THE BLOG
06/17/2010 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Whiter Shade of Pale: Arizona and State Sponsored Bigotry

Legend has it that men's hat sales plummeted after President Kennedy's inauguration due to the sight of their new young hatless president. While the legend is flawed since Kennedy was not hatless that day, it is does not negate the fact that leaders at all levels from parents to school teachers and even governors define the hue in our perception of the world around us.

Which bring us to Arizona - famous for its enormous chasms both natural and man-made - where we are beginning to see the bitter fruit of the recent anti-immigrant laws signed by Governor Brewer.

Every action, however, has a context. For Arizona this begins in 1861 with the territory of Arizona adopting an ordinance of secession in which they refused to recognize the "Black Republican" administration of President Lincoln and embraced the Confederacy. A half century later, Arizona officials delayed their admission as a state to coincide with the 50th anniversary of their recognition by the Confederacy. During this period the state had enacted many of the Jim Crow laws and reversed the state's demographics from 62 percent Native American to 84 percent white.

Prior to this year, Arizona's last moment in the national spotlight came in the 1990's as a result of it being one of the last states to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Arizona returned to the center of national debate when, after a year in which the number of illegal immigrants dropped by over 1 million and violent crime was at 1971 levels (with border counties being among the safest in the nation), the only border state that still has a white majority adopted a new law requiring law enforcement to question people on their immigration status if they had a reasonable suspicion that the person may be an undocumented alien.

It is claimed that the law will reduce crime in Arizona, but researchers have found no discernable link between immigration and crime. The push for the law was fueled by spillover violence from the Mexican drug wars, but most of the weapons used by the Mexican cartels come from the U.S. and Arizona Republicans never even considered tightening their lax guns laws. The immigration law was preceded by "birther" legislation requiring a Presidential candidate to prove his citizenship and followed by a new education law that banned courses designed "primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" and a prohibition on teachers with accents from teaching English. The state now is considering legislation to deny citizenship to children of undocumented aliens - even though it is a right expressly provided by the Constitution.

Rosalyn Carter once said, "a leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." Governor Brewer has chosen the former and elected to play to Arizonans' fears and prejudices. Regardless of the merits of each proposal, when viewed collectively and in the context of the election of the nation's first black President, Governor Brewer clearly was setting the tone that the state would protect the dominance of its declining white majority.

The signal apparently was received in Prescott, Arizona where a school principal ordered artists to "lighten" the faces of white, black and Hispanic children on school mural after a radio campaign against the mural and weeks of passers-by screaming racial slurs.

As the Prescott school incident demonstrates, the problem with Arizona's anti-Hispanic laws is that these actions enable others to express similar or substantially more extreme forms of bigotry. This demonstrates the need for the rest of society to condemn such actions, lest they be deemed accepted forms of discourse. One need only look at the prevalence of racist signs or chants at Tea Party protests which the GOP refuses to condemn - each one emboldening others to do the same.

That is where the Arizona boycott comes into play. Arizona would be wise to look at its confederate sister state, South Carolina, which has lost over $500 million over the past decade due to a boycott stemming from its refusal to remove the confederate battle flag from the capitol. Phoenix estimates that the recent actions will cause the city to lose $90 million in convention business over the next four years and it likely was a factor in the GOP selecting Tampa for its 2012 convention (which could have brought in as much as $150 million to the financially strapped state).

This is of no concern to Brewer and other Arizona Republicans who have chosen power over principle. That is why, once again, Arizona is the poster child for the high cost paid when a state defines the world by a single color.