Early this month, the Justice Department launched a “pattern or practice” civil rights investigation into the Phoenix police force. The probe will include looking into whether police officers routinely discriminate against some of those they have sworn to serve, such as people with disabilities, individuals experiencing homelessness and residents who exercise “conduct protected by the First Amendment.” Black Lives Matter protesters from last summer come to mind; in May, hundreds of them filed a class-action lawsuit against the city alleging police mistreatment.

It’s virtually impossible these days to have meaningful conversations about ethnicity, race and inequity without talking about the hierarchies involved. And with that in mind, the Justice Department investigation would make a rich topic of discussion for at least some of the 1 million students returning to public schools in Arizona. This is a state, after all, where retaliation and discrimination by the White majority are painfully familiar to the same communities of color that are also driving its growth.

But talking about uncomfortable things in the classroom is now illegal in Arizona. Last month, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed a law banning public school employees from teaching lessons that present “any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.” The measure was championed by conservative legislators who are part of a waning White majority in Arizona, and whose hold on power is threatened by political mobilization and demographics.

Ducey is one of at least eight governors who have distorted the meaning of critical race theory — the study of how race and racism framed U.S. history and shaped its institutions — to justify upholding a self-serving truth. In signing Arizona’s law, he declared that he was not going “to waste public dollars on lessons that imply the superiority of any race and hinder free speech.” What he did, instead, may have undermined the future of the state itself.

By restricting debate, he thwarted the ability of students and teachers to collectively sort through the perspectives that make up their individual understanding of the same facts they observe and to appropriately contextualize them. If children can no longer debate the impact of past and current events in their lives and communities, what kind of Arizona can we expect them to build when it is their turn to run the state?

We often forget that equity feels like oppression to the privileged. When people of color talk about equity, “it feels that we’re saying we’re going to take from your child and your community to give to mine, when it’s not that at all,” said Stephanie Parra, a governing board member of Phoenix Union High School District, one of the largest and most diverse in Arizona, and the executive director of the nonprofit Arizona for Latino Leaders in Education.

“We want to give opportunities to those who have been denied the same opportunities that others have had,” Parra said.

What gets lost when one voice prevails over all others, though, is our ability to get to know all of those who make up our state and our country. And if we don’t know who they are, we cannot maximize their potential.

Where do those possibilities lie? The 2020 Census confirmed the inevitability of demographic changes happening in Arizona and throughout the United States. The country is significantly more diverse and mixed than it was in 2010, and, for the first time in history, the White population declined.

A look at Phoenix Union school district gives a sense of what Arizona’s tomorrow may look like: Ninety-six percent of the students it enrolls are students of color, 82 percent are Latino, and 77 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

“If we don’t create an educational system that believes in the students it has, that invests in them and that values their cultures and communities,” Parra said, she wonders what will become of the state “10, 20 years from now.”

I can only imagine the questions that students in Arizona might have about the Justice Department investigation into the Phoenix police force — the personal stories these young people could share, and their perceptions of how the police do their job and how they could do it better.

Teachers might want to debate that, but can they? The law is clear about the consequences for inserting race, ethnicity or gender into classroom conversations. For teachers, disciplinary action, including suspension and revocation of their licenses. For school districts and charter schools, fines and lawsuits. But the law seems purposely vague about what is prohibited — and that might be intentional.

“We can keep doing our jobs, but it’s under the fear of a lot of this stuff,” Jim Byrne, a high school teacher, recently told News 4 Tucson. “And that is, I think, ultimately what they want to do, is create more fear.”