Arizona's Questionable Track Record on Race: MLK Day, Banning Ethnic Studies, and Regulating Accents | Sojourners

Arizona's Questionable Track Record on Race: MLK Day, Banning Ethnic Studies, and Regulating Accents

It wasn't that long ago that the state of Arizona did not recognize, in fact went out of its way to criticize, the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They drew the ire of the African-American community, the prophetic hip hop group Public Enemy, and even the NFL who once relocated the Super Bowl because of the controversy. What were the reasons people gave not to celebrate what is now a nationally recognized federal holiday? Some questioned whether he was worthy of such an honor even though he is recognized by many as the greatest American citizen of the twentieth century. Others continued to insinuate he was an undercover communist, and was, therefore, ineligible for such an honor. Still others critiqued his stance on the Vietnam War and what that meant about his patriotism. But underneath all of that rhetoric, which is all highly questionable by any student of King's life, laid the fact that America was about to honor a Black man with a national holiday, and Arizona was at the forefront of this backlash.

And recently Arizona has come under criticism, and ignited staunch support, for their controversial solution to immigration. I do not need to rehash the controversy except to point out that defenders of the law point out that "illegal is not a race," and that the law will not, in any way, lead to racial profiling or the violation of the civil rights of U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent. In fact, defenders of the law claim that there is no racial motivation in the bill and that law enforcement will go out of its way to ensure race does not play a role in its enforcement.

However, it is important to point out that Arizona (and Gov. Jan Brewer) has recently banned ethnic studies classes, and the Arizona Department of Education has imposed new regulations about the amount of an accent teachers can have and which students they can teach. There are, again, extenuating circumstances that defenders of these new laws and regulations point out to insist that there is no racial motivation behind them. (For instance, meeting No Child Left Behind regulations and the desire to mold students into "individuals" and not advocate for "ethnic solidarity.") However, a pattern clearly seems to be emerging. Laws and rules that very easily could be made from a racial motivation are consistently defended for other reasons. From the eyes of someone who is the child of an immigrant, like myself, though, the implication is clear. You are not part of us and we want to keep it that way. We'll keep it that way by not celebrating your heroes. We'll keep it that way by keeping you in fear during your daily activities. And we'll keep it that way by making sure you are taught our history in our way so that you become an "individual" and not a part of your family's ethnic heritage.

This is not an exercise in Arizona bashing, but I think the state has done some things recently that should concern all citizens concerned about sustaining an America that values liberty, civil and human rights, equality and justice for all. In these tough economic times racial and ethnic tensions that already existed have become elevated. It becomes easy in uneasy times to blame the other or redefine one's boundaries in a more exclusive way. But this is not the way of Christ or the Church, and it is not the way of a nation that claims to uphold the principles of liberty, equality, and justice. The United States must do better than this, and if it fails to, Christians must be the voice crying in the wilderness insisting that God's kingdom knows no boundaries and that divine justice overrides human injustice.


Jimmy McCarty is a doctoral student at Emory University studying Religion, Ethics, and Society. He blogs at

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