By Wendell P. Simpson
ABOVE PHOTO: Juan Perez, left, who opposes the tea party movement, talks to Iraq veteran Army Sgt. Pete Garay right, about immigration reform during a tea party rally at the Daley Plaza Thursday, April 15, 2010, in Chicago.
(AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
In the minds of many Americans, Arizona is becoming the beachhead from which the radical Right plans to launches its xenophobic and racist assault on American diversity.
Businesses across the nation have cut ties with entities originating in Arizona. In cities across the country, there have been massive protests, and in some cases, the governments of those cities and municipalities have passed referendums censuring Arizona and divesting themselves of investments with Arizona based suppliers.
In the calculus of many others, however, there is staunch support for the enactment of identical legislation in their own corners of the country: according to some polls, a whopping 67% of Americans approve of Arizona’s measures.
The arguments against Arizona’s recent legal imperatives are wide and varied and spring from a plethora of perspectives, each one frightened by the specter of officially sanctioned radicalized fascism, and the disappointing realization that, in America, fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms still manage to rest upon a such a precarious perch.
Two weeks ago, Arizona codified racial profiling into law when it passed SB 1070, a piece of anti-immigration legislation that not only allows police to stop and detain suspected illegal immigrants on the arbitrary basis of ‘reasonable suspicion’ –which means ensnaring all Latinos in a dragnet, citizens as well as non-citizens, some of whom may be tourists, visitors and/or others legally engaged to be in the United States—but which also stipulates the citizenry’s right to sue any law enforcement agent who act less than zealously on the law’s mandate.
This week, with the fallout over the previous bill still burning with volcanic intensity, Arizona has enacted another piece of controversial legislation that threatens to explode into another round of nuclear outcry.
The new bill, HB 2281 limits ethnic studies in Arizona public schools, and places an outright ban on one specific program offered in Tucson, AZ schools, the Raza Studies Program, that teaches American history through the prism of the Latino perspective.
Tom Horne, the state superintendent of school curriculum, has been pursuing the demise of the Raza program for more then four years. He has described the course as part of a “radical separatist agenda.”
“I’m opposed to dividing students by race and infusing them with ethnic chauvinism,” said Horne. “This course teaches Latino students that they are oppressed.”
Some critics say the ethnic studies ban is an attempt by Arizona to whitewash history, and a continuation of the state’s peculiar history of overt and blatant racialism.
“In terms of the history of legal segregation, the most radically separatist organization in America has been the American government,” said Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” last week. “If we shy away from the history of oppression in America, we shy away from the truth of American history.”
Many observers see Arizona as a litmus test for the Right political agenda.
“Arizona has become a beacon for far right extremism,” said Chris Murray, a journalist and former adjunct professor of African American Studies at Temple University. “Like old Mississippi, it just won’t deal with it’s people of color equitably, and, apparently, it has yet to deal with it’s immigration issues without supplanting democracy and it’s principles—and, lest anyone forget, it is our democratic principles that make us a grand and worthy on-going experiment.”
Murray calls the ethnic studies ban an attempt by Arizona to rewrite history and suppress the expression of its Latino population.
“They want to teach history and culture from a Euro-centric point of view, a perspective that excludes the contributions of Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans,” said Murray. “Even women’s studies are sublimated to the white male cultural imperative—but the truth is, diversity studies are critical if Americans are to understand their history in a fair, inclusive, and accurate way.”
The SUN reached the offices of the Pennsylvania State Republican Committee in Harrisburg, but as of press time, messages hadn’t been returned. However, at least one Pennsylvania Republican has misgivings about how the anti-immigration law proposes to implement its intent.
Russ Diamond, founder of the political watchdog group PA Clean Sweep, and a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor, said that illegal immigration is a complex and sensitive issue that does not lend itself to easy, quick fixes.
“I’m behind any effort that will protect our borders,” said Diamond, “but there’s a concern about how it is carried out. As to this issue of racial profiling, I’ll say this—any provision that demands American citizens present papers on demand, no matter what his or her ethnicity may be—well, I’m concerned about it and leery of it. It smacks of a certain regime that came to power in Germany earlier in the last century—and we all know how that turned out.”
Diamond suggested that no matter how pundits and politicians couch the language, the issue of immigration is all about economics.
“The same people screaming about illegal immigration are the same people who support the corporations’ right to ship American jobs overseas and act in an unfettered way,” said Diamond, “but the fact is, wrong or right, the illegals are the only reason we don’t pay ten dollars for a head of lettuce. You can’t have it both ways.”
Diamond places the burden of responsibility squarely at the feet of the federal government. “This controversy underscores the failure of the government to act,” Diamond said. “Since it’s so obvious that our economy is dependent upon this labor force, it is incumbent upon the government to set up a provision to monitor the work force and assess whatever implications that means in terms of taxes and the back and forth transit of laborers across the borders.”
While Diamond did not address the issue of ethnic studies, he is adamant that any effort to enact an Arizona-type anti-immigration legislation in Pennsylvania will never take hold. “There are myriad issues that make Arizona and Pennsylvania worlds apart,” said Diamond, “not the least of which being, who’s savvy enough in this state to differentiate between different groups of Hispanics.”
“And let’s understand this: in Arizona, the primary concern is crime and cross border drug trafficking; in Pennsylvania the biggest concern is about overloading an already overburdened welfare system.”
Murray agrees with Diamond that a comprehensive and fair federal immigration policy is the only way to prevent states from enacting legislation with questionable constitutional basis. “The bottom line is, immigration is primarily a federal issue. It’s long past time the federal government address the matter in an equitable and effective way.”
Ed Saldana, a businessman and former president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Nashville, Tennessee, said that for many Latinos, the anti-immigration issue becomes a double edged sword.
“Is it important that we protect our borders? Yes, it is,” said Saldana “My heritage is Ecuadorean , but I born and raised in New York City, so, in my mind, the law doesn’t refer to me—but here’s what I know—if I’m driving down the street in Arizona and they’re stopping people, I’m going to be stopped.
“Let’s not be fooled,” Saldana said. “Economic considerations will always prevail. If the Arizona law begins to impact the state negatively, you’d better believe they will rescind it.”
Saldana said he doesn’t know much about the ethnic studies controversy, but he does suggest that lumping all Spanish speaking people under a single banner creates an erroneous impression.
“My wife’s Puerto Rican, I’m not,” said Saldana,chuckling. “Our Spanish isn’t even the same. We’re a hundred different cultures—and believe me, we don’t always see eye to eye on a number of issues.”
Even among those who support tougher border controls, there is concern about the far reaching implications of the Arizona law. Newsweek columnist, Christopher Dickey, who supports the notion of a requirement to carry ID, wrote last week, (the immigration bill) is populist xenophobia gone loco…and if there were any doubt about the parochial, churlish qualities of the Arizona state government, Gov. Jan Brewer has just signed a new law clearly intended to stifle Hispanic pride in the schools…
“This isn’t really about trying to protect national borders,” Dickey continued, “—it’s about building a hodgepodge system of local vigilantism based on fear and prejudice, then trying to force the federal government to be complicit.”
Ngawang Losel, a native Tibetan and ‘Free Tibet’ activist who, ten years ago, escaped the brutal Chinese occupation of his homeland, said that the Arizona ethnic studies ban reminds him of the cultural suppression occurring in his own country.
“To be honest, I am shocked this is happening in America,” said Losel. “Under more than 60 years of Chinese occupation, we have not been allowed to study our own Tibetan culture—not even in our schools—only Chinese culture and Chinese history. The result is, there is a whole generation of young Tibetans who know nothing about our traditions—that knowledge is disappearing forever. It would be appalling and wrong to have features of Latino culture in America disappear because of bigotry and fear.”
Critics like Murray believes that Arizona’s legislative measures—and the level of support for they’ve received across the nation—speaks to something more insidious about the cultural direction in which the country is heading.
“It seems that patriotism these days means hating 98% of everything else in the country,” Murray said, sadly, “and that ideology expresses itself in Arizona.”