I marched on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Phoenix this year.
I’ve marched before, as an activist, but this year I made the trek from Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church on East Jefferson to Hance Park as a journalist and average citizen struggling to understand how we’ve managed to come so far and still have so far to go.
This isn’t scientific at all, but if I had been asked two or three years ago what percentage of Americans were unabashedly racist, I would have ventured a guess of about 15 percent. I’ve always been an optimist.
Our experience as a nation over the past three years, however, has me wondering if my optimism was more akin to naivete. The election of our president and a slew of corresponding events, even if indirectly related, now have convinced me I should up my guesstimate of racists in America to about 20 or 30 percent.
I’m talking here about unabashed racists, folks who hold and express clearly bigoted views the way other people just breathe, not matter if they try cloaking them in quaint or cutting euphemisms. You know the kind. At least one of them serves in the Arizona Legislature. At least one.
Last summer, Rep. David Stringer told a group of constituents, “Immigration is politically destabilizing. President Trump has talked about this.” (Trump, of course, being the authority on political destabilization.) “Immigration today,” Stringer said, “represents an existential threat to the United States.” Nevermind that everyone in the U.S. today, except Native Americans and the enslaved ancestors of most African Americans, traces their roots to immigrants.
For the record, as the son of a Mexican immigrant who spent 35 years working in a Chicago steel mill before dying way too soon, and almost certainly as a result of heart disease brought on by decades-long career in a foundry saturated in black soot, I take issue with Stringer’s specious claim.
Stringer, who has since apologized for his racist remarks (but now finds himself embroiled in a whole separate controversy regarding decades-old sex offenses) is the same guy who claimed that “African Americans and other racial groups” – meaning people like me – “don’t blend in” to his ideal of the way Americans should look and act. Mr. Stringer, if it makes you feel any better, I have on occasion passed for white.
Then there’s Congressman Steve King of Iowa (no relation to MLK) who in a recent interview with The New York Times asked a reporter, “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” And don’t get me started on the self-described nationalist of a president who lauded the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, routinely refers to Latino immigrants as criminals and Muslims as terrorists, and, well, you know the rest.
All of that said, racism is relative. The passage in 2010 of Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona was blatantly racist, even if some of the legislators who voted for it were only mostly racist, and a handful of others were probably what I call racist-adjacent, meaning they supported it anyway because Latinos didn’t have as much political power at the time and then-Senate President Russell Pearce (who is unequivocally racist) and other state GOP leaders muscled them into it.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the bill into law, on the other hand, is hands-down racist and proves it every time she goes on TV to defend President Trump or SB 1070, which ended up being one of the most economically destructive and culturally divisive pieces of legislation in Arizona history. I’m no shrink, but any state that picks up the moniker “The New Alabama” is due for some serious self-reflection and political realignment.
But, James, you sound so cynical. I thought you were an optimist?
I am. Here’s a few reasons why, compliments of the MLK holiday.
On Monday, I marched with optimists. I lost track of how many people, when asked why they were marching, used the phrase “in these times”. These times that have brought the greatest challenge to the struggle against bigotry since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
As I marched, I found myself inspired again and again by a crowd filled with ordinary people and their extraordinary spirits.
“We’re here today to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., and how he fought for us and brought us together,” said 9-year old Dolce Briones, a wide-eyed, local charter school student.
Jessica Garza was attending her first march with her 10-year-old son, Christian. “There’s a lot of people trying to turn us against each other,” she said, “and this is an event to bring us together. I want my son to learn more about this.”
Besides Jessica, Christian and Dolce, all of whom happen to be Latino, I marched that day with African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Whites and others who had resolved to judge each other “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Like Jessica, I want my children to learn more about not only the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but today’s struggle to protect the gains our nation has made in the past 50 years.
I want my children to learn that we can’t lose faith even in the face of unbridled bigotry, because the alternative is unthinkable, a return to America’s pre-Civil Rights brand of apartheid where people of color, women and others were legally treated as subhuman.
I want my children to learn that the fight for justice is a fight for an intrinsically moral cause, our unrealized quest for equal rights no matter our race, gender, creed, sexual orientation or national origin.
Most of all, I want my children to understand that the Civil Rights Movement is far from over, and while voting is even more important, it’s also good to march because, if you’re lucky, you get to meet people who share in the belief that we can and shall overcome these times.