The Fifty Nifty United States: Arizona

This is the third (3/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

It does not take long to dig up allegations of racism in the state of Arizona. Earlier this year a group of high school students spelled out a racist slur on their t-shirts, after which one of them claimed, "I am not a racist." The Maricopa County Sherriff, Joe Arpaio, does so many terrible things that there are web pages dedicated to cataloguing the various incidences of his alleged racism. Arizona was one of the last, and most reluctant, states to make MLK day a holiday, and barely a year goes by when the state's legislature doesn't attempt to pass some sort of discriminatory legislation.

That Arizona shares a border with Mexico, however, means that immigration is the perennial policy issue in which Arizona's institutional prejudice really shines. In 2010, the state of Arizona's legislature passed an immigration law, SB 1070, that prompted immediate criticism:

The law was to take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends, meaning by August. Court challenges were expected immediately. Hispanics, in particular, who were not long ago courted by the Republican Party as a swing voting bloc, railed against the law as a recipe for racial and ethnic profiling. ā€œGovernor Brewer caved to the radical fringe,ā€ a statement by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, predicting that the law would create ā€œa spiral of pervasive fear, community distrust, increased crime and costly litigation, with nationwide repercussions.ā€

The law, among other stipulations, made it a crime to be in the state without possessing - on one's person - immigration documents, while making it easier for law enforcement to arrest and detain "suspicious" individuals. While Governor Brewer insisted that the law had no racial underpinnings, the media and federal government were skeptical. United States Attorney General Eric Holder repudiated the law as having racial undertones, and although he backed off his initial accusations that the law was explicitly "racist," he remained critical and eventually brought suit against the state. The Supreme Court struck down some of the most egregious parts of the law in 2012.

The debate over whether or not the law was explicitly "racist" explains a great deal about how racism is enforced in this country. The law's most avid sponsor in the Arizona legislature had a history of support for White supremacist causes and institutions. Legal analysts described the various ways in which the enforcement of the law was bound to have a disproportionate impact on the state's Latino population, and the law fit a pattern of statutory and regulatory discrimination against Black and Brown people. The law, however, said nothing about oppression, nor did it explain the ways in which the law would lead to the unjust imprisonment or prosecution of Latino and Black citizens. That's never how racist policies work, though. Jim Crow relied on draconian interpretations of personal liberties, housing discrimination depended on byzantine descriptions of property values, and schools segregation relies on the interconnectedness of property taxes and school zoning. Racist laws never begin with a preamble declaring their prejudiced intent.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.