“Let me just get these dead flowers out of the way.”
That was my cousin speaking. A wide cup on her kitchen table was filled with dried and wilted blossoms. She lives in Arizona, a state roiled by debates over immigration. As a journalist, I came to cover those debates, and a few free hours to see family were a lucky byproduct.
In measured tones, my cousin explained that the flowers were for her oldest daughter. Classmates had given them to her after an older white man spat on her and called her a nigger as she ran cross-country practice. The family filed a police report, but the man was gone. My cousin’s daughter is 13.
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“Last week,” my cousin said.
Not 50 years ago, during Jim Crow; or 150, in the antebellum era. Just the week before, a bookish black girl minding her own business in a very good, mostly white neighborhood was spat upon and called a nigger. The school gathered together to express outrage and sympathy. When given the choice to stop running if she felt unsafe, my cousin’s daughter decided to stay on the team.
This wasn’t a story I expected to hear, even though I had come to Arizona to listen. Just hours after hearing my cousin recount the assault on her daughter, I met people who had protested the new immigration law, SB1070, some of whom said they had been spat on. The next morning I interviewed Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has (whether you love or hate him) turned law enforcement into a theatrical art form. He talked about being surrounded by yelling protesters at most public appearances.
Then I spoke with a militia member who polices the border with his sidearm, Tea Party supporters, and members of a tribe that spans the U.S.-Mexico border and has concerns about how both nations have treated their people. Temperatures ran hot in Arizona, physically and metaphorically, and it was hard to find political common ground. Or a even a shared reality. For example, SB1070 sponsor State Senator Russell Pearce accused the law’s opponents of incivility, yet wouldn’t admit that some of the people who sided with him acted poorly.
I saw plenty of evidence that many people on both sides are all revved up, at times out of control. Sometimes people who have taken no side bear the brunt of the anger, like my cousin’s child. Yet as a society, we’ve shown a remarkable desire to say that race and ethnicity are issues of the past, despite clear evidence to the contrary.