06/07/2010 03:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Every State's a Little Bit Arizona Sometimes

Even California.

As the vociferous L.A. backlash against Arizona's growing assemblage of anti-immigration laws reaches its full and self-righteous climax, let's not forget our beloved state's own occasional dalliances with nativism, bigotry, and arch-conservatism.

First off, a good portion of your Golden State trends as politically conservative as many of the most reliably right-wing voting districts in Arizona - or even Texas. Many of us who blissfully reside in any one of California's politically homogenous liberal enclaves are either unaware or in perpetual denial over the fact that we share a state with as many creationists as Darwinists. In fact, seven out of the twenty-five most conservative cities in the nation are right here in California. And the amount of geographic space occupied by California's conservatives dwarfs that of the more densely populated, predominantly coastal, communities peopled by the state's bleeding hearts.

Another way to verify this is by driving east on the 10 Freeway, toward Palm Springs, into the heart of the "nine-oh-nine," the prefix that simultaneously serves as the sprawling region's area code and battle cry, as in: "That's how we bring it in the nine-oh-nine! WHOO!"

Before even getting the chance to say, "I wonder if kids get school off for Yom Kippur here," you're smack in the middle of Sanctity of Life Nation. How will you know? First, there are billboards. Scores of them. They stand sentry over miles of inland freeway, fronting industrial wastelands, the high desert, and exurban townships, where they jostle for roadside real estate with billowing plastic Albertson's bags.

Judging from the eclectic assortment of these roadside monoliths, an alien from another galaxy - in this case, you - might surmise that the typical nine-oh-nine denizen covets the following: snowboarding at Big Bear, gun and tattoo expos, lap bands, "gentlemen's" clubs, Jesus, praising Jesus, spreading the Word of Jesus, and seeking Jesus when all else is completely lost. All we get in the Valley are promos for Alicia Silverstone Lifetime Originals, or, if we're lucky, the next crappy Russell Crowe epic. Over the hill, the billboards aren't any less insipid, despite their forced prurience. Yeah, yeah: sparsely clothed, intertwined, roiling tweeny-somethings in sepia. It's sexy, it's taboo. We get it. Except now that I've been exposed to the Inland Empire's roadside calls to action, if a billboard doesn't command me to inveigh against partial birth abortion or my constitutional right to form a militia, I somehow feel cheated. The nine-oh-nine has spoiled me.

By the time you reach Fontana, you'll have already been visited by your first of many mental Twilight Zone themes. And there it goes again, as promos for the Spearmint Rhino, juxtaposed against the backdrops of ailing warehouses, towering mega-churches, and peach-hued tract home developments whiz past.

Doo-dah-doo-doo, doo-dah-doo-doo.

Next come the bumper stickers, too many to count. Because conservatives have convictions and ideals that are far too important to be confined to one person's mind. They need to be released, dispersed, and declared to the rest of the world, thereby making us all better for it. Call it community building. Liberals have bumper stickers, too - four. Predictably whiney in tone, they've been found on the backs of Volvos and Priuses for about the past decade. You know the ones: "Mean people suck," "Coexistence," "There's a village in Texas missing its idiot," and that one about our military having to bake brownies. It's a purely perfunctory and predictably impotent attempt at communication from a political wing that ostensibly places a premium on education. For conservatives, on the other hand, bumper-sticking is an institution (and reflective of the right's enduring dedication to owning political debate through language). These aren't merely tailgate bumpers; they're mobile art galleries:

It's Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and Steve.

I'll keep my guns, freedom, and money: You keep the change.

These colors don't bow.

Keep the guns, leave the Pelosi.


Conservatives: Taking our country back one liberal SNAFU at a time.

And so on.

And then there are the quintessential cultural markers that further underscore the divide between inland and coastal California: The low-riding Franken-Civics, tricked-out to bejesus and augmented with makeshift spoilers resembling cookie sheets; the dangling silver, um, scrota inexplicably swaying from the undercarriages of massive SUV's; and, finally, the ubiquitous decals on the tinted cab windows of careening Chevy pickups. Most prominent are the ones of Calvin from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, always cantankerous, always urinating - on a Ford logo, a Barack Obama caricature in a turban, or the word you.

Now about Arizona...

Taking this eastward journey, or, more importantly, considering the state of California as a whole rather than a sum of its parts, might give us clearer insight into our collective identity. While liberals might take a smidgen of perverse schadenfreude in the benighted bigotry of the Grand Canyon State, California may very well be one turn of the screw away from regressing into an object of national ignominy - again. Yes, at one point in the not-too-distant past, we were the unenlightened, the socially stunted outcasts condemned by much of the country for our knee-jerk reaction to the anxiety and fear of a surging Latino influx. Consider, for example, 1994's Prop 187.

Also known at the time by the laughably hyperbolic S.O.S. (Save Our State) initiative, in which law enforcement would take a far more aggressive stance in pursuing and deporting undocumented immigrants, 187 was brought to the Assembly floor by the lasciviously named Dick Mountjoy, a Republican from Monrovia. Mountjoy's initiative was backed by then-incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson, whose motive was to use S.O.S. as a wedge issue to rile up his white, Anglo base, thereby reviving an anemic re-election bid.

Predictably, cynicism triumphed. Galvanized by soaring xenophobic rhetoric and blatant misinformation - and playing on the conservative electorate's fetish for "taking our country back" (a fail-proof strategy that even today continues to send right-wing reptilian brains into a tizzy of faux patriotic nostalgia) - citizens throughout the state flocked to the polls (turnout was uncharacteristically high at 60 percent) to vote for the banishment of the state's brown people and to re-elect the insipid Wilson.

For the moment, we might take solace in our ridicule of right-wing panderer du jour Gov. Jan Brewer's signing of Arizona's SB 1070, one of the state's most recent primers on undocumented immigrant hate. But California's Prop 187 was - and still remains - the quintessence of anti-immigrant legislation. Unlike Arizona's SB 1070 - or even its more draconian 2004 predecessor, Prop 200 - California's law would have barred all undocumented children from receiving public education (from kindergarten through college), cut off prenatal care to expectant undocumented mothers, and restricted all undocumented immigrants from receiving any form of municipal or state non-emergency health services.

This would have been in addition to denying battered undocumented women access to shelters or state-run domestic abuse programs.

(Even now, while undocumented children have access to K-12 public education, their parents, fearing deportation, often shy away from participating in their children's schooling. For this same reason, many undocumented parents are equally reluctant to seek routine health care for them.)

In the end, Prop 187 passed with 59 percent of the vote (though it was later abrogated by California's Ninth Circuit for its obvious unconstitutionality). Save for the Bay Area - which, at some point, should be renamed the Democratic Republic of I Told You So - 187 captured a majority of votes everywhere in the state, even in LA, our enlightened Shangri-La of book festivals, yoga studios, and custom whale license plates.

As they had witnessed the very real changes in the ethnic and cultural landscapes around them, many native Californians were only too eager to accept Mountjoy and Wilson's fallacies: We were under siege from brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking, law-breaking, horchata drinkers from south of the border, who, while birthing networks of crime, drugs, and gangs in the inner-cities, also had their sights set on stealing away upper-management positions at Hewlett-Packard and Northrop Grumman. We, as California citizens of the first order, needed to thwart this impending assault on our country - our way of life.

If any of this sounds eerily familiar, it's because we're in the middle of campaign season again, which has a way of arousing the most insidious political elements from within our state. And while California's Republican gubernatorial primary has predictably devolved into a rhetorical pander-fest to the ankle holster and Gimme' Back My Country crowd (wherein the term liberal is dispatched like a poison-dipped, razor-embedded mallet to verbally bludgeon primary opponents and burnish one's inland street cred), in which both candidates have, on some level, embraced SB 1070, some disturbing trends have emerged since the Arizona bill was ratified two months ago.

In a recent LA Times/USC poll gauging Californians' attitudes toward SB 1070, 50 percent of the respondents said they support both the law as a whole and, more specifically, the practice of law enforcement stopping individuals whom they believe display "reasonable suspicion" - an elusive term that has been ridiculed by critics as D.W.B., or Driving While Brown. Despite LA's staunch opposition to Arizona's legislation, 50 percent is a number that transcends the redneck fringes and warns of a possible 1994-like statewide anti-immigrant resurgence.

Such a scenario would be catastrophic to some of California's most vulnerable residents: Pregnant and abused women, the elderly and infirmed, and children. As a high school teacher, I've witnessed hundreds of talented, ambitious students simply give up on their education due to their limited academic prospects. (Undocumented residents must pay out-of-state tuition to attend California colleges and universities, making pursuit of higher learning a veritable pipedream for many.)

Despite all this bluster, I consider myself a moderate when it comes to immigration policy, which is in dire need of a sober-minded overhaul. Illegal immigrants tax local resources and drive down wages. And it's a bit unfair for the U.S. to be continually expected to absorb the brunt of the human fallout from other countries' failures to maintain some semblance of equity and social justice. Still, most Latinos who migrate to California and Arizona sacrifice life and limb to do so. They do it out of absolute necessity, not a burning desire to reap the benefits of our cultural splendor. Hondurans aren't riding the "iron worm" en route to California so they can get better headshots or a chance to read for "Nurse Jackie"; Arizona-bound Mexicans aren't risking vicious assaults by corrupt federales or plodding across the deadly Sonoran Desert so they can finally have access to Bloomin' Onions and 362 days of central air.

Most Latino migrants - some unaccompanied children as young as seven - are impelled to flee to the states due to obscene levels of poverty and oppression in their home countries; their level of desperation is one that most of us cannot possibly fathom. At some point, as a state and a nation, we need to accept that this is a humanitarian issue, one that supersedes economics and dwarfs whatever petty feelings we may possess about race and ethnicity - which persist even in the lands of farmer's markets and pot dispensaries.