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Arizona: From Jim Crow to Juan Cuervo

Unfortunately, the paradigm of race has been historically framed as a Black and White relation, overlooking more subtle forms of anti-Mexican, anti-Chinese, anti-Japanese, and anti-Native American local and national legislation and public policy.

by Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez

Signs such as “Colored Only,” “White Only,” “Japs Keep Moving, This is A White Man’s Neighborhood,” “Race Mixing is Communism,” “NO Dogs, NO Mexicans Allowed,” “We Serve Whites Only, NO Spanish or Mexicans,” “We Want White Tenants in Our White Community,” “NO Dogs and Chinese Allowed,” “NO Dogs, Mexicans, Negros,” and “Whites ONLY Beyond This Point” are tangible artifacts that disappeared from the public eye during the 1960s and 70s. The aforementioned signs were used as markers, established by post slavery White Supremacy, to truncate the social mobility and outright control of the different nonwhite groups. Due to the limitations of this paper, I do not intend to produce a comprehensive historical document. I intend to introduce a working timeline that calls for further research of an increasing hyper-capitalist transnational political economy where immigration status, class, race, and White supremacy intersect.

As a follow up to an era of overt racism, rooted in the concept of White skin superiority, it is appropriate to ask the following question, Did White America morph in their perception and genuine acceptance of nonwhites in conjunction with the removal of the signs, and embrace everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual preference, or citizenship status? To problematize the evolving concept of White Supremacy, once grounded in the notions of White European racial superiority, positivism and cultural evolution, research has debunked these positions and concluded that race is socially constructed. Unfortunately, the paradigm of race has been historically framed as a Black and White relation, overlooking more subtle forms of anti-Mexican, anti-Chinese, anti-Japanese, and anti-Native American local and national legislation and public policy.

While conservative media pundits such as Glenn Beck and company would argue that we now live in a colorblind society, Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness argues, “the prison-industrial complex is the New Jim Crow.” In addition, Gary Stewart, in his work Black Codes and Broken Windows: The Legacy of Racial Hegemony in Anti-Gang Civil Injunctions argues, “Civil Injunctions are another form of Black Codes.” I will proceed by using the aforementioned work of Alexander and Stewart and propose that anti-immigrant legislation, which targets Latinos, is also an extension of Jim Crow; an era that legally permitted the discrimination of nonwhites and arguably ended during the 1960s. Currently, the State of Arizona is the epicenter of a controversial push to deny basic civil rights to undocumented immigrants. Unlike the Black and White paradigm in which race is the focal point of the debate, current Arizona legislation, and historically in the Southwest, the debate over 1st class citizenship is related to being “Mexican.” I specifically single out “Mexican” from other Latin American ethnic groups because their citizenship status in the United States was questioned shortly after the Mexican-American War.

A common thread in the creation and sustainability of the socially constructed race-based institutions is the United States’ legislative and judicial processes’ commitment to protect the nation’s Whiteness. For example, according to Laura Gomez, in her book Manifest Destinies; The Making Of The Mexican American Race, the “1902 Congressional debates to admit Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona into the Union were driven by the racial composition of the individual territories...while Oklahoma was depicted as a harmless cowboy, Arizona and New Mexico were portrayed as, respectively, an Indian wearing a headdress and a Mexican wearing a sombrero.” In other words, admission into the Union depended on the population size of Mexicans and Native Americans. One hundred and nine years later, as nonwhites become the majority in certain states, anti-immigration policies are approved in an attempt to curtail their growth, “encourage” people to leave, and or use their bodies as a placeholder within the Prison Industrial Complex.

Colonial Period

A major omission from United States history books is the initial collaboration by indentured White servants and African slaves to organize against the landowning elites. Using the divide and conquer strategy, poor Whites were given a bit of status over the African slaves, creating a wedge between the two groups and solidifying a socially constructed race-based society. The initial encounter with, and massacre of, Native Americans initiates the race-base society. The eventual termination of White indentured servants creates a demand for more African slaves and a greater wedge between African slaves and poor Whites. Poor Whites, who did not have much more than free Blacks, relied on their White Skin for social status and perks. Unfortunately, poor White Southerners fought in the Civil War to retain a dehumanizing system of human exploitation that gave them a little more social status their Black counterparts.

Post Antebellum: Vagrancy Laws and Black Codes (1860s)

The ending of slavery poses a great concern to Southern slave owners and poor Whites. The former slave owners were concerned of the eradication of their free labor; the poor Whites were concerned with being equal to a former slave. Hysteria created by the fear of freeing slaves is ripe for vagrancy laws; these documented ordinances (see Stoker, “The American ‘Tramp’ Question And The Old English Vagrancy Laws”) originated against the poor in 14th century England where “[a]ll persons above the age of fourteen who were in the class of ‘roges, vagabonds or sturdie beggers’ caught begging, vagrant or misordering themselves were to be put in prison and kept there without bail till the next sessions.” Unlike England’s vagrancy laws that specifically targeted the poor, fear of freed slaves led to the creation of vague ordinances designed to control the undesired free Blacks who were seen as a threat to White “stability.” In addition to the Vagrancy Laws, Black Codes were designed to railroad free Blacks back to the plantations. According to Gary Stewart, within two years after slavery was abolished, many former slaves were returned to the plantation in one of two ways. First, the probability of being arrested and charged with vagrancy discouraged black laborers from leaving the plantations. Second, the Black Codes, which specifically targeted former slaves, created a market for convict leasing to the highest bidder. Ironically, convict leasing was supported by the Thirteen Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which indicated that slavery was abolished except as a punishment for a crime; hence, the birth of the Prison.

Post Mexican-American War (1848)

The binary Black and White explanation of race relations in the United States omits the origin of Mexicans as U.S. citizens and contributes to the misconception that Mexican Americans are a “new” group of immigrants. However, the Mexican-American War, which was the result of the Manifest Destiny, is summarized by Rudy Acuña in Occupied America; The Chicano's Struggle Toward Liberation as “planned Anglo-American aggression,” that is often dismissed by Anglo-American historians as a “a bad war.” In the Southwest, despite the guarantee of 1st class citizenship by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, overnight Mexicans became foreigners in their own land. The promise of first class citizenship was gone with the wind and the Texas Rangers became an instrument that subordinated and terrorized Mexican communities; lynching’s in the Mexican communities too often involved the Texas Rangers. According to William D. Carrigan in “The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928,” “More than other Americans, blacks and Mexicans lived with the threat of lynching throughout the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century...27.4 Mexicans were lynched per 100,000 and 37.1 African Americans per 100,000.”

Jim Crow

To clarify any confusion about race, Plessy v. Furgeson set the record straight in the early 1890s. The Supreme Court affirmed the notion of separate but equal. This gave birth to what became known as the Jim Crow laws and the racist practice of separate but equal. However, to argue that Jim crow is the birth of de jure segregation ignores the legal system’s longstanding role of accessory to discriminate; simply put, Jim Crow formally legalized the longstanding practice of discrimination. In a system governed by White Supremacy, separate did not equate with equal; this was clearly an extension of the earlier ordinances designed to control the social mobility of nonwhites, particularly Blacks. In the South, Blacks were only permitted to use the “Colored Only” facilities and in the Southwest Mexican Americans were not permitted to eat at White restaurants, attend White schools, be buried in White cemeteries, etc. A notable example of Jim Crow practices in the Southwest is the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster decision that legally ended discrimination in California public schools and served as a stepping stone for Brown v. Board of Education. The Mendez case is the result of a Mexican child not being permitted to attend the all-white school. In 2007, the U.S. post office honored the struggle of the Mendez family by publishing a commemorative stamp; the City of Santa Ana has built a “Gonzalo and Felicita Mendez” public school. Given that the courts ruled in favor of the Mendez family, some may argue that the decision absolves the judicial system from the accessory to discriminate charges stated above. I argue that the Mendez family was at the right place at the right time; so many prior cases were denied: I refuse to believe that the Mendez family, like Rosa Parks, were the first to file a complaint on the basis of discrimination. The judicial branches’ accessory to discriminate is evident today in their continued dual-sentencing practice: the act of handing disproportionate incarceration sentences to White and nonwhite offenders. For example, on July 26, 2008, three teens were charged for beating Luis Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant, who died shortly after the incident. The case required for federal intervention after an all white jury acquitted the young men of any serious hate crimes. Finally, February 23, 2011, two of the perpetrators receive a 9-year sentence. While prisons across the nation are full of Black and Brown lifers (people serving a life sentence) for lesser crimes, the all White jury and a White judge, operating within an institution that gives White defendants the benefit of the doubt, handed a 9-year sentence to White defendants for a hate crime that resulted in the death of Luis Ramirez. In a contrasting case, two Black sisters were released from prison after serving 16 years of their life sentence for armed robbery--the exact dollar amount was reported to be under $200. The juxtaposition of these two cases is reminiscent of a pre1960s era in which White offenders were rarely punished for inflicting harm on people of color. All white juries, however, consistently handed people of color heavy sentences--as a means to teach “them” a lesson.

Dual sentencing is most evident in the war on drugs. Discrepancy in mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine is a classic example of dual sentencing. According to Alexander, a conviction for the sale of five hundred grams of powder cocaine triggers a five-year mandatory sentence, while only five grams of crack triggers the same sentence. The discriminatory sentencing lies in that, 93% of people charged with using crack cocaine were Black and 5% White, “whereas powder cocaine offenders were predominantly White.” Based on results, the judicial system refuses to accept any wrongdoing in the dual sentencing of crack and powder cocaine.

Coincidentally, several factors have led to an anti-immigrant hysteria at a time when the nation reaches a point of maximizing the number of Black male inmates. This intersection of a maximized Black male inmate population and the need to expand the Prison Industrial Complex creates a circumstance for immigrants to be the new placeholders; needed for the incarceration industry to continue thriving. While it may sound like a conspiracy theory to some, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the roots of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation. The report quoted Benson, Arizona’s City Manager Glenn Nichols, “What he was selling was a prison for woman and children who were illegal immigrants.” According to NPR, Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce and Corrections Corporation of America are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is where the idea to draft and lobby for the anti-immigrant legislation came to fruition. Legislation that specifically targets undocumented immigrants is in itself an extension of Civil Injunctions, which have been railroading Black and Latino youth into juvenile halls and prisons for little more than walking in groups of three. These Civil Injunctions, which are reminiscent of the Black Codes and Vagrancy Laws, are being justified as a means to combat gangs. Unfortunately, the reality has been otherwise; giving open and free range to the probation, parole, and prosecutors to violate and incarcerate Black and Brown youth. The biased implementation of these Civil Injunctions on local gang members can be juxtaposed with the experience of organizations such Armed Militias and the KKK who are a greater threat to society yet are not targets of any Civil Injunction. On the contrary, occasional reports on militia training grounds can be viewed on documentaries or magazines. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is a classic example; militia members Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up a Federal Government building and killed 168 people yet Civil Injunctions and mass arrests did not occur--which is the case in a gang related shooting where one person is killed. I am not minimizing the loss of one person, rather comparing the disparate action taken by the state.


The Prison Industrial Complex, Civil Injunctions and anti-immigrant legislation are tangible evidence of a New Jim Crow Era; demonstrating that the sheer removal of the aforementioned signs was a symbolic gesture and that other methods of social control over nonwhites, particularly Blacks and Latinos, have been orchestrated. According to Strosnider (see Anti-Gang Ordinances after City of Chicago V. Morales: the Intersection of Race, Vagueness Doctrine, and Equal Protection in the Criminal Law), since California adopted Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act) in 1988, 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar policies. The Casey Foundation's Kids Count Report concluded that “400,000 youths cycle through the juvenile justice system each year” and “experts said the problem has largely been fueled by fear and racism that often lead police to take young white offenders home and minorities to jail.” In addition to the 400,000 youth who are recycled through the various forms of detention facilities, in 2007 The Sentencing Project reported that 1,614,300 youths have at least one parent incarcerated. Of the children with at least one incarcerated parent, Blacks composed approximately 50% in 1997, and remained steady by 2007. In comparison, Latino youths who have at least one incarcerated parent composed 21% in 1997, and increased 20.3% by 2007. This 20.3% increase of incarcerated Latino parents, compliments the findings by NPR on the true motives for Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation. To the general public the United States Government promotes democracy upheld by a system of checks and balances, but its policies and practices prove to prioritize the balancing of its checks.

Alberto "Beto" Gutierrez is a doctoral student at University of California, Los Angeles in Education, the Urban Studies Schooling Division.

Graphic: Arturo Aldama collection.
Copyright © Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez. All rights reserved.