Friday, May 02, 2008

Racism and arrogance in the Arizona State Legislature

As strong as this post’s title is, it isn’t strong enough. Racism and arrogance are bad enough on their own, but they are even worse when accompanied by provincialism, narrow-mindedness, and censorship. The final paragraph explains how, if you live in the right area, you can take action.

In a campus-wide email, the Dartmouth chapter of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), a Latino student organization, brought my attention to SB1108, a bill that recently passed the Arizona House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on a vote of 9-6. The e-mail prompted me to do a little more research on my own. This bill would ban all “anti-American” or “anti-European” teachings from public schools and universities and prohibit racially-based student groups from operating on campus. Its sponsor, Appropriations Chair Russell Pearce, is in no uncertain terms a racist. It's one thing to fight illegal immigration, but another entirely to push these policies.

Per the MEChA email, according to Pearce, SB1108 would ban any teaching that "overtly encourage(s) dissent from American values.” In other words, he has taken it upon himself to determine what does and does not count as an American value – as if, beyond democracy, equal opportunity, and freedom of speech, there really is such a thing. It is absurdly racist and arrogant to think you can take your own family life and your own personal upbringing and demand that it be reflected onto and legally mandated for 300 million other people. I can tell you this much, even if there are American values, focusing on only one small sliver of history, the European, should not be one of them. We can be smarter and more understanding of humanity than that. Another Arizona House appropriator, Rep. Jack Kavanagh, told the Arizona Republic, “If you want a different culture, then fine, go back to that culture.” Never mind that this nation was once called the Melting Pot, or that our Southern cities were built by kidnapped members of African cultures and our western infrastructure by a mistreated Chinese culture! I’m forced to wonder if Kavanagh has ever kicked back with a couple of tacos and a German beer in front of The Godfather on TV after a night out in Chinatown. THAT’S American culture!!!

Pearce believes that students of Mexican studies programs, like the Tucson Unified School District’s Raza Studies, believe the Southwest should succeed from the United States and rejoin Mexico. I can tell you that I’ve known a number of Latino students, and the only place I’d previously heard that viewpoint was at a town hall meeting with the pro-immigration US Senator Larry Craig (R-bathroom stall), where anti-immigration advocates wearing White Pride buttons hijacked the proceedings. The Arizona Daily Star eloquently editorializes,

Pearce, one of the state's most strident opponents of illegal immigration, appears to have bought into the notion that MEChA followers want to take over the southwestern United States, which was part of Mexico.

That's hogwash.

The myth is perpetrated by right-wing anti-immigrant-rights groups like American Border Patrol and their Web sites. The lie gained new life over the last couple of years as the illegal-immigration debate reached a boiling point.

We editorialized in May 2006, around the time of several student marches calling for immigrant rights, that criticisms of MEChA were nothing more than fear-mongering tactics meant to foment anti-immigrant sentiment.

In reality, the group brings Hispanic students together so they can achieve academic success. MEChA is no different than black, Asian and American Indian groups that give students of the same race a place to meet, make friends and support one another.

I e-mailed the campus chapter of MEChA and suggested they write a joint letter with the Dartmouth Native American group, Korean group, etc., on how those groups have benefited both their members and our College. These groups really are a wonderful thing; what Pearce, Kavanagh, and their cohorts fail to understand is that "racial" doesn’t necessarily mean "racist". National, economic, and cultural communities often have a racial component to them for historical reasons, but why should we ban people from discussing their shared experiences? The only student groups I actively belong to are political and religious in nature, but if my family moved to Germany or if I studied abroad in Brazil, I think I would enjoy an American Student Union or something of the sort. Leonel Martinez of the Bakersfield Californian writes, “You can promote ethnic pride without teaching racial superiority. Kern County's own Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, understood that when he said, ‘Preservation of one's culture doesn't mean contempt for others.’” Vivirlatino expounds, explaining how MEChA benefited him back in his college days. I assume his arguments hold true for other cultural heritage groups as well.

When I first got to college, I found myself in a place where there were few people who looked like me. I soon got involved in Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan (MEChA). Suddenly, I was busy working on several of MEChA's projects, none of which involved taking up arms in an effort to return Aztlan to Mexico. It was much more tame. I tutored students at a local high school and called college representatives to organize a college fair at our annual conference for high school students. Although most the students in MEChA were Latino, we also worked closely with other ethnic student groups. Through this coalition, I learned about the common links between Chicanos and other people of color.

My peers in MEChA became my close friends. Several years out of college, they've gone on to careers as professors, lawyers, doctors, urban planners, teachers, counselors, and policy analysts for local and state government. Undoubtedly, the work we did through MEChA helped shape our career paths. MEChA has its flaws just like any other nearly 40-year-old organization, but the pros largely outweigh the cons.

This bill, and Pearce’s ego, must be stopped. Given the true nature of MEChA and related groups, and our nation's insistence on free speech, the law has no business telling students what they can't study or who they can't hang out with on campus. If you live in Arizona, use this United Farm Workers action page to contact your state senator, state representative, and AZ Speaker of the House Jim Weiers and ask them to stop this charade. If you live in Los Angeles, please, write to MEChA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and ask him to speak out. If you live in New Mexico, write to Hispanic Governor Bill Richardson, who spoke highly of such groups when he visited Dartmouth last year, and ask him to speak out. If you are a part of an ethnic group on any campus anywhere, use the UFW page to contact the Arizona Speaker and tell him how your group is beneficial and why it is not racist. Finally, I can't tell if Pearce has a Democratic opponent yet for the 2008 District 18 State Senate race, but if he ever does get one, you can contribute to their campaign.


Jordan said...

I glazed over the article, I think if the law is written correctly it's aimed more at teachers not to skew history towards their particular favor. Such as praising the South's rebellion against the North, or in this case praising people to illegally cross the border to live a "better" life.

Now this nut you're talking about may be a bit more concerned about his American values, but I would hope that if this goes to the Arizona State Senate they would amend the bill to appropriate levels of regulation. Also I would have thought that the Arizona State Representative branch would be bigger than 15 people, now if this is a committee and not the entire legislative house then I don't think there's much to be worried about.

Nathan Empsall said...

Thanks, Jordan, it is a committee, I must have forgot to type those two words. However, the Appropriations Committee is usually a body's most powerful committtee, and committees are controlled by the majority party, so passing the Approps Cmte is indeed something to worry about. So far the bill's vagueness is one of its big objections, but amendments can be tough when you're the minority party. And I personally don't think a bill should muzzle teachers anyway. As it stands, the law is written at textbooks and students as much as it is students.