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Arizona Again Attacks Martin Luther King Jr’s Legacy with Bill Banning Social Justice Studies

Martin Luther King Jr. shakes hands with President Lyndon B. Johnson after the latter signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. (US State Department/Flickr Creative Commons)

Just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in a state that refused to recognize the holiday until 1992, comes yet another attack on the civil rights icon’s teachings and legacy as Arizona Republicans push a bill that would ban social justice education.

Arizona HB 2120 would ban “courses, classes, events and activities” that “promote division, resentment or social justice toward a race, gender, political affiliation, social class or other class of people” or that “advocate solidarity… based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender or social class.” There are exemptions for Native American students, for the Holocaust and for “courses or classes that accurately discuss controversial aspects of history.” The ban would apply to public schools, community colleges and universities. Violators would have 10 percent of their monthly state funding withheld until they comply with the law.

In shockingly Orwellian language, the bill’s co-sponsor, state Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley), said it was meant to combat “discrimination and bigotry.”

“I oppose taxpayer funding for anything that seeks to divide people by race, religion, ethnicity, or gender,” Finchem explained to ABC 15. “If private groups want to fund such things that’s their first amendment right, but taxpayer resources should not be used to advance discrimination and bigotry.”

You read that right. MLK, arguably the greatest American who ever lived, dedicated his life to teaching and preaching social justice in order to combat discrimination and bigotry. But to countless millions of white Americans, mostly of the conservative variety, identifying, discussing and resisting racism is, well, racist. It’s a perverse mindset writ large on billboards and banners proclaiming “anti-racist is a code word for anti-white” and in cognitively dissonant statements from throwbacks like Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) who dismiss criticism of President-elect Donald Trump’s more bigoted cabinet nominees as a “war on whites.”

While the notion of any “war on whites” may seem absurd, even laughable, to any reasonable observer of contemporary American race relations, it is a notion that is deeply embedded in the minds of untold millions of white Americans. It’s endemic in Arizona, where I’ve spent considerable time covering various social justice stories and visiting the dozen or so white, conservative relatives who live around Phoenix. Relations are excellent with all, save for a federally licensed firearms dealer brother-in-law who feloniously threatened to kill me over a Facebook fight about universal health care. But a close relative I respect too much to name, someone who recently told me he believes President Obama is a foreign-born Islamist terrorist sympathizer, insisted, along with everyone else in the room, that there was nothing racist about Trump calling Mexicans rapists but it was a problem that black people had their own television channel, BET. Only a mind steeped in white privilege could fail to see that nearly every other TV channel caters to a primarily white audience, and what an insignificant bone to pick!

Only in a state steeped in white privilege and racism would voters reject observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, even years after President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law and even when the National Football League relocated Super Bowl XXVII from Phoenix in disgust. Arizonans wouldn’t vote in favor of MLK Day until 1992.

Since then, Arizona has made dubious headlines time and again for racist, discriminatory or unconstitutional bills that have sometimes become dangerous and damaging laws. In recent years, the state has passed SB 1070, the infamously anti-immigrant “show me your papers” law, a measure its Republican author effectively admitted was racially motivated. It also passed a voter suppression act and outlawed ethnic studies. The Tucson school district even banned Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as somehow subversive.

“The courses don’t represent the values of Arizonans,” state Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff), author of the proposed social justice studies ban, explained to the Daily Caller. What Thorpe should have said was that they don’t represent the values of many white Arizonans, many of whom relocated to the state in waves of white flight from Rust Belt cities where blacks and other minorities were growing in population and power. Instead, he doubled down on insulting King’s legacy by using the slain civil rights leader’s own words to make a fallacious point: “The way these classes are set up is that people are judged not because of the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King Jr. railed against what he called the “three evils” of American society — “racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” He called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and rejected capitalism as “evil,” urging America to “move toward a democratic socialism.” MLK was the greatest social justice warrior this nation has ever known. He would be truly horrified at the prospect of bills like HB 2120.

“The function of education… is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” King wrote in 1947. “But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals… We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character– that is the goal of true education.”

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