Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Re-Recognizing Racism: The Case of Tucson's Mexican-American Studies Litigation

A federal court invalidated an attempt by the state of Arizona to shut down a Mexican-American Studies curriculum in Tucson high schools, concluding that it was motivated by racial animus. The opinion is here, and it is just brutal on the primary architects of the law and its enforcement: Tom Horne and John Huppenthal.

What's striking about this opinion is that it doesn't flinch from the ascription of a racist motive. The program in question improved educational outcomes and was favorably reviewed in an audit ordered by the very officials whose avowed agenda was to destroy the department. Reviewing statements and practices by the major players behind the bill, the court's opinion concludes in no uncertain terms that the reason this law was passed and applied against Tucson's Mexican-American Studies program was because of bias against Mexican-Americans.

I strongly suspect that the willingness to make that determination is impacted by our current political climate. For all the whining that conservatives have engaged in about always being called a racist every which way, for the most part when it comes to official organs of government that had pretty much fallen off the table. There was an unspoken agreement that the "racism" charge was just too, well, mean to form the basis of high-level normative discourse.

And so, even a few years ago, for a federal judge to accuse a high-ranking state official of being motivated by racism would have been virtually unthinkable.  Courts dealing with racial discrimination suits would bend over backwards to couch their judgments in ways that would not be read as simply concluding that the defendants were being bigoted. Unfair, maybe; inconsistent, perhaps; unlawful, occasionally -- but not the dreaded "r" word. It wasn't seen as plausible that someone of prominence and prestige could be so crass as to be racist.

What's different now? One change is that conservatives on the Supreme Court have diced up our constitutional protections against racial discrimination such that only conscious, intentional discrimination qualifies. So judges who made have in past years relied on face-saving alternative rationales for invalidating discriminatory policies now have no choice but to say, flat-out, "this was done because of racial bias."

But I also think there's a greater psychological willingness to draw the inference of discrimination. The rise of Donald Trump demonstrated that explicit racial animus remained a live force in American politics, one that had a significant presence even amongst "elite" and "respectable" figures. Moreover, while in past years we might have worried about the backlash of flatly declaring a significant political figure racist -- how rude! -- now the calculus has changed. For it turned out that wearing kid-gloves around the racism issue in no way dissipated White racial resentment -- no matter how delicately one tip-toes around the issue, certain White people are just aching to thunder "are you calling ME a RACIST?". And so there's really not a lot of reason to beat around the bush anymore.

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