Arizona: Crisis and Opportunity Aly Wane
by Aly Wane

Protestors voice their support for SB 1070 in front of Arizona’s State Capitol. Despite its controversial nature, a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows that as many as 64 percent of Americans claim to support the law. Source: www.cronkite.asu.edu

Addressing Department of Justice officials at an event celebrating Black History Month in February 2009, Eric Holder, President Barack Obama's Attorney General, made the remark that, "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been…a nation of cowards." Conservatives were quick to blast him for his candor. Despite the fact that I completely agree with his statement, Arizona's draconian new "immigration" law, SB 1070, presents an opportunity for this nation to prove Holder wrong. It allows us to honestly grapple with the concept of "whiteness" and how it is so often tied to the idea of what a "true American" looks like.

In late April 2010, Arizona's Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, signed SB 1070 into law. Supporters of the law say that it is necessary to curb illegal immigration in the state. The law would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. The crux of the problem lies in its mandate that local law enforcement detain "suspected illegal immigrants." Of course, this begs the question: "What does an illegal immigrant look like?" In effect this law forces police officers to do one of two things: either waste an incredible amount of time and resources interrogating as many people as possible about their legal status, or racially profile. There is simply no middle ground. This law is so blatant that numerous police chiefs across the state of Arizona have spoken out against it for just such reasons.

However, despite the fact that this law is unethical, and that the United Nations, religious officials, and human rights activists have decried it, it is also a terrific opportunity for the US to deepen its discussion about what "an American" looks like. This law forces us to probe the concept of "Whiteness" which is not a race; it is a social construct meant to denote power and privilege.

Since its inception, the US has struggled with the legacy of slavery. The United States Constitution itself referred to slaves as "3/5ths" of a person, depriving them not only of votes, but of their value as citizens and human beings. So, from the beginning, the concept of Whiteness was tied to the idea of being a "full citizen." This tendency was reinforced by the first immigration law, the "Chinese Exclusion Act" of 1882, which was aimed at curbing the immigration of Chinese immigrants who had been used as labor in the construction of the nation's railroads. At the turn of the century, Italian and Irish immigration to the United States reached its peak, leading to periods of xenophobia and racial anxiety. Both Italians and Irish were not considered "White" at first. They were originally seen as threats to the body politic, outsiders who threatened the very racial purity of the US. It took years for these groups to essentially be accepted by the mainstream and to be considered "White." This is a clear indication that the concept of "whiteness" is more of a social concept than it is about race. Many of the undocumented persons (the so-called "illegals") who are targeted by Arizona's new law are Latinos, either from Mexico or from Central and South America. However it is clear that anyone who is not "white" is at risk of being harassed by law enforcement officials under this new law. It is not a surprise that African American, Chinese American, and Muslim groups have all risen in unanimous opposition to this law. Even Latino groups who tend to be more conservative (such as Cuban-Americans) have vociferously opposed this law. This is because they know that, as "non-whites," they are going to be affected by this law whether they like it or not.

By passing this law, Arizona Republicans have unwittingly started a much needed conversation about racial profiling, whiteness, and what it means to "look American." This will give citizens and non-citizens alike a great opportunity to enter a painful but necessary dialogue about the future complexion of America. If we are able to remain civil, honest and compassionate, this dialogue might allow us to face our cowardice on the issue of race. Here's to diversity.


Aly Wane is a senior intern at the Peace Council and an immigration rights activist.