In Arizona, a federal judge ruled that racial animus drove a shutdown of a Mexican-American ethnic studies program, as President Trump pardoned ex-Sheriff Arpaio over his harsh treatment of immigrants, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
President Trump’s pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio over a contempt-of-court conviction when he refused to comply with an order to end racial-profiling in detaining suspected undocumented immigrants again shows Trump’s readiness to flout the law in protection of friends while his administration declared that even Hurricane Harvey wouldn’t stop the immigration crackdown.
“The Border Patrol is a law enforcement agency and we will not abandon our law enforcement duties,” said a statement from the Rio Grande Valley Sector office last Thursday, vowing to “remain vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.”
Though overshadowed by the Arpaio pardon and the storm, Arizona students and their parents won a victory in Federal Court in Arizona with the restoration of a popular Mexican-American ethnic studies program. On Friday, I spoke with Cesar Cruz, an author and educator who was in Tucson to witness the court case.
Dennis Bernstein: I know that many of you are monitoring the hurricane off the coast of Texas. But keep in mind that there are people there who are worried about whether they should face the storm or seek shelter and take the risk of being deported.
Welcome, Dr. Cesar Cruz. I saw a news conference about the hurricane. People are already clearing the shoreline and moving inland. But in the middle of the news conference the question was asked whether undocumented individuals might be thinking twice before coming to one of these shelters, where they could end up being arrested and deported to an eternity of hell.
Cesar Cruz: My mother was deported on three different occasions. We grew up undocumented in this country. In situations like this, we didn’t know who to turn to because the people running the shelters might very easily turn us over to immigration. And things are especially difficult in Texas for our undocumented brothers and sisters.
DB: Dr. Cruz, you were just in Arizona witnessing this trial concerning the right to have ethnic studies in Tucson schools. Why did you want to be there, and why did you decide to bring your kids along with you?
CC: Despite the Brown vs. Board of Education decision back in 1954, the Tucson community in 1998 had to sue the state to finally desegregate their schools and have Mexican-American studies included in the curriculum. I took my children to the trial because it is so important for a tree to know its roots, to know where it comes from. We wanted to come in solidarity to say that Mexican-American studies matter, just as every people’s history matters.
DB: Why do you think these people were resisting this incredibly successful program that has made a lot of students out of non-students?
CC: We just scored a major national victory with the judge in this case ruling that racial animus was at the core of this opposition to ethnic studies programs. What we are witnessing is the fear of a brown nation. It is what happens when a community is empowered and knows its rights. There is such a backlash against this and against the idea that the people are going to take back the land that was taken from them. They either want to incarcerate us, deport us, or miseducate us. All we are asking is what everyone deserves: an equal education and to know our rights.
DB: What exactly was Donald Trump doing in Phoenix on that same day? He announced that he would essentially pardon Sheriff Arpaio.
CC: The mainstream news covered Trump’s speech but not the court decision. It was a clear appeal to his base, which is quickly shrinking. He was saying to white supremacy, they are not going to convict one of ours. Think about it, we have come to the point where we are convicting sheriffs! These are empowering times. You have to remember, this is the state that refused to honor Dr. Martin Luther King with a national holiday. When Tucson is able to successfully fight for its rights, that gives me a tremendous amount of hope. If Tucson can do it, we can do it across the country.
DB: Actually, we just now got the news that Arpaio was pardoned. Again, what is the message here?
CC: This is someone who demonized the Latino community and was finally found guilty of misusing his office to terrorize them. What does it say when the president of the United States can so easily overturn such an important and hard-won legal victory? We have to take a stand and say that no one is above the law.
Sheriff Arpaio must do his time. If Donald Trump is going to come to Arizona and say that he wants to unite the country, he has to live up to that. He knows very well that it is divisive to pardon someone like Sheriff Arpaio.
DB: I think the most amazing thing about the struggle for ethnic studies is how successful the program has been by all measures. That has been behind the drive to shut it down.
CC: Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the godfather of African-American history, said that the worst sort of lynching you can have in this country is to not teach a young person his or her history, to teach them that their condition is hopeless.
What they are afraid of in Arizona is a young generation of critical thinkers. Teachers in Arizona have been working in a climate of hate and yet they created something beautiful and profound. It is now our duty to set up ethnic studies programs all over the country. It is happening in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco.
In Chicago, they now have ethnic studies and Latino studies from kindergarten up. In Seattle and Boston ethnic studies have just been approved. And it was this small program in Tucson that put ethnic studies on the map.
DB: Give us a brief history on how Mexican Americans actually played a key role in the initial desegregation of US schools?
CC: In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, when our people were being deported, it was the Mexican Americans who fought to desegregate schools in San Diego. In the 1940’s, Orange County Raza fought to desegregate schools. We are standing on the shoulders of those ancestors.
In one of the most racist states in America, we took on one of the most racist school superintendents and we won! Why are we not celebrating nationally? This is a great victorious day but the mainstream news is not covering it.
Because our history has not even been on the bus, let alone on the back of the bus. Generations of people have fought for this day, like Sal Castro, like the movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s, like Rudi Acuña, and so many others.
DB: In Tucson, it wasn’t just about blocking ethnic studies, these authorities believed they had the right to ban books to prevent young people from learning about history. This was an anti-intellectual attempt to stymie and undermine an entire people.
CC: We have seen this before. In the 1950’s we had the Red Scare and Operation Wetback. There were certain films you couldn’t see, like Salt of the Earth. Now they are banning Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the great Paulo Freire, which talks about creating consciousness. The only reason to ban that book is because you don’t want to promote critical thinking.
DB: Back to shelter from the storm: The community in Texas is taking actions as we speak to offer shelter to those who may be afraid to go to government shelters for fear of being deported. Is that right?
CC: In the same way that Tony Diaz began Libros Trafficante, an underground book trafficking movement to break the ethnic studies ban, we are asking members of our community in Tejas to open up their homes to the undocumented during this hurricane, because many of our people don’t want to risk coming to shelters where they might be picked up by immigration.
DB: Nobody is talking about this: What happens when you are undocumented and the storm is coming? Do you head for shelter or do you run into the storm? You just may have a better chance of surviving the storm than you do ICE. Trump’s key policy has always been his anti-immigrant attack. There is great suffering going on, and when this kind of national emergency comes up, we can see how dangerous it has become to be undocumented in Trump’s America.
CC: Let’s remember, though, that the waves of hate and xenophobia have been around a long time. My mother was deported on three different occasions. When I would ask her how she was able to make it past that twenty-foot-high border, she would tell me that she had an invisible 21-foot ladder. As we topple walls, we are building the ladders to help our people.
There will be other hurricanes and other hostile presidencies. We will overcome these obstacles but we must stay organized and committed and see the long view of history. We have to think seven generations ahead and seven generations before.
Other empires have fallen and this one is coming down. If we are scoring victories in Arizona, of all places, what more proof do we need that the people are winning?