By Howard J. Ross, Chief Learning Officer
Most Americans have watched with mixed reaction the evolving immigration and legislative dynamics in the State of Arizona over the past several months. For those who have been in hiding from the news, the state legislature, with the encouragement of Governor Jan Brewer, has passed a series of laws allowing police to question “suspicious” people as to their legal immigration status. It also requires individuals to carry cards certifying their legal residency. After the initial bill drew negative public reaction for the clear racial profiling impact of it, a second bill was introduced which modified the first, saying, in legal terms, “Do what we said the first time, but remember, it’s really not nice to profile!”
In related matters, monitors have begun sitting in classrooms of teachers to determine whether their accents make them appropriate teachers of “proper” English to students, and the Governor signed another measure making ethnic education programs illegal. According to this measure, schools will be denied state funding if they offer any programs that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." In other words, Black or Hispanic history is equivalent, in the minds of these “believers in freedom,” to promoting the overthrow of the government.
As for the monitoring of teachers, I wonder whether Mississippians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders will soon hold each other to similarly rigorous standards.
Hypocrisy is often an astonishing thing. Fear is a dangerous thing. In fact, fear is the most dangerous thing. History is filled with examples of fear-based reactions to “the other” that are chillingly reminiscent of these Arizona statutes: Identification cards carried by South Africans during apartheid; Nazi guards checking the “status” of Jewish residents; Jim Crow segregation in the south. We know there are far too many other examples to name.
The ultimate impact of Arizona’s version of the Nuremberg Laws has been to foment an already disturbing trend that has been mounting in this country over the past several years. It has been built on the personal ambition of infotainment celebrities like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, who have worked to expand their constituencies by demonizing and praying on the most vulnerable of people. It has been built on stirring hysterical and absurd reactions of people to things like a group of Latino and Latina artists singing a Spanish language version of the national anthem. It has been built on a lack of appreciation for the role that undocumented immigrants play in our economy. It has been built on the misrepresentation of people who are, for the most part, searching for the same thing almost all of our ancestors did…the American dream. A chance to feed and take care of the people they love, and to make a better life for themselves and their family.
It has been built on racism.
It is easy to understand the frustration of people about immigration. We have to do a better job of managing undocumented immigration, but it will not be helped by targeting brown people or people with Hispanic surnames. Latinos make up approximately 30% of the population of the state. It will come with a reasoned and compassionate approach.
Yet, in the middle of all of this, heroes emerge. One in particular deserves recognition. Right at the time that the controversy was exploding, Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, responded by having his team celebrate Cinco de Mayo by wearing alternative Jerseys that said “Los Suns.” Sarver, a native Arizonian, decried what he called "a flawed state law."
“However intended,” he said, “the result of passing the law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question.”
Sarver’s decision is by no means without risk. He has been threatened with economic sanctions ranging from boycotts to lack of corporate support. Yet he has remained steadfast in his stand.
That is what we all need to do. We all need to stand up and make it clear to Arizona that there is a cost to racism, just like there was when former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham rescinded the Martin Luther King Birthday Holiday in 1990. Eventually, after a massive boycott campaign, Arizona rescinded, with leaders like Senator John McCain changing their previous opposition to support the birthday holiday.
Every American can make a difference by letting Arizona know that it is simply not acceptable to target a population of our fellow residents simply because they are brown skinned and have an accent. We can let them know by not buying Arizona produced products (even when they are sold online), by not taking vacations to Arizona (yes, even if it means not seeing the Grand Canyon), by encouraging Commissioner Bud Selig to not let the 2011 Major League baseball All-Star game be played in a state where racist laws are tolerated, and even celebrated. Some major league players have already taken a stand that they will not play in the game if it is held there.
And, in the meantime, root for Los Suns next season. They are already winners in my book.