Standing up to discrimination

The immigration bill signed by Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona on April 23, SB 1070, is a nativist, unconstitutional reform that institutionalizes discrimination against non-white residents of Arizona. Yet, while students and workers all across the country are demonstrating against this unjust law by chaining themselves to capitol buildings, organizing marches and boycotting Arizona, here at Williams College we remain seemingly unperturbed. Just as these laws are promoting domestic and international dialogue regarding the question of “American” identity, we at the College should take this opportunity to evaluate how the College addresses matters of race, ethnicity, gender, class and inclusiveness.

SB 1070 allows law enforcement officers to search and potentially arrest anyone who looks like an undocumented immigrant. The bill encourages individuals to sue their municipality if they believe it is not adequately complying with the immigration law. A less publicized but equally alarming bill, HB 2281, was also passed in Arizona on April 29. It prohibits schools from teaching Ethnic Studies courses, or classes that “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” claiming that such programs “promote the overthrow of the United States government [and] promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”

If a bill similar to HB 2281 were to pass in Massachusetts, programs at the College like the Latina/o Studies and Africana Studies concentrations would be outlawed. This is no simple curricular exchange; this law represents an undermining of the struggle that former students of color underwent to create such programs. In 1993, several students at the College conducted a hunger strike and staged a sit-in at Hopkins Hall, demanding that Latino/a and Africana Studies programs be instated to meet the needs of Latino/a and black populations. Similar movements arose across the country. By outlawing these “ethnic” courses, HB 2281 is saying that an authentic American identity ignores its multicultural conception. The United States is a country of immigrants and our academic curriculum should thus reflect our diverse society. Moreover, political neutrality is not achieved through censorship but through equal legal protection of different perspectives.

If an SB 1070-esque bill passed in Massachusetts, the College population composed of students of color – that is, 34 percent – would potentially be the target of unreasonable searches. Latinos/as compose approximately one third of Arizona’s population. Just how are undocumented immigrants to be differentiated from the rest of the non-white population? In short: by how an individual “looks.” According to Brian Bilbray (R-Cal), law enforcement officers “will look at the kind of dress [individuals] wear, there’s different type of attire … right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes.” Officially, the law states that officers will receive some sort of training. Yet between 2007 and 2008, 320,000 immigrants were incarcerated without trial in the U.S. because officials believed they were undocumented residents. In an immigration system that is already biased against non-white residents, giving officers the liberty to question anyone will lead to more discrimination.

As a Mexican citizen who has lived in the U.S. for 16 years, these laws make me question my sense of belonging in the U.S. Conversations with peers have confirmed that many members of the College community feel the same way. These laws, by explicitly indicating which members of society merit protection under the U.S. Constitution, seek to further restrict the definition of who is and what it means to be an American.

As “global citizens” it is incumbent upon us to confront these misguided conceptions of American identity. Seyla Benhabib perfectly articulates the issue in her book The Rights of Others, by saying that “the feeling of insecurity [that gives rise to these xenophobic legislations] is not necessarily due to immigration but to the nature of the current global transformations.” Our modern, complex and multicultural society inherently promotes a redemarcation between the concepts of “us” and “them,” but it is vital to remember that the U.S. is a political community integrated with our “commitment to recognize and uphold certain basic rights, liberties, and democratic procedures, not on a shared socio-cultural identity,” Benhabib argues. At the College, we must uphold these cosmopolitan notions by respecting the right of others to hold and express their different views.

HB 2281 and SB 1070 will be implemented in the upcoming months. It is our civic duty to voice our concerns against these xenophobic policies and to advocate for a comprehensive, federal immigration reform so that SB 1070 and HB 2281 are repealed and similar laws are not enacted in other states. A federal immigration reform would provide a framework for states, and could prevent xenophobic laws from arising in the future. Moreover, programs like Claiming Williams that promote discourse on issues of race, gender and class should be encouraged as they present a venue for open discussion. I challenge everyone to re-evaluate their own conceptions of identity and to embrace a cosmopolitan view of the world to make Williams a place that we can all equally call our own.

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