Phoenix, We Have a Problem...

"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

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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