The source of anti-immigrant racism

June 4, 2010

THANKS TO Eric Ruder for his outstanding article describing the recent meetings and rallies in Arizona against SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant measures ("A proud spirit of defiance").

One thing stood out to me as peculiar. Several people interviewed for the piece explained this recent anti-immigrant backlash as a result of a drastic rise of retirees to Arizona from the Midwest and East.

Arizona has certainly been a retirement destination for several decades. And the population of the state has soared. But the numbers simply don't bear out that older whites have been the driving force of that population increase, nor, by extension, of some hardening of right wing politics in the state.

The 1990 census recorded around 3.7 million people living in Arizona. Of that population, just over 13 percent were 65 years of age or older. The Census Bureau estimates that in 2009, 6.6 million people lived in Arizona. Of that population, 13.6 percent were over 65. In both cases, the proportion of seniors living in Arizona was just slightly higher than the national average.

In other words, while retirement accounts for an important part of the population growth in Arizona, it is not the decisive one. Instead, hundreds of thousands of young and middle-aged people flocked to Arizona (primarily from California, in fact) during the boom in search of work and cheaper housing.

This point is not about numbers, but rather politics. Of course, some of the retiree population is likely to support SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant attacks. But framing the anti-immigrant backlash as a function of a hardened, older, "outsider" white population who vote in disproportionate numbers and are trying to impose their vision of Americana on Arizona misdiagnoses the central source of the problem.

The historical background is important--people should read Sharon Smith's recent article ("Laws that need breaking") where she talks about Arizona, when still a territory, siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The number of Confederate flags that still fly in front and back yards across the state are sign enough that plenty of Arizonans know and identify with that shameful history.

BUT RUSSELL Pearce, who sponsored SB 1070, is from Arizona. So are most of the right-wing nutjobs sitting in the state legislature, many of whom hail from Phoenix's East Valley, home to the largest Mormon population in the U.S. outside of Utah.

What gives these fanatics a hearing isn't just a bunch of old folks, but a devastating economic crisis that hit Arizona when the housing market collapsed.

Besides the impact that crisis had on families--many who had only recently moved there--the crisis in the state budget has been equally severe. School budgets have been slashed, as have those of the three main universities.

To get a sense of how bad it is, Jan Brewer, the same governor who signed SB 1070 into law, has advocated for a hike in the sales tax! In a virulently anti-tax state, her proposal is telling. And attacking undocumented immigrants is an important way to change the topic.

Equally important, what gives the right-wing fanatics a hearing is the Democratic Party itself. Before becoming Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano was governor of Arizona and made her mark on immigration with repeated calls to militarize the border.

Obama's primary response to SB 1070 was to call for more troops on the border. This only concedes that immigration is a "problem" and emboldens the Pierce's of Arizona to go for broke. And of course, blaming old folks for anti-immigrant sentiment makes it a lot easier to let the Democrats off the hook.

Finally, SB 1070 as policy didn't come out of nowhere, but instead is the result of a decade-long campaign to scapegoat immigrants. The first battle in that campaign was a proxy war--attacking bilingual education and outlawing it, which occurred by ballot initiative in 2000.

As a former English-as-a-second-language teacher in a Phoenix-area high school, I can speak firsthand to the racist attitudes of many of my former coworkers and Anglo students (the vast majority of both from Arizona) toward my recent immigrant students.

Absent a movement to overturn that policy, the criminalization of bilingual education grew into a number of other anti-immigrant measures through the 2000s, culminating in SB 1070.

In order for the movement against SB 1070 and for immigrant rights generally to be successful, we need to know the real source of the problem.
Jeff Bale, Lansing, Mich.

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