Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Never Been To Spain*

So, what with one thing and another, I've been to most parts of this country at one time or another over the years, even if just passing through -- a conference in Florida, a symposium in Massachusetts, a research trip to Austin. But one area I've never visited has been the southwest: in all that vast block I've never been further west than east Texas or further south than the Bay area. There's a lot to see down there (Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and much much more), so we were thinking of going to Arizona sometime in the next year or two.

But now, with the new Jim Crow law they've just enacted, I'm thinking not so much. The idea that you can be arrested if you step outside to walk down to the mailbox without carrying your driver's license and birth certificate or passport with you is disconcerting, to say the least. I wdn't want to live in a state like that, much less visit.

As for the law itself, I wdn't think of it as much more than a sign of Arizona's slide into failed-state mentality, kind of like Zimbabwe or Somalia, if I thought it wd be impartially enforced -- i.e., if John McCain got pulled over and forced to prove his citizenship as often as the average Hispanic. But in practice I can't see it as anything other than sheer racism, and hence unconstitutional -- like the Jim Crow laws, which were only ever enforced to one ethnicity's disadvantage (e.g., white voters were tacitly exempted from literacy tests and poll taxes). The irony of an illegal law to tackle the issue of illegal immigrants adds a level of weirdness to the whole thing: who do they think they're fooling? Does anyone doubt for a moment that if the Hispanics they're targeting weren't ethnically distinct -- say, if it were a case of Idaho being overrun with Canadians -- that they'd have this new law?

It's disheartening to find that we haven't come that far from the kind of thinking that underlay the anti-Chinese laws of the mid-1800s, designed to combat the mythical threat of 'the Yellow Peril' (which took the form then of dirt-poor men doing back-breaking work laying railroad tracks). You have to wonder why the Haves (white, middle-class) are so desperately afraid of the Have Nots -- guilty conscience, perhaps? Maybe sometimes you just have to lie to yourself rather than admit you're just looking for someone who doesn't look like you to blame all your troubles on.

All this is more ironic given the backdrop of an ongoing Seattle case Janice pointed out to me, where a man was arrested for not giving his name to an officer

The main focus of the article is about his having proved the police hid evidence that supported his account of the incident, but re. our topic there's one particularly telling line (emphasis mine):

Rachner's criminal defense attorney sought dismissal of his gross misdemeanor charge, citing the Washington State Supreme Court decision that says arresting a person for nothing more than withholding identification is unconstitutional. One reason cited by the court: This practice allows police too much discretion to pick targets and punish with arrest. Also, the state constitution is more protective of these rights than the U.S. constitution.

That's right: refusing to identify yourself is a constitutional right in the state of Washington.

Janice also pointed out one more curious thing about the Arizona law: where are the people who, just a few years ago, were up in arms denouncing the idea of a National Identity Card? Or are they suddenly for it, so long as it applies to other people, and imagine that they'd themselves somehow be exempt?

In any case, for our part we've decided not to take a trip to Arizona anytime in the foreseeable future. New Mexico, perhaps.


*As for this post's name, it comes from the old Three Dog Night song, which I've been hearing over and over in my head these last few days:

Well I've never been to Heaven
But I've been to Oklahoma
Well they tell me I was born there
But I really don't remember
In Oklahoma
Not Arizona
What does it matter?
("Never Been to Spain" [1971])

Postscript: Since I drafted this, a California congressman has come forward to advocate the deportation of American citizens related to illegal aliens. Guess he wanted to prove not all the racists are in Arizona. Would that they were. --JDR

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