New Arizona Law Criminalizes ‘Being While Brown’

By Bruce A. Dixon

The new Arizona laws are only the latest manifestations of racist and xenophobic white American hatred toward immigrants. They won’t be the last. Anyone who doubts this, or encourages others to doubt it is a racist fool, is allowing his or her self to be fooled, is trying hard to fool somebody else, or some combination of the above.

For all practical purposes, the state of Arizona has now criminalized “being” while brown.

Arizona law now requires teachers to compile lists of suspected immigrant children. It directs emergency rooms to deny care to those who cannot prove citizenship or legal residence. It requires everyone to carry proof of citizenship or legal residence at all times, and instructs local and state law enforcement officers to detain and question any and everyone who looks or acts like they could be undocumented. Make no mistake about, this is a racist and profoundly unjust law that everyone should disrespect and disobey.

President Obama told a lawyerly half-truth when he said the new law violated fundamental notions of fairness that most of us hold dear. The other half of that truth, the half the president neglected to mention, is that Arizona’s new anti-immigrant laws fit firmly into a long American tradition of punitive and racist legislation.

When the 19th century’s first mega-corporations, the railroads, were laying track across the deserts and mountains of North America they imported hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers, men who were forbidden from bringing their wives, children or family members, prohibited from owning property or ever becoming citizens. They worked under brutal and inhuman conditions and tens-of-thousands died. For their trouble, they got the Chinese Exclusion Act1, which all but stopped further Chinese immigration, and permanently barred Chinese already in the U.S. from citizenship. With Chinese immigration all but ceased, Japanese workers were allowed into the U.S., until the advent of World War II, when Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the lot of them to concentration camps2, utilizing data from the U.S. Census to be sure he got them all. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until the 1940s, when the alliances of World War II made it inconvenient.

Native American scholar Ward Churchill spells out in his book, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust And Denial in the Americas, that everywhere in what are now the 48 contiguous states of the continental U.S., at one time or another, white authorities offered bounties for the scalps of Native Americans, whether it was in colonial New York and Connecticut, the U.S. Northwest Territories that eventually became Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, or the state of Texas, where the practice continued into the early 20th century. The only quibble Texas authorities reportedly offered was that unscrupulous persons occasionally tried to collect Indian bounties for the scalps of Mexicans.

And of course there were the Fugitive Slave Laws of the 18th and 19th century, under which all persons of African descent in the north were presumed to be escaped slaves unless they could prove otherwise, and might be apprehended and claimed as property by any upstanding white man. So it’s more correct to say that at the same time Arizona’s harsh new anti-immigrant statutes violate the deeply held beliefs of many Americans, it upholds a number of the nation’s most sinister and shameful traditions.

While we applaud President Obama’s statement that the Department of Justice will be on the lookout for civil rights violations resulting from the enforcement of the new law, we note that the president passed up the chance to refer to this history with which he is undoubtedly familiar.

Truth be told, the Obama administration has done little for Latinos in return for the overwhelming support they accorded his 2008 election campaign. Obama’s unfolding vision of “bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform” seems to consist of offering paths to citizenship for a relative few, including service in American imperial wars, continued limbo for millions of immigrants who will not qualify for citizenship, and continued militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrant detention, often in privatized prisons, continues to grow under the Obama administration, and immigrant detainees are now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.

If the Obama administration was really concerned about the plight of the undocumented, and wanted to end their usefulness in depressing wages, they would make it legal and safe for people in workplaces, whether citizens or not, to organize unions, to bargain collectively and to strike if need be for better wages and conditions. But that’s not happening. From a campaign promise candidate Obama would only make in front of union audiences, even the shrunken and eviscerated Employee Free Choice Act seems now to be a dead letter.

While some sectors of corporate media mock and ridicule the new law, the bulk of corporate media in recent times have offered immigrants as the party to blame for the chronic insecurity of white America. The unavailability of healthcare is blamed on immigrants who supposedly get free care. Higher taxes on wages are blamed on immigrants who allegedly don’t pay taxes. Imaginary waves of disease and crime too, are manufactured by corporate media and blamed on immigrants. Other states, like Ohio, are poised to imitate the example of Arizona, and some will doubtless try to push the envelope even further. It’s going to take a lot more than a few vigilant lawyers at the Justice Department to address this.

So far, the only mass displays of opposition to anti-Latino racism has been from Latino communities themselves. The fact that prominent African Americans are lining up to denounce this unjust law is heartening, but it, and the proposed boycott of Arizona’s convention and vacation facilities, even its sports franchises are only beginnings. White racism is deeply embedded in the DNA of this nation, and it is always available to be called upon when needed by the masters of capital who urgently need the fog of racism to move like vampires in the night. We need to shine the light of day on it, and stand together to prevent and to defy these unjust and racist laws. If white America can be persuaded to blame immigrants for its woes today, can we be far behind?, April 28, 2010