Something interesting is happening in Arizona. Two bills are on the table, one targeting illegal immigrants and one targeting ethnic-studies classes in local schools. Somehow, as I follow the controversy surrounding these two pieces of legislation, I’m reminded of another time when I watched a curious thing taking place in the state of Arizona. It was the early 1990s, I was in ninth grade in Cleveland, Ohio, and the issue was the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Arizona had previously observed the national Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday but had rescinded the holiday in 1986 under Governor Evan Mecham. Then-Governor J. Fife Symington III ’68, when he came into office in 1991, refused to bring the holiday back to the state despite passionate appeals from a small, but determined, group of activists within the state. Initially, Senator John S. McCain supported and defended Symington in his refusal, but as the political winds changed due to boycotts and public outcry so did McCain, especially once it became clear that Arizona stood to lose millions of dollars on the issue.
You see, Arizona was in line to host a very lucrative little football game called the Super Bowl. The National Football League got involved and told Arizona to honor the holiday, threatening that “if anything was done to dishonor the memory of Dr. King,” the committee would vote to rescind the awarding of the Super Bowl to the state of Arizona. Even McCain’s midstream flip-a-roo was not enough; Arizona voters struck down the holiday, and the NFL ultimately changed the site of the 1993 Super Bowl from Tempe, Ariz. to Pasadena, Calif.
Among other reasons for the change, the NFL cited the fact that the majority of NFL players were African-American, and it would therefore be bad business for the organization if it were to insult its employees. In the end, according to some estimates, the loss of the Super Bowl and the ensuing boycotts associated with Arizona’s stance cost the state approximately $350 million in revenue and gave it two large self-inflicted black eyes in the process.
Arizona has stepped back into the proverbial ethnic boxing ring again with Senate Bill 1070, which was signed by current Governor Jan K. Brewer, and House Bill 2281, which was pushed mainly by Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas C. Horne ’67 (Horne is also running for the position of state attorney general). SB 1070 requires that “for any lawful conduct made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or subdivision of this state, where reasonable suspicion exists that this person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.” And HB 2281 “prohibits a school district or charter school from including courses or classes that either promote the overthrow of the U.S. government or promote resentment toward a race or class of people” or “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or that “advocate ethnic solidarity.”
If nothing changes before July 29, when these laws go into effect, these two public officials have all but guaranteed another self-inflicted knockout punch for Arizona’s tourism economy and probable political exile once the political winds shift away from them. The Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement through its Executive Director Michael Weiner in response to the immigration bill, stating, “The Major League Baseball Players Association opposes this law as written. We hope that the law is repealed or modified promptly. If the current law goes into effect, the MLBPA will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members.”
That approximately 25 percent of the players in Major League Baseball and more than 48 percent of the players in the Minor league/Cactus league are of Latino descent should not be lost on the MLB and its commissioner, Allan H. Selig. The MLB has the opportunity right now to take a firm stance like the NFL did in the ’90s and move its product away from a state that could possibly detain and/or lock up a fourth of their employees based simply on how they look. San Diego Padres star Adrian Gonzalez has already come out stating that he will refuse to play in the All-Star game this year, which is scheduled to take place in Phoenix, if SB 1070 goes into effect, and it is very likely that many other players will follow.
Observing as a ninth grader what the NFL did 20 years ago left me with the impression that Arizona was not a very hospitable place for African-Americans. Today the target of Arizona’s animus has changed. Immigrants and ethnic-studies programs are now in the spotlight, and I wonder, what are ninth graders in Arizona and around the country thinking today when they look at the goings on in that state? It is almost incomprehensible that in America today the state of Arizona would ban children in high school from taking classes that allow them to learn about the history of specific people groups. What’s next on the banning list? Well, it could conceivably be anything that ruffles Mr. Horne’s feathers. The governor has also recently released a statement that she will not tolerate “racial profiling” in her state, which appears to be in direct contradiction to the law she just signed. Perhaps the governor and superintendent don’t quite realize just how much damage their actions will cause; if these two pieces of legislation become a reality, they will have truly razed Arizona.
Carl L. Miller is a resident tutor in race relations and the social sciences in Eliot House.