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In Arizona, just say no to Latino heritage

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 14, 2010; A17

At least we don't have to pretend anymore. Arizona's passing of that mean-spirited immigration law wasn't about high-minded principle or the need to maintain public order. Apparently, it was all about putting Latinos in their place.

It's hard to reach any other conclusion given the state's latest swipe at Latinos. On Tuesday, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a measure making it illegal for any course in the public schools to "advocate ethnic solidarity." Arizona's top education official, Tom Horne, fought for the new law as a weapon against a program in Tucson that teaches Mexican American students about their history and culture.

Horne claims the Tucson classes teach "ethnic chauvinism." He has complained that young Mexican Americans are falsely being led to believe that they belong to an oppressed minority. The way to dispel that notion, it seems, is to pass oppressive new legislation aimed squarely at Mexican Americans. That'll teach the kids a lesson, all right: We have power. You don't.

Arizona is already facing criticism and boycotts over its "breathing while Latino" law, which in essence requires police to identify and jail undocumented immigrants. Now the state adds insult to that injury.

The education bill begins with a bizarre piece of nonsense, making it illegal for public or charter schools to offer courses that "promote the overthrow of the United States government." Then it shifts from weird to offensive, prohibiting classes that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," that "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," and that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." When you try to parse those words, the effect is chilling.

Is it permissible, under the new law, to teach basic history? More than half the students in the Tucson Unified School District are Latino, the great majority of them Mexican American. The land that is now Arizona once belonged to Mexico. Might teaching that fact "promote resentment" among students of Mexican descent? What about a class that taught students how activists fought to end discrimination against Latinos in Arizona and other Western states? Would that illegally encourage students to resent the way their parents and grandparents were treated?

The legislation has an answer: Mexican American students, it seems, should not be taught to be proud of their heritage.

This angry anti-Latino spasm in Arizona is only partly about illegal immigration, which has fallen substantially in the past few years. It's really about fear and denial.

About 30 percent of the state's population is Latino, and that number continues to rise. This demographic shift has induced culture shock among some Arizonans who see the old Anglo power structure losing control. It is evidently threatening, to some people, that Mexican Americans would see themselves as a group with common interests and grievances -- and even more threatening that they might see themselves as distant heirs to the men and women who lived in Arizona long before the first Anglos arrived.

To counter the threat, solidarity among Mexican Americans has to be delegitimized. The group itself has to be atomized -- has to be taught to see itself as a population of unaffiliated individuals. The social, cultural and historical ties that have united people across the border since long before there was a border must be denied.

Every minority group's struggle for acceptance is distinctive, but I can't avoid hearing echoes of the Jim Crow era in the South. Whites went to great lengths to try to keep "agitators" from awakening African Americans' sense of pride and injustice. They failed, just as the new Arizona law will fail.

It's important to distinguish between Arizona officials' legitimate concerns and their illegitimate ones. The state does have a real problem with illegal immigration, and the federal government has ignored its responsibility to enact comprehensive reform that would make the border more secure. But Arizona is lashing out with measures that will not just punish the undocumented but also negatively affect Mexican American citizens whose local roots are generations deep.

The new education law is gratuitous and absurd. Arizona can't be picked up and moved to the Midwest; it's next to Mexico. There have always been families and traditions that straddle the two societies, and there always will be. Mexican Americans are inevitably going to feel proud of who they are and where they came from -- even if acknowledging and encouraging such pride in the classroom are against the law.

You know kids. They'll just learn it in the street.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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