January 17, 2011

Is Arizona's Political Climate Really Getting Worse? A History-based Response to the Backlash Surrounding Congresswoman Giffords' Shooting

After the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and many of those attending her town meeting on January 8, 2011, we heard voices saying the current political climate in Arizona has reached a pitch unheard of in days past. One friend said she missed the Arizona of her youth. Similar comments, like those of Sheriff Dupnik and other political commentators, seem to conjure a nostalgic view of our past. But, I disagree with the idea that Arizona is seeing more extreme political language and violence than it did previously. In fact, history bears out the idea that what we saw last week is nothing new and that our country and our state have long struggled with issues of violent political language and racial strife.

One of the reasons we sometimes have this nostalgic feeling that things used to be better is that many voices within our own society were silent (or silenced) until the last century.

Pima County's Sheriff seems to hold a rather uninformed nostalgic view. In his own words, "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."1 Sheriff Dupnik is in his 70's so he should remember there have been some vitriolic controversies filled with bigotry and hatred in our country and our state since our earliest history.

We haven't left some kind dreamy American wonderland where everyone got along a lot better in the past and people behaved better "way back then". Several college friends of mine (who should know better based on their education) have voiced this complaint lately and it sticks in my craw. If you're one of them, this is for you.

For those of us too young to actually remember the events of the 1950's and 1960's, today is the perfect day to remember Martin Luther King Jr., a leader who encouraged non-violent, civil disobedience to bring attention to the injustices suffered by African Americans in this country and win for them equal rights. Older friends of mine who lived in the South during the Civil Rights movement remember "Colored bathrooms" signs as well as the darker elements of those times.

My pre-college MLK education was either slim or slanted against honoring Dr. King as a champion of rights. I do remember the controversy in Arizona over honoring MLK day though I was only 12 when it started. Then Governor Evan Mecham said, "I guess King did a lot for the colored people (emphasis mine), but I don't think he deserves a national holiday." Even after that comment, a referendum for the holiday failed. As a result, we lost the honor of hosting Super Bowl XXVII.2 In 1992, Arizonans finally voted in favor of an MLK holiday. Not exactly a more "civil" time in our history.

If those dates seem like ancient history to you, think of a meaningful event in your life - death, miscarriage, divorce, etc in the last ten years - and tell me if you're over it yet. Then, pretend for a moment that you are a person of color - enslaved, spit on, ignored, verbally, physically or sexually abused because you're not a "real" person - and tell me how long it would take for you to get over that.

Some of you may be annoyed ("That was so long ago, Monna!") that I'm bringing up the past and including it as part of what's going on now -but, remember in the overall view of history, it hasn't been that long. It's been only 150 years since the Civil War - when brother fought brother over the passions that started the conflict. It's been only 91 years since woman gained the vote. And, despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869, many minority groups were denied the right to vote either by local law or intimidation until well into the late 1900's.

Returning to a local perspective, the earlier days of Arizona history were not marked by peaceful coexistence with people of non-European descent either. From segregated schools to the persecution of Japanese farmers, Arizona - like many other places in the United States, had its share of racist and violent language and behavior.

In  the early 1900's African American and Mexican students were frequently kept from attending schools with white students. Multiple lawsuits, including Gonzales vs. Sheely and one by African American Samuel F. Bayless challenged practices that kept students of Latino and African American descent from attending school with white children. The final 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared that the concept 'separate but equal' had no place in education.3

Families of African American or Mexican descent were not the only groups targeted by intolerant whites in recent Arizona history. In the 1930's, white farmers protested the presence of Japanese farmers who'd managed to avoid obeying the anti-Japanese Alien Land Law and deed land to their Nisei children. Action against the Japanese farmers started with 1500 white farmers demonstrating through Phoenix with anti-Asian banners and progressed to dynamite attacks on Japanese homes and drive by shootings of the Japanese and their families.4 Thankfully, the farmers weren't very good shots and no one died.

If anything, in Arizona's current political climate more voices are allowed to participate in the conversation and it's creating a lot of noise. Women not only vote in elections, they are Congresswomen, Senators, Governors, the United States Secretary of Homeland Security and hopefully, someday - President. Native Americans and Mexicans, who existed here prior to our European ancestors but were not technologically advanced enough to push them out - were subdued, enslaved and even killed, along with the African Americans who came with the Europeans to this "new world". Those "troublesome" folks (sarcasm here) have gained their voice and are now allowed to be part of the conversation. Could it be that the same racist attitudes that motivated our ancestors to silence the voices of color in the past - now motivates those who wish they'd just go away?

Those who reminisce about the good old days of their peaceful youth in Arizona may really be remembering a day when there weren't as many voice permitted to speak. The lack of loud disagreement, created by repression, can sometimes create the illusion of peace. Clearly, this is an uninformed view of Arizona's past. So, recent shooting aside and considering the more inclusive nature of our current political conversation,  contrary to the view that Arizona's political climate has suddenly become filled with hate and violence, it's possible we're actually making progress.

Copyright (c) 2011

1 Shafer, Jack. "In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric." Slate, January 9, 2011. http://www.slate.com/id/2280616/

Tapper, Jake. "The Complicated History of John McCain and MLK Day". ABC New, January 10, 2011.  http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2008/04/the-complicated.html

3 Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), 394.

4 Goddard, Terry."The Promise of Brown v. Board of Education A Monograph." January 13, 2011. http://www.azag.gov/civil_rights/Brown%20v%20Board%20Monograph.pdf


  1. Great perspective, Monna. Another "magical" period in Arizona and American history that doesn't seem to get as much traction are the boarding schools: NPR did a great story on those here -- http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865, and the Heard had a great exhibit on what they were like in Arizona: http://www.heard.org/currentexhibits/hmm/BoardingSchoolExperience.html -- Jamie and I saw that when we were in AZ at one point. Chilling is the best way to describe it. Great exhibit...thanks for taking the long view on politics in AZ!

  2. Thanks, Dan. Appreciate the links as well!


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