Arizona’s hateful climate gets uglier

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, April 30, 2010 20:43 EDT
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If anyone thought the Arizona “papers please” law was going to be the end of the wildly racist legislating going on in Arizona, well, I wish I could say I had good news for you. But I don’t. Phase I appears to harassing adult Hispanics in Arizona, and now Phase II is an assault on children, teachers, and education in general. One law is aimed at killing the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. Another is a policy that is aimed at harassing and possibly firing Hispanic English teachers.

On the latter bill, there is some serious cause to worry that good teachers will be fired for nothing more than their race or ethnicity.

The Arizona Department of Education recently began telling school districts that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English.

There’s a “for the children” excuse, of course. Supporters are all about pretending that they want to make sure the kids learn English the “best” way. But it looks like the truth is the opposite, and that this policy is an attempt to keep students who don’t speak English from learning it, which in turn can keep them behind in their classes and shut them out of higher education. How do I know? Because this policy is aimed at firing teachers that were hired expressly to teach Spanish-speaking students how to speak English.

In the 1990s, Arizona hired hundreds of teachers whose first language was Spanish as part of a broad bilingual-education program. Many were recruited from Latin America.

Then in 2000, voters passed a ballot measure stipulating that instruction be offered only in English. Bilingual teachers who had been instructing in Spanish switched to English.

English-only is classic wingnuttery, right down to the bad faith. The stated intentions are to help kids, but the reality is that the initiatives are about making sure students don’t learn any other skills while learning English. It’s a racist program that aims to make sure the children of immigrants have just enough skills to do manual and service labor, but no skills that would make middle class aspirations a possibility.

And that’s bad enough. But what is the “ungrammatical” shit? Everyone is an “ungrammatical” speaker in someone’s eyes. I’m sure that you could make the case that speaking Texan is “ungrammatical”, with the “y’alls” and the “fixing tas”. And worse even is the accent thing. That’s just classic use of subjective judgments to make racist policies with plausible deniability attached. Who determines what the “right” accent is? A lot of English speakers on the border have Spanish-tinged accents and use Spanglish slang, even if their first language is English.

The bill that’s passed is apparently a direct attempt to kill a Mexican-American studies program. Which is kind of odd, because the bad faith right wing cover story for a racist law is written directly into the bill’s language, which seems to me like it would be hard to enforce.

HB 2281 would make it illegal for a school district to have any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity “instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

It also would ban classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”

There’s nothing about Mexican-American studies that does anything like this language describes. This language reflects the lies that racists tell about these kinds of programs in order to justify their antipathy to any kind of curricula that teaches anything but white supremacy, or suggests to students that Mexican-Americans have a cultural heritage that’s worth honoring. I’m not really sure how they’re going to obey the letter of the law, which is ostensibly non-racist, while pursuing its racist spirit.

What this policy and this bill demonstrate is the underlying concept of the “papers please” bill, and basically all legislation like it. Proponents really do believe that Latinos have nothing to offer, and they often treat them like they’re not even human beings. Immigrants especially get this kind of treatment. Having grown up in the Southwest, I can tell you that a lot of the racism that white people express has an undercurrent of insecurity to it. Their belief in the natural superiority of Anglo culture is threatened at every turn by the cultural blending that happens on the border. The very thing that makes border living kind of neat, which is the unique culture that emerges from this blending, offends them. (Though they’ll still eat the tacos.) The history of the area is different than the standard history that Americans are taught in school, and the border with Mexico is a constant reminder that the land they live on used to belong to Mexico. And while to non-wingnuts, this isn’t really a big deal, wingnuts tend to get a little unhinged thinking about that. They start concocting conspiracy theories. When I was living out there, the list of things that would set white racists off would blow your mind:

*Signs in English and Spanish, or even just in Spanish.
*People speaking to each other in Spanish while waiting in line next to you.
*Newscasters that roll their Rs while pronouncing Spanish words. (Yes, I heard someone get pissed about this more than once.)
*Any kind of art, either publicly or privately owned, that celebrated Mexican-American history, culture, or individuals. (When UT Austin put up a statue of Cesar Chavez, I couldn’t help but think about how many conservative parents taking their kids there would be unable to bitch about it when they saw it.)
*Bilingual education.
*Any talk of bilingual education for native English speakers. (This one pisses me off to no end, for personal reasons. The bilingual nature of El Paso should be treated as an asset in the educational system, and English speakers should be able to walk out of 6th grade fluent in Spanish. But noooooooo. That would piss off the racists, so this opportunity is not exploited. Thus, yours truly never really learned more than a little Spanish.)
*Night clubs, grocery stores, or clothing stores that cater to an immigrant customer base.
*Tejano music.
*Spanglish. (Personally, I love Spanglish. I get a kick out of all the various ways that people build a slang that borrows from both languages, and often makes up entirely new words.)
*Voter registration drives in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.

A lot of white people in the Southwest are furious that Mexican-Americans continue to keep going about their business, instead of becoming some historical novelty that can be put on a shelf and ignored. So they create a literal culture war (literal in terms of culture, not war). The notion that it’s all good, and that there can be cultural differences and people can learn from each other and get along? That’s what they absolutely cannot abide. It’s really kind of amazing how much energy is spent just flipping out over this stuff.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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