Hot on the heels of an immigration law that essentially makes it a crime to be Latino in the state, Arizona Gov. Jan Brenner signed another law which is aimed at preventing Latinos and other minorities from recognizing, discussing and fighting the naked racism that has made Arizona a pariah state—or an ominous harbinger of the future. Under the guise of wild conspiracy theories typical of white supremacists, militias, xenophobes and nativists, the law bans ethnic studies classes in public schools, although it is specifically aimed at the Mexican American Studies Department in Tucson—whose destruction has been a pet project of Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne for years. Horne, who is plainly using anti-Latino racism as a tool to aid his quest to be state attorney general as well as advancing his own racist agenda, claims that ethnic studies promotes “ethnic chauvinism,” communism, Marxism, anti-white hatred, separatism—you get the picture. These are the kind of fantasies that worm there way into the white paranoid’s mind, so afraid that the oppressed might rise-up against the oppressor.
Arizona is a state with a long history of anti-Latino discrimination and opposition to civil rights; the territory, like Texas, was settled by white Americans who intended to create a new slave state in order to advance the South’s political struggle with the non-slave North. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which “sold” Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande to the U.S., was supposed to grant Mexican residents U.S. citizenship rights (if they chose to stay) and guarantee their property rights, this was not in fact respected. Arizona was also among the states that forcibly rounded-up and “repatriated” up to 2 million Mexican Americans back to Mexico during the Great Depression, a naked effort to appease conservative voters and Democratic labor union supporters by preventing U.S. citizens who happened to be “Mexican” from taking “real” Americans’ jobs.
The ethnic studies ban is little to be differentiated from other examples of racial paranoia, such the opposition to the MLK Jr. holiday—a reflection of Arizona’s desire to maintain its “white heritage” at all costs and keep the issues of discrimination obscure by not discussing it or even acknowledging it exists (perhaps one may deduce that the white Arizonan’s paranoia is fueled by the knowledge that they are the Johnny-come-latelies; after all, it was first a Native American and then a Mexican land—and unlike race-conscious Anglos, the Spanish were not particularly adverse to “intermingling” with the natives). Thus for people as despised and socially marginalized as Latinos in Arizona have been, programs like the Mexican American Studies have given students a forum and the means to recognize the issues and problems that they face in society, and forge solutions to move ahead, which is apparently what whites like Horne fear. It is about control, and that includes controlling how Latinos and other minorities “fit-in”—or rather, don’t fit in—the Anglo world. It is also useful to note that in Arizona, as in other states, anti-Latino sentiment is especially driven by people of Italian descent—part of the American trait of one group bullying another to act out their self-esteem issues.
I have not determined if the ethnic studies ban encompasses public universities, but if the “problem” is the creation of a “culture of victimization” and providing an “oppressive” classroom atmosphere for the designated “oppressor” as Horne also claims, then it is interesting that women’s studies programs are not included in the ban—or, for that matter American and European history that whitewashes the crimes of Manifest Destiny, colonialism, slavery and rights that no white person is bound to respect.
In any case, the defenders of white rule often refer to MLK Jr’s “content of character” declaration in defense of their racist attitudes. But what do they really mean by “character?” They don’t mean acting “civilized,” becoming educated and getting ahead. They mean acting like the subservient Uncle Tom, the house darky, the token minority. They mean not making waves, not talking about racism or discrimination in a way that makes whites “uncomfortable.” They mean being satisfied with the crumbs they are thrown. They mean not standing in the way of white “privilege.”