Jim Crow is alive and well
Maintaining a whip hand, southern politicians once calculated, was the best way to defend white power. The same calculation drives contemporary Arizona politics.
By Char Miller / The Rag Blog / May 17, 2010
CLAREMONT, California — Standing in the middle of a busy rotary intersection in Orange, California, was a clutch of anti-immigrant protesters; these young white males were demonstrating their solidarity with what they presumed to be embattled Arizonans.
As a steady stream of cars revolved around the circle, they held up hand-lettered signs, the most blunt of which read: “Illegal is not a race. It’s a Crime!”
That is a distinction without a difference in Arizona, however, where being Latina/o has become criminalized. When Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation requiring local and state police to demand identification of those they “suspect” are undocumented, she and the state legislature went on record establishing a two-tier caste system: those who look white will get a pass; those who do not will get rousted. Jim Crow is alive and well in the Grand Canyon State.
Like white Southerners’ intense efforts to segregate public space after the destruction of slavery, contemporary Arizona politicians are determined to define who is “legal” and who is not; who looks like an American and who does not; who can walk down the sidewalk without fear of harassment and who must hide in the shadows.
They have also decided — as did their white-supremacist predecessors of the late nineteenth century — that controlling the movement of a suspect people is but one part of the battle to dominate social life. As essential is managing who gets educated and on what terms. In the postwar south this was accomplished through the creation of a flawed and inequitable educational system that received constitutional sanction in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Until repudiated by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Plessy succeeded in deflecting Blacks’ intellectual aspirations, lowering their economic horizons, and shackling their political ambitions.
In Arizona, legislators are just as serious about cracking down on the educational hopes of what is increasingly looking like a captive population. Within days of the passage of the anti-immigration law, another bill swept through the legislature: HB 2281. Its language is disturbing, for it “prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that: Promote the overthrow of the United States government. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
HB 2281’s goal is clear — to tar Chicano Studies programs in state universities and public schools as insurrectionary, denounce them as anti-white, and condemn them as sources of suspicious group cohesion. Its rhetoric may be different from the Black Codes that white southerners once enacted to manipulate former slaves, but the legislation’s desires are the same — keep the downtrodden down.
Maintaining a whip hand, southern politicians once calculated, was the best way to defend white power. The same calculation drives contemporary Arizona politics. Three years ago, for instance, Tom Horne, the state superintendent of education, lashed out at ethnic studies programs. As author of HB 2281, and now a Republican candidate for state attorney general, he rails against “ethnic chauvinism” to scare up voters. More inflammatory still is his department’s recent ruling “that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English.” In Horne’s Arizona, only whites have the right to be chauvinistic.
We have been here before. In his incisive critique of segregated America, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. DuBois recorded the “many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the 20th Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” That same deeply troubling divide, as Arizona has demonstrated, is staining the 21st.
[Char Miller is director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College, Claremont, CA. and is the former chair of the History Department and Director of Urban Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. He is author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas and editor of River Basins of the American West. This article also appears in the Rio Grande Guardian.]