coal mine for all under-represented racial minorities, and has shown up in the more obviously direct assault on the education of the state’s youth. The anti-immigration law was closely followed by another new law that bans the teaching of ethnic studies, arguing that such courses and programs "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, [and] are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Schools that fail to comply will lose their state funding.
The new anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic studies laws should matter to Blacks—and to all Americans. First,
the law banning ethnic studies centers on the Tucson School District, which currently offers courses focusing on the experiences and contributions of African-Americans, Native-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Second, the law’s successful filtering through the majority white and Republican state legislature should sound as a loud wake up call to all who value fair minority representation. The disproportionately over-represented white, conservative block wields excessive power to negatively impact a large number of minorities.
The efforts in both laws are supported by Tom Horne, the head of the Arizona schools and Republican candidate for attorney general. A conservative, Horne and other whites mask their traditional racism as an effort that is pro-American – an effort that also denies American citizens with accents from teaching courses on the English language. Arguably, the laws are an effort to ignore the reality that Arizona is set to become a majority-minority state by 2015, and to prolong the power of a dwindling white population. The ban on ethnic studies distorts America’s proud hallmark as a pluralistic, diverse nation, and has wrongly billed curricula that affirms this diversity as white hatred and ethnocentrism.
The law banning the teaching of ethnic studies is particularly problematic. The systematic exclusion of minority and, specifically, Blacks’ contribution to the American fabric denies the extraordinary contributions members of various minority racial and ethnic groups have made and continue to make to all areas of our society.
The representatives in Arizona’s state legislature have forgotten the legacy of human and civil rights for which Americans from all generations and backgrounds have fought, and from which the ethnic studies movement was derived in the 1960s and early 1970s. Students on college campuses around the country demanded black and ethnic studies because it serves an important experiential and intellectual purpose. Increased racial and ethnic diversity and programs of study yields societal benefits from which we all learn how best to relate to difference in all its forms. Arizona’s legislature has misinterpreted the mission of ethnic studies programs. The focus of ethnic studies is the accurate telling of history and the expression of pride for all America’s ethnic groups. Ethnic studies is truly American – and it generates pride in all those who value the diverse history of our great country.
The denial of the ethnic realities of our country’s population is a flagrant dismissal of the contributions that members of these groups make to society. For me, this is an extreme situation. As Dr. King stated in response to those who questioned his tactics after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham, AL that killed four girls, “we were faced with an extreme situation, and our remedies had to be extreme.” Therefore, I call on all organizations, cities, and towns to boycott Arizona commerce. While this boycott will unfortunately have some negative impact on those residing in the state currently, the temporary pain cannot be shielded against the greater good. Again, I reference Dr. King, the leader who Arizona took decades to officially recognize: “The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience, but how he stands at times of controversy and challenge.” The same is true today for organizations, cities and towns. While it may be easy and convenient to maintain the status quo in terms of conventions, business trips, and so on, such acts support a viewpoint that is truly un-American. While the representatives in Arizona are not representative of all Arizonans, they do speak for them – and unfairly, on behalf of many, they spoke bigotry, ignorance, and hatred. Consequently, we outsiders must be the conscience of the state.
In this post-Civil Rights era, we have the responsibility to hold on to the gains made some fifty years ago. Many fought and died to see the contributions of our people acknowledged and included. We can and should begin to speak for those sung and unsung giants of ethnic studies and civil rights by continuing to voice opposition to Arizona’s recent anti-ethnic studies/anti-immigrant legislation. We can and should boycott the state’s commerce to pressure the laws’ reversal.