The Genie Is Out of the Bottle in Arizona

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On Saturday, the public rallied at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona, to save the murals on the wall outside the school.  School officials had asked the artists to "Lighten up the forehead and the cheeks" of one of the students depicted in the mural, and make all the children look more "radiant and happy" -- meaning, apparently, less black and Latino.  But at the rally, officials of the school district announced that the murals would be kept as they are.   
     
The crisis at Miller Valley Elementary was brought on largely by the efforts of Steve Blair, a radio host and member of the city council.  Blair objected to the mural's depictions of black and Latino students.  Blair assured listeners that "I'm not a racist by any stretch of the imagination, but whenever people start talking about diversity, it's a word I can't stand."  Not long after, drivers began shouting racial slurs at the artists working on the murals.  Blair was fired from his radio show on Friday.

Arizona's in the news a lot. On April 23, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed a law imposing radical penalties on illegal immigrants and those who aid them (even by giving them a ride in a car), and requiring police to stop and question anyone of whom there might be a "reasonable suspicion" of improper immigration status.  The law says that police stop cannot be based "solely (on) race, color or national origin."  But clearly stops will be based a lot, even if not solely, on the brownness of passengers or pedestrians.  
     
That law was inspired by Arizona's very real problems dealing with the cross-border traffic in people and guns that the federal government has been unable to stem.  It has been promptly challenged in court.
     
Less than three weeks later, Brewer signed another law, banning school districts from teaching courses that advocate the overthrow of the government, "promote resentment toward a race of or class of people," are "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."  
     
This law is aimed at shutting down the Tucson school system's "ethnic studies" curriculum.  Its moving spirit is Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of public instruction, who is also a candidate for attorney general.  "I believe people are individuals, not exemplars of racial groups," his website explains.  "It is fundamentally wrong to divide students up according to their racial group, and teach them separately."  
     
This law will undoubtedly be challenged in court soon, too; by banning course material on the basis of what it "advocates" (not to mention requiring state bureaucrats to function as anti-ethnic-solidarity censors), it pretty much tosses the First Amendment out the window. 
     
Not long after these two measures became law, even the depiction of non-white children on a mural became a crisis.  The sequence is: first the group is stigmatized; then it is silenced; then it is told to disappear.
     
That may seem overdramatic.  Today's Arizona isn't the segregated South.  But what about tomorrow's Arizona?  The future, like the past, is another country.  The changes that are underway in Arizona and elsewhere -- the increasing fear of aliens, the use of law to exclude and stigmatize illegal immigrants and their families -- point us down a dark path indeed. 
     
Equality of human beings under law is the basis of any democratic legal system.  After nearly a century of trying to live without that concept, the United States put it into the Fourteenth Amendment (states cannot deny "equal protection of the laws" to "any person" -- not just any citizen).  After another century, we wrote the idea into the federal code as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  
     
Equality is under attack; right now the chorus of criticism is an undertone, but it may grow louder.  The idea of "equal protection" does not negate the idea of inequality; it only cabins it, as a magic bottle contains a powerful genie.  The temptation is always there to rub the bottle, to get the genie to do some small task, after which it will meekly return to its lair.  
     
Currently the task is to resolve the immigration crisis; we just want to discriminate against these "illegal" people a little bit, well, maybe more, well, however much as it takes to make them go away.  Then we'll go back to democracy.  
     
But law is more than a set of rules; it is a teacher.  Currently, in Arizona (and elsewhere), the law is beginning to teach exclusion, suspicion, and stigmatization.  Once loosed from his bottle, the genie, to paraphrase the poet Robinson Jeffers, begins as a clever servant and ends as an insufferable master.
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Garrett Epps, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a novelist and legal scholar. He teaches courses in constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore and lives in Washington, D.C. His new book is American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.

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