The Trouble with Arizona, and Obama: A Confederacy of Oppression

 by Margaret Kimberley 

"I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, do issue this, my proclamation, declaring said ‘Act to organize the Territory of Arizona’ to be in full force and operation, and that I have proceeded to appoint the officers therein provided to be appointed in and for said Territory." – February 14, 1862.
The history of the state of Arizona is as much stained by the Confederacy as by the usual Old West pathologies, having once been claimed as a territory of the breakaway Slave Republic. Reconstruction never reached Arizona, which has enacted what might be called “Brown Codes” to shackle its Latino residents. “What Governor [Jan] Brewer and her anxious citizens really fear is too many brown faces.”
As white nationalism boldly raises its ugly head across the country, the first black president greeted one of its ring leaders. Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law which effectively mandates the racial profiling of that state’s Latino residents. The legislation, Senate Bill 1070, gives law enforcement the right to request proof of legal residency from anyone they may encounter during a “lawful stop” of whom there is “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country without documentation.
The original wording in the legislation did not mention the need for police to have an actual reason to investigate anyone. The requirement of legality was added only after demands were made by the legislation’s opponents both inside and outside of the state.
There is nothing mysterious about Arizona’s history of official, sanctioned racism. In 1861 white settlers organized to secede from the larger New Mexico territory and were welcomed into the slave holding Confederacy. The goal of its inclusion as a Confederate territory was to cut off Union access to California and to expand slavery ever further to the west. It should not have come as a surprise that Arizona was one of the last states to celebrate the Martin Luther King Day holiday. It is now in the forefront of promoting white nationalist politics with its anti-immigrant legislation.
The appeal of white supremacy never lies far below the surface in America. That is precisely why every action which supports it must be met by immediate and vociferous opposition. Of course, SB 1070 was met by nothing of the kind in the Obama administration. The most the president would publicly say was that the law was “misdirected” with the “potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
He did his usual act of throwing a bone to progressives when he made a joke about the law at the White House correspondence dinner. When he was criticized for his meaningless jocularity he quickly fell into line and gave Brewer the cover of legitimacy.
Obama showed his true political colors by agreeing to meet with Governor Brewer. The meeting was typical of the president, treating progressives like the political cheap dates they have become. Despite his mealy mouthed claim of asking the Justice Department to investigate the impact of the legislation and his wise cracking, Obama had already caved in to the demands of a state which is living up to its bad history.
Before the Brewer meeting the president announced he would send 1,200 National Guard troops to assist in patrolling the border. Brewer and company endlessly claim that their region is under attack from hordes of Mexicans sneaking across the border to commit acts of mayhem. She is expert at raising the level of hysteria about non-existent criminality, saying that her state is “under siege” from undocumented persons. “We are the gateway to America for drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and crime, and we in Arizona are no longer going to put up with it. People along the border are living in fear daily. I don't think the president really understands that.”
If Arizonans are living in fear it isn’t because of anything borne out by facts. Statistics show that the American southwest is one of the safest regions of the country. In 2009, violent crime rates fell in Arizona, and Phoenix is joined by border cities San Diego and El Paso as three of the four safest large cities in the country.
In addition, the number of persons apprehended while attempting to cross the border without papers has dropped by more than one half in recent years. In 2005 1.2 million were caught trying to enter the country and by 2009 the number had dropped to 541,000.
What Governor Brewer and her anxious citizens really fear is too many brown faces. A mural displayed on an elementary school building in Prescott, Arizona quite rightly depicted children of various races. Passing motorists felt free to hurl slurs of “nigger” and “spic” at the very images of brown skinned children.
Steve Blair, a Prescott city councilman and radio host asked why the children had to be seen at all. “I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who's president of the United States today and based upon the history of this community when I grew up, we had four black families - who I have been very good friends with for years - to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, 'Why?’” Blair was fired from his radio station duties, but didn’t back down as he explained himself. “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.”
The initial reaction to the hatred of little children was complete acquiescence to the haters. The school principal asked the artists to lighten the children’s faces, to make them “brighter and happier,” a decision that he claimed was made purely for artistic purposes.
He too backed down when criticized, but the incident is a very telling example of what happens when racism is not met with unequivocal opposition.
As Tim Wise pointed out in a Black Agenda Report interview, the Arizona laws and the tea party movement have very simple but very insidious goals. “Well if we can’t control the people in terms of the numbers, we’ll control the narrative. So we’ll get rid of ethnic studies in Arizona, we’ll attack Jeremiah Wright’s version of American history even though it is more accurate than what almost all of us were taught in school, we will rewrite the text books as we’re doing in Texas so either we’re going to control the borders or we’re going to control the story, and by God if there’s going to be more brown people here so be it but we’re going to tell you what America is about and that’s to me what makes it a form of white nationalism.”
The Confederate States of America were the ultimate incarnation of that credo, with the then territory and now state of Arizona emerging from that awful history. Obviously the election of a black president has brought the love of that history out into the open, but Obama should not get a pass from criticism when he refuses to use his presidential powers to keep the true haters at bay.
SB1070 is scheduled to go into effect on July 29, 2010. If the Obama administration Justice Department does not take any official action to stop it, then it is complicit in making it a reality. Brewer left the meeting with the impression that the president will leave a decision up to the Justice Department. Obama should have told Brewer that the law is a political deal breaker that he will not countenance. Instead he promised to send staff to Arizona to see the situation first hand.
As usual, the man with the biggest bully pulpit in the country passes the buck in favor of expediency and his own form of white washing. Obama’s very presence in his position has sparked the tea party movement and open acts of racism, but he does nothing to protect other Americans from the same dangers. The theme is getting to be old and predictable after just one year into his term. Obama actually profits politically from expressions of race hatred while millions of other people are expected to suffer in silence.
The meeting with Brewer would not be so insulting if progressives of any stripe also were admitted into the inner sanctums of power. They get nothing but the back of the president’s hand and yet continue to defend and protect him. While these political amateurs may deserve that treatment, the people they purport to represent do not and they ought to say so and say so loudly. If July 29th arrives and SB1070 becomes law with the help of the Obama White House, then perhaps the old confederacy has won after all.
This article originally appeared on the site of the Black Agenda Report
Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)
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