Arizona flirts with apartheid

Arizona certainly isn't the racist police state that South Africa was when I grew up there, but its new laws have the same feel, says writer GLEN RETIEF

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Having and eating your cake -- what a lovely saying this is, conjuring up Alice in Wonderland-like images of plump, rich angel food growing back into shape after losing a slice.

I thought of this proverb recently when I talked to an old high school friend about how the current situation in Arizona might resemble the South Africa I grew up in: Whites-only beaches. Smoking township barricades. Nelson Mandela chiseling limestone on Robben Island.

It wasn't I who thought to make the comparison -- my friend had seen a report about how Latino leaders have used the term to characterize laws they see as anti-Mexican: SB 1070, which requires police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they "reasonably suspect" of being illegal. HB 2281, which withholds state funding from school districts offering courses that "promote resentment towards a race or class of people" or "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group."

As expected, Arizona's immigration battle is now being waged in court. On Wednesday a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocks enforcement of some of the controversial new provisions.

Despite the fact that Arizona clearly isn't the brutal racist police state I grew up in, it's easy to see where Latino leaders get the "apartheid" moniker. The image of burly police officers demanding to see the papers of a brown-skinned woman with a Spanish accent provides a chilling echo of the pass laws, which treated black South Africans precisely as illegal immigrants from their impoverished Bantustans -- in both cases, the irony being that dark skin typically signals indigenous ancestry.

Likewise, the idea of Arizona schoolteachers being afraid to say something critical of European civilization immediately brings to mind Mrs. Hartshorne's 12th-grade history class, where 20 or so of us white kids sat around reading textbooks about how "separate development" was really a form of good neighborliness.

"I want to keep my job, and you want to get a high school diploma, so let's just tell them what they want to hear on the national exams, OK?" she said, and we nodded.

Look at these two Arizona laws more closely, though, and the situation muddies.

SB 1070 forbids police officers from "solely considering race, color, or national origin ... except to the extent permitted by the United States and Arizona constitution." Although this seems all but designed to baffle the lay reader -- to what extent does the Constitution permit racial prejudice? -- its intention seems benign. And Republican Gov. Janet Brewer has emphasized she won't tolerate racial profiling in the state -- something that would never have come out of the mouth of, say, P.W. Botha.

But how to spot a Mexican without noticing national origin? As Alice might have said: "Peculiarer and peculiarer."

If SB 1070 seems a riddle worthy of Lewis Carroll, try HB 2281. That law states that the ban on courses "designed for members of a particular ethnic group" should not be construed as prohibiting "classes that include the history of any ethnic group."

Confused, yet? I certainly am -- and I'm a member of a curriculum committee at a university, experienced in judging whether courses conform to written guidelines. Regular teachers in the Grand Canyon State will, I'm guessing, simply follow my old history instructor's example and try to avoid controversy.

From this you might think Arizona's laws about Mexicans are designed to strike a complex balance: to crack down on genuinely troublesome law-breaking without descending into racism; to crack down on anti-Anglo indoctrination without stifling academic freedom. As a South African, though, my gut instinct says something different is going on here.

A couple of years ago, I caught a bus from Guadalajara to Los Angeles. An hour before Tijuana, our coach stopped beneath a poinciana tree for a group of four young men to get out and begin heading northward on foot -- laughing in their farm laborers' overalls. As our trip continued, the reason why they'd want to head al norte could not have been more obvious: on the Mexican side lay hills, dust, shacks and cracked earth. On the American side, I saw my childhood and adolescence: Well-watered lawns. Shimmering turquoise swimming pools. Hospitals with MRI machines. Schools with science labs.

It isn't something that white South Africans own up to nowadays, but apartheid was often a very tasty confectionery. We had maids to wash our clothes. We had highways and universities. The fruit and vegetables were as sweet and juicy as in any Arizona supermarket, courtesy of farm workers who slaved for pittances that would no doubt be familiar to illegal immigrants.

The only downside, for us, was the guilt: knowing, in our hearts, that we were among the world's most distasteful bigots.

Which is why I'm not surprised that, while white Arizonans want to keep their demographic majority and its associated power, they also want to be culturally and racially sensitive. They want the benefits of privilege, but not the shame or stigma.

As my grandmother might have said, they want to enjoy every delicious spoonful of their creamy milk tart -- but they also want an intact pie in the refrigerator when they get home.


Glen Retief teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University ( retief@susqu.edu ). His memoir, "The Jack Bank," will be published next April by St. Martin's Press.


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