Alice in Arizona

David Cook-Martin
David Cook-Martin


By David Cook-Martín

Arizona’s new laws enforcing tough immigration measures and opposing ethnic studies education programs leave me feeling like a bewildered Alice arriving in Wonderland.

I am confused by the gap between the serious consequences of these laws and the rhetoric of supporters who make it sound as if these laws conform to American values of universal equality. They do not.

Arizona’s laws encourage racial profiling and silence the histories of the underprivileged. The immigration law (SB 1070 as revised by HB 2162) requires that law enforcement make a reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of any person suspected of being unlawfully present in the United States during any stop, detention or arrest.

Tucson police officer Martin Escobar has filed suit against the federal government to challenge the law partly because it forces police to apply the law “based on how a person talks or what they look like.” Other jurisdictions with similar programs have found it difficult to avoid profiling.

The ethnic studies law (HB 2281) bars Arizona public schools from offering courses or classes that “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” I question this constraint on curricular freedom.

First, “U.S. history” cannot be told other than from an ethnic or racial perspective. A “colorblind” history simply records a white, privileged account that is not only a dishonest silencing of other people’s histories, but just bad pedagogy because it discourages critical interpretations of how we narrate our history.

Second, by the logic of HB 2281, African American or Asian-American history should be banned because they foster particularistic group solidarities and are often aimed at kids from specific racial backgrounds.

Students of American history may be tempted to interpret these laws and their nefarious consequences as a return to 1920s-style nativist fervor. In those days, the Saturday Evening Post channeled Madison Grant’s racist lament that hordes of inferior immigrants had led to the “passing of the great [Nordic] race.” Legislators passed the Nationality Origins Act (1924) to stem the tide of Jews, Italians and others.

However, while the Arizona laws bear resemblance to old school nativism, they are dressed up in the universally accepted language of civil rights. They decry racial profiling and restrictions on teaching about the “historical oppression of a particular group or people based on ethnicity” — even as they set the stage for these bad practices.

David Cook-Martín, assistant professor of sociology at Grinnell College, examines interconnected migration and nationality policies in Latin American and Europe. Comments:

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