The Strange Career of Juan Crow
The New York Times, June 17, 2012
The depth of my alienation from home hit me last January, when Alabama shut out Louisiana State for the college football championship. Even in the familiar afterglow of 'Bama's second title in three years, I had to ask myself, what right did my state have to brag, about anything?
The pride of the Crimson Tide fan is just the relatively fun side of the state's reason-blind tribalism, the same hard-wiring that produced its other recent superlative, the "toughest in the nation" immigration law that made criminal suspects of an entire class of human beings — and turned those who tolerated their presence into felon accessories. Thanks to H.B. 56(the "Beason-Hammon Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act"), passed a year ago by the state's first Republican Legislature since Reconstruction, I am ashamed of being from Alabama. The contagion of Alabama's shame became apparent in April, during the oral argument before the Supreme Court on Arizona's immigration legislation, the test case for several similar state laws aimed primarily at Hispanics. All have been substantially blocked by federal courts, except Alabama's, most of which went into effect last fall, catastrophically achieving the goal Arizona calls "attrition through enforcement" — also known as "self-deportation."
As the court seemed to cast a benign eye on the linchpin of the Arizona law — the requirement that the police determine the immigration status of anyone they stop who invites "reasonable suspicion" of illegal residency — I realized how dismayingly reliable Alabama remained as the country's moral X-ray, exposing the broken places. So on the eve of the Arizona decision, expected this month, it is useful to review what the imposition of "states' rights" on federal immigration policy looks like in the one state where this has been accomplished. If Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, can retool Jim Crow as Juan Crow, what have we learned?
Since Alabama has no foreign border and a Latino population of less than 4 percent, the main purpose of H.B. 56 seems to be the id-gratification of tribal dominance and its easy political dividends. A bill co-sponsor, State Senator Scott Beason, was frank about his motive: "when their children grow up and get the chance to vote, they vote for Democrats."
Mr. Beason, who was later caught referring to blacks as "aborigines," is from a predominantly white suburb of my hometown, Birmingham, which is gearing up for the 50th anniversary of our civil rights milestones of 1963: fire hoses and police dogs turned on child marchers and a church bombing that killed four black girls. For the 2013 "celebration," the prize civic leaders were keeping their eyes on was the redemption that flowed from those debacles, notably the Civil Rights Act.
The city had nearly finessed that dialectic during the memorial in October for a local civil rights legend, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. Flying into the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the protagonists of the movement — Andrew Young, John Lewis, Joseph Lowery — were greeted at the funeral by Gov. Robert Bentley with words of regret about his segregated youth. So cordial was the network of mutuality that it was at least an hour into the six-hour service before speakers pointed out that Governor Bentley had signed the immigration law that reinvented the sin from which Mr. Shuttlesworth had supposedly delivered us.
As a result, the yearlong anniversary is shaping up to be Groundhog Day. Among other injustices, H.B. 56 bars undocumented residents from pursuing work or entering into any state-related business transactions or private contracts, depriving them of basic dignities and due process. When the Justice Department investigated the state for demanding checks on schoolchildren, the defiant reaction of Alabama's attorney general prompted comparisons to George C. Wallace's 1963 "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" at the University of Alabama.
At least one institution was primed to break out of the loop of bad history. Leading with a reference to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail," some 150 ministers formally condemned H.B. 56 for preventing them from fulfilling the doctrine of the good Samaritan by making it illegal to give assistance to illegal immigrants, the basis of a suit against the state by three Christian denominations. A statement co-author, Matt Lacey, received dozens of e-mails from the law's defenders beginning, "I'm a Christian but." They saw no distinction between the bureaucratic category of "undocumented" and the moral one of "criminal" — a conflation that may also explain Justice Antonin Scalia's incredulous question to the solicitor general: "Are you objecting to harassing the people who have no business being here?"
Indeed, the suffering of Alabama's Hispanics went mostly unnoticed until December, when Human Rights Watch issued a report describing entrepreneurs shuttering businesses, crime victims opting not to go to the police, parents fearing to seek medical help for children. These were the law's intended consequences: to attack "every aspect of an illegal alien's life," said a co-sponsor, Micky Hammon, "so they will deport themselves."
Such unabashed malice made me realize that my shame was really a broken heart. The South's culture of kindness is real and must account for the most poignant theme of the Human Rights Watch report: how many of those repudiated "aliens" professed an attachment to Alabama. "I love here," said a 19-year-old, in the state since he was 9. Now the cycle of bigotry is renewed, poisoning a new generation of Americans on both sides.
ALABAMA'S civic conscience stayed unperturbed until a media festival erupted over H.B. 56's unintended consequences: the brief detention in November of a German executive visiting the revered local Mercedes plant. Benz-gate, and the subsequent Barney Fife-ish treatment of a Japanese manager for Honda, combined with citizen annoyance over the new paperwork to convince the business community and much of official Alabama that H.B. 56 had to be "fixed." A University of Alabama economist placed the law's damage to the state in the billions of dollars.
The symbols of redemption rallied. Civil rights and labor leaders traveled to meetings of shareholders, asking them to pressure Alabama for repeal. The annual re-enactment of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights was refashioned as an anti-H.B. 56 protest. My heart began to mend at a perverse prospect: in half a century, would Alabama be honoring the remarkable community uprising that overcame H.B. 56? The coup de grâce seemed to occur in March, when Mr. Beason lost his primary race for the House of Representatives.
"I had really hoped Alabama would be a place that could learn from its mistakes," Mr. Lacey warned me, "but it doesn't want to be that." In May the Legislature passed an "improved" bill sponsored by Mr. Beason, even more severe than the original. It forced the police to obtain papers from passengers as well as drivers, and it ordered the state to maintain a database of known "illegals," recalling antebellum ads spotlighting runaway slaves. The law still exempts domestics, observing the plantation hierarchy of "house Negroes" and "field hands."
Mr. Beason was most likely emboldened by the forecasts of a constitutional future for his Arizona template, which should impress the court with the gravity of its responsibility. Tempting as it is to raise the specter of 1896 — Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" precedent — the better analogy is the 1955 decision known as Brown II, which ordered Southern schools desegregated "with all deliberate speed" but left that task to the segregationists who provoked the humanitarian crisis in the first place.
We know how the fight will turn out, just as it was long obvious the Constitution could not condone segregation forever. But the fight will be ceaselessly reprised, shattering lives before the inevitable is allowed to happen.
At least in Alabama, the civil rights movement, like the football team, knows what it takes to win.
Diane McWhorter is the author of "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution."