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Randall Amster Headshot

Phoenix, We Have a Problem...

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"Arizona's flagship, the SB 1070, has veered wildly off-course -- following contact with aliens it is now on a collision course with the U.S.S. Constitution -- MayDay, MayDay, calling all ships at sea, burning up on reentry -- Ground Control, copy, the SB 1070 is going down, repeat, SB 1070 is going down..."

The notion of space constituting the "final frontier" is evocative of humankind's grandest aspirations. Dashing through the cosmos, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life forms, perhaps even discovering clues to our own origins and destinies -- the lure of this frontier is powerful. But it will have to wait a bit longer; for now, in our earthbound state, we have more mundane matters that require our energy and attention. Great heights await, yet today we are grounded by our own inability to get along.

In America's political and cultural spheres, it is all too apparent that the final frontier is race, not space. Putting aside for the moment Barack Obama's thus far disappointing tenure as President, it is beyond peradventure that his mere election has sparked a resurgence of race-based oppositional politics that is being felt across the nation. Surely other (and even crasser) motivations are at hand, but the unspoken impetus for much of the antipathy and rage we have seen of late has race issues lurking at the core.

I'm not going to recount these episodes here; they needn't be further reified or glorified at this point. Suffice to say that hate groups, both of the marginal and mainstream varieties, have had a recruiting field day during Obama's tenure, and the right side of the political spectrum has become obsessed with "race matters" as THE wedge issue to mobilize its base and denigrate its foes. This trend reaches levels of absurdity such as when Glenn Beck attempts to rebrand Martin Luther King, Jr. for his own nefarious purposes -- but it plays out in far more dangerous and tangible ways than Beck's hollow shenanigans.

Enter Arizona. The state has become the central battleground in the effort to institutionalize race hierarchies and socio-cultural divisions. Banning ethnic studies, dismissing teachers with accents, lightening dark-skinned mural faces, moving to abolish the pejoratively-named "anchor babies," and of course most notably the racial profiling law that is SB 1070. Cut through the blather and call it what it is: a "reasonable suspicion" of someone's immigration status here in the southwest is going to be based primarily on racial and ethnic factors. It doesn't matter how many times you amend the law or how many training videos police officers are made to watch -- everyone knows what it all means in reality.

And indeed, public officials here have used coded words and phrases to essentially admit as much. Illegal immigrants are variously described as "drug mules," "narco-terrorists," "welfare queens," "invading hordes," and scores of other racialized epithets. SB 1070's sponsor cavorts with supremacists and cheers when "illegals" flee the state due to his misguided machinations. The governor can barely get a sentence out that is not offensive in its false justifications for the law. Vigilantes take the cue and swarm to the border, while our very own "toughest sheriff" conducts a reign of terror on communities of color -- and unabashedly vows to escalate it in the days ahead if and when the law takes effect.

But it's not about race, they say. If you call SB 1070 a racist law, or imply that those who concocted it and stump for it are racists, the leading line of Fox-fed attacks will be to call YOU a racist. Arizona's cutting-edge dalliances with stirring up the "states' rights" hornets' nest are simply about "stepping in where the federal government has failed" and "upholding federal immigration law." Never mind that the feds don't actually want them to do this, or that the Constitution plainly vests exclusive authority to regulate immigration and conduct foreign policy in the federal government and not the states. Never mind that the "states' rights" mantra was invoked by the slaveholding states to justify their practices. Perhaps we should bring back the good old stability and prosperity of those halcyon days?

No, this has nothing to do with upholding federal law. SB 1070 goes far beyond this, requiring the state's police officers to take steps that are presently optional, and even making them liable if they don't. It further creates new levels of scrutiny and vulnerability for LEGAL immigrants, many of whom will be subjected to increased harassment and even potentially criminalized for simply supporting their family members. Someone please tell them it's not about race or ethnicity, okay? They are living it every day.

Laws serve a number of functions in society, with a primary purpose being the symbolic cultivation of societal norms. Another unstated aim is to implicitly reinforce economic and political inequalities, sometimes accomplished through the selective enforcement of laws primarily against certain groups. What is remarkable and disturbing about SB 1070 is that it does both, overtly and without remorse. Symbolically, it tells nonwhites that they are unwelcome and under a cloud of suspicion simply by virtue of being who they are. Tangibly, the law mandates selective enforcement against them given the realities of who is likely to be an illegal immigrant in the state, and thus places them in a second-class legal status that will negatively impact their ability to organize and fully participate in their communities.

Arizona is merely reflecting America's deeper divisions about race relations. The stain of history has never been fully resolved on these shores: there have been no reparations, no apologies, no "truth and reconciliation" proceedings, no postwar mediations. We face a serious challenge over race issues in this country -- and yet now we have an opportunity as well. The final frontier is much closer to home than we realize. Let's take one small step for all of humankind, boldly going where no one gets left behind.

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