Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Governor Brewer's Observation

In an interview last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer had the following observation to make about illegal immigrants coming into her state:

We all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules.

What I find most revealing about Governor Brewer's comment isn't, as many might suspect, its brazen racism. After all, it stands to reason that someone who would fight so hard for racially discriminatory legislation would probably have little difficulty accusing the race she is targeting of engaging en masse in criminal activity (to say nothing of referring to members of that race with a term that, regardless of its other potential uses, still compares them to barnyard animals). Racists, if nothing else, are dependably consistent in holding less-than-flattering opinions of the groups they dislike.

By now I have no doubt prompted the handful of right-wingers who read my blog to seethe in resentment at accusing Brewer and her supporters of being motivated by prejudice. Yet before the accusations start flying that I'm "playing the race card", let us remember that:

1) The bill authorizes law enforcement officials to pull over drivers and demand paperwork verifying their residency in the United States based purely on the suspicion that they might be illegal immigrants. While defenders of this measure point to the fact that it doesn't explicitly single out Latinos for special treatment, they conveniently ignore that the only realistic way any police officer can identify whether an arbitrary driver is potentially an illegal immigrant is visually - i.e., on the basis of whether he or she "looks" illegal. Put another way: In order for this portion of the bill to be rendered effective, Arizona cops would by necessity be encouraged to pull over drivers on the sole basis that they appear to be Latino.

2) This same bill allows police officers to arrest individuals and detain them without a warrant so long as they believe there is "reasonable suspicion" that they might be illegal immigrants. Once again, despite the use of the adjective "reasonable" in front of "suspicion", the only realistic way for police officers to determine whether a random pedestrian MIGHT be an illegal immigrant is if, on sight, he or she happens to look like a Latino. Apart from the manner in which this measure can easily lead to severe abuse against Arizona Latinos, its underlying premise - if taken to its logical conclusion - virtually codifies that Latinos who DO legally reside in that state will be officially considered second-class citizens. After all, the United States Constitution explicitly states (in its Fourth Amendment) that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause..." Considering the inevitable reality that, among the thousands of Latinos to be targeted by cops on the basis of their race, some will actually wind up being American citizens, this statute sets a precedent wherein it is permissible to violate the Constitutional rights of law-abiding Latino citizens on the basis of their racial identity.

3) Similarly, a subsequent bill was passed that makes it illegal for schools in that state to teach "ethnic studies classes". Like its predecessor, defenders of this law try to avoid the charge of racism through artful interpretations of the language used in that statute, in this case by claiming that "the measure doesn't prohibit classes that teach about the history of a particular ethnic group, as long as the course is open to all students and doesn't promote ethnic solidarity or resentment." Of course, also like its predecessor, that claim is easily debunked with the application of elementary logic: What exactly does the bill mean by "ethnic studies classes"? How does one determine whether a given course "promotes ethnic resentment"? By using such ambiguous language, the drafters of this bill have made it so that the government appointees responsible for executing this law (all of whom, naturally, are right-wing Brewerites) will be able to apply any set of criteria they choose in implementing it, so long as those standards loosely fall within the parameters of the policy's vague definition. While some have argued that those administrators wouldn't necessarily use their newfound power to target Latino students and classes, (1) Governor Brewer herself admitted that the bill was passed for the purpose of curbing potential protests from the Latino community and (2) the fact that the government has this power in the first place should cause consternation among libertarians, since in a free society no law should exist that empowers individual state officials (and bureaucrats, no less) to so easily deprive citizens of their fundamental civil rights. Yet there is good reason to believe that the officials responsible for school policy will interpret this policy in a distinctly anti-Latino fashion - after all, why else did the law prohibit not only classes that promote "ethnic resentment," which is admittedly a bad thing, but even courses that foster "ethnic solidarity," which is not? Indeed, this conflation of "ethnic solidarity" with "ethnic resentment" should in its own right be deemed problematic, although the fact that it isn't also is quite revealing of the unspoken assumptions of this bill's proponents and defenders.

In short - yes, Brewer's anti-immigration laws are racist, in both motive and effect, and those who fully understand them and support them anyway are also racist. This is why I didn't find the blatant bigotry in Brewer's recent statement to be particularly revealing. It didn't make evident anything that hadn't already been obvious since the legislation's passage.

No, what I found remarkably revealing in Brewer's quote were the first three words she used:

"We all know..."

That, to me, speaks volumes about the psychology behind racism. Despite the boldness of her assertion, and the confidence with which she made it, Governor Brewer did not have a single piece of substantiating evidence or data to back up her claim. Instead, she fell back on that old stand-by for those who don't have a factual leg to stand on - that while she can't prove what she's saying to be true, she shouldn't be criticized for her statement, since "we all know" that it's true.

While I could pontificate and wax poetic ad infinitum on just the long, sad history of the "we all know" assumption, I shall instead make my point - and end this piece - with a simple Mark Twain quote that summarizes my reasoning better than I ever could.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

1 comment:

Asha said...

Matt- Thanks for sending me the link to your piece. The third point if definitely of interest to me and you did good to point out that ethnic resentment shouldn't be conflated with ethnic solidarity. But what about critical analysis of those movements that may have veered towards ethnic resentment but are essentially based on solidarity? In other words, is Gov Brewer trying to erase all history of radical ethnic movements? Is just thinking about radicalism going to set off another 'little red scare.' Of course, these are just thinking questions all of which you've pointed to in the piece.-Asha