First, it was legally-sanctioned racial profiling, with a touch of totalitarian “Show me your papers” thrown in for good measure (SB 1070). Next, we were delivered a new law banning Ethnic Studies programs or any teaching that promotes “ethnic solidarity” (HB 2281). Then, the state’s school superintendent announced a policy whereby teachers with “heavy accents” would be prevented from being in classrooms in which instruction was being given in English. Despite all of this, we’re continually told by proponents that it’s not about race but about upholding the laws and securing our borders. Wrong. Let’s be clear and upfront about what’s happening here: it’s mainly about fear and hatred, and it appears that it’s only just begun.
From a peace and conflict studies perspective, these laws promise to deepen divisions, drive a wedge through communities, separate family units, and undermine constructive dialogue. They pit working people against one another, and require neighbors to police one another. In this light, these laws will foster a climate of suspicion and antipathy, in which violence – both rhetorical and physical – can flourish. Indeed, on some level these laws themselves potentially constitute a form of “hate crimes” by persecuting and scapegoating a particular group based on that group’s identity, and thus raise the specter of racially motivated violence in our communities. Heartbreakingly, it’s more than just a mere specter of violence at this point for Juan Varela’s family, as recently reported by the Associated Press:
Tension surrounding the passage of Arizona’s tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration contributed to the slaying of an Hispanic man, allegedly shot by a white neighbor, a representative of the dead man’s family said Friday. Police and the family said the arrested man, 50-year-old Gary Thomas Kelley, allegedly directed racial slurs at 44-year-old Juan Daniel Varela before the May 6 shooting near their homes…. ‘When you have talk that becomes aggressive, it escalates the violence,’ said Carlos Galindo, a Phoenix radio commentator acting as a spokesman for Varela’s relatives at a state Capitol news conference.
A local television report added further details, including a moving call from the family for peace in the face of potential violence likely to surge in the climate created by SB 1070:
The alleged killer was yelling racial slurs seconds before he fired the shots that killed 44-year-old Juan Varela. Varela was a third-generation American, yet his family claims he was called a “wetback” who was going to be sent back to Mexico by the man who murdered him…. Varela’s nephew and namesake says he hopes his uncles death will not be in vain. ‘That’s the reason why we’re here today is … to talk about hope and non-violence that we would not turn on one another, that we would not hate one another but that we would turn together with love.’ The family feels the hysteria over illegal immigration contributed to Varela’s death.
More broadly, and taken to their logical extent, these new laws targeting and profiling certain groups brush against the unconscionable practices of “ethnic cleansing” that have been universally condemned under international law. If it can still be doubted that this is indeed the intent of SB 1070 in particular, the law’s sponsor, State Senator Russell Pearce, affirmed the rationale of displacement and forced expulsion in a recent statement defending its passage: “Our law is already working. One can just scan the newspapers and see dozens of headlines like ‘Illegal Immigrants Leaving Arizona Over New Law: Tough, Controversial New Legislation Scares Many in Underground Workforce Out of State.'”
As in other conflict-ridden spheres where such draconian policies have taken hold – including in South Africa where a young man named Mohandas Gandhi resisted racially-motivated identification laws and restrictions on the mobility of Indians – these practices of displacement and induced fear devolve principally upon racial profiling and ethnic identification. When proponents tell you that it’s not about race but about upholding the law, this is reminiscent of arguments put forth in the South in defense of poll taxes and literacy tests that plainly targeted African Americans. Such noxious racism is both legally and morally indefensible, and the demand that people produce their papers in the manner prescribed by SB 1070 smacks of a totalitarianism that has no place in a democracy. Driving the point home, a video primer on how police can determine who may be here illegally (released by SB 1070 architect Kris Kobach of FAIR) includes these nuggets: “Speaks English poorly;” “Appears to be in transit or traveled a significant distance;” “Abruptly exiting from the highway;” “Out of place or unusual in a specific locale;” and “Indications from dress, appearance and demeanor that the person is an ‘illegal alien.'” The potential for abuse and discrimination in such frameworks is indeed palpable.
The racialized nature of Arizona’s policies becomes immediately apparent when considering the message sent by passing SB 1070 and HB 2281 in succession, and apparently the ruling rightwing regime isn’t done yet with their spate of hate bills. In the queue now are additional measures, including one (SB 1097) that would “compel teachers and administrators to determine the legal status of students and their families” and require annual reporting by schools on the “adverse impact of the enrollment of students who cannot prove lawful residence in the United States.” (Note that only “adverse” impacts are to be reported, and not any positive impacts of such students.) A Phoenix news station obtained emails sent and received by Pearce, including some that detail his stated intention to circumvent the 14th Amendment by “push[ing] for an Arizona bill that would refuse to accept or issue a birth certificate that recognizes citizenship to those born to illegal aliens, unless one parent is a citizen.” In these messages, Pearce validates the use of the pejorative term “anchor babies” – which is unsurprising given that in recent years he “has proposed equally odious legislation, such as only allowing Americans to wed Americans, sanctioning landlords who knowingly rent to illegal aliens, and so forth.”
All of this militates strongly against the arguments alleging that the gist of Arizona’s intentions are merely about upholding the law, as Sarah Palin argued in a recent visit to the state. If it’s about the law and not invidious racism, then we should remedy the situation by providing a clear and workable path to legality for millions of hard-working people who contribute enormously to both our economy and culture. If it’s about the law, then the U.S. Constitution must be upheld as well, including the 4th and 14th Amendments, which guarantee freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, due process, and equal protection under the law. We should never put police officers in an impossible situation where they are forced to choose between ethically doing their duty and following the laws of the land. And in fact, many of them have spoken out against SB 1070, and some have even sued to block its implementation.
Political wedge issues such as those raised by what’s happening now in Arizona are intended to divide us, but the path to peace will be found by working together to resolve conflicts and address the important issues of the day. We ought to strive to turn this crisis into an opportunity to overcome fear and hatred. Palin did get one thing right in her speech here endorsing SB 1070: “We’re all Arizonans now.” Obviously, she meant to exclude a number of constituencies from this calculus, but ironically, she stumbled upon a deeper truth in this unfolding jeremiad. Just as the Danish scuttled the Nazis’ plans by standing in solidarity with Jews and others being persecuted, so too can people of good conscience everywhere stand with Arizonans as we work to undo the hatred and repression in our midst.
We are quite likely in the throes of a new civil rights movement in America. The forces of hatred and fear have fomented the dilemma for public debate, and in that we may be grateful on some level for the opportunity to openly confront certain values that have been at work more covertly since the advent of laws prohibiting express racism in America. Extremism presents many dangers, and yet also possibilities, as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed in his poignant and still relevant ***Letter from a Birmingham Jail***: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” In charting our course, we would do well to heed this reminder of the choice placed squarely before us today.