Monday, May 17, 2010

U of Arizona Prof Denounces AZ Law as Racist...and Gets Booed!

Over the weekend I reluctantly paid a visit to the U.S. state that is topping everyone's Places to Boycott list: Arizona. While I despise the racist, discriminatory anti-immigration law, SB 1070, that AZ Governor Jan Brewer recently signed into law, not to mention the new law eliminating ethnic studies from all K-12 public education curriculum, I love my sister and had made plans many months ago (before the law passed) to attend her graduation ceremonies at the University of Arizona.

On Friday, I attended the graduation ceremony for the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences which includes Women's Studies, Chican@/Latin@ Studies, African-American Studies, Government & Public Policy, and so on. Several hundred students were being honored and several thousand friends and family members crowded the stadium at the Tucson Convention Center.

After a few (cheesy and cliched) opening words from the Dean of the School, Professor Sandra Soto was invited to take the stage. Soto is an Associate Professor of Gender & Women's Studies, is the Director of Graduate Studies for the department, and is the Co-Coordinator for the G&WS Chicana/Latina Studies Concentration. Given recent events in Arizona, I think it is clear why Dr. Soto, with her particular background, was selected to address the graduates.

Presumably, graduates of the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences have been studying, well, society, for four years, and they should now be equipped to go off and work on the issues that society faces, like the need for immigration reform, promotion of diversity within our public school systems, or the abolition of laws that are racist and discriminatory, to name a few timely examples. Not surprisingly, I found it quite appropriate that Dr. Soto not only addressed these issues in her speech, but denounced SB 1070 as racist and discriminatory, criticized the recent call for the elimination of ethnic studies, and told the inspiring story of the Tucson high school students who protested the laws with classroom walkouts.

Sadly, others in the audience did not feel the same way. When Dr. Soto first mentioned SB 1070 large groups of people in the audience began booing her. At first, I thought they were booing the law and was pleasantly surprised. But boy was I wrong. She could barely get five words in edgewise before the boos and yelling became so loud that she was interrupted. The Dean of the School even had to rise to the podium to ask for decorum. I of course, continued my applause and vocal support for her speech.

Not only was I shocked at the sheer amount of people who were obviously opposed to her position on the issues (which is really quite sickening), but I was also shocked that they would actually boo her! I mean, this their kid's graduation, and in case they hadn't noticed (which I think it's safe to say they hadn't), these are the types of issues they've been studying for four years. News articles, as well as many people I talked to or overheard after the ceremony, thought that her comments were out of place, regardless of whether they agreed with what she was saying. They've painted the picture as Dr. Soto using the graduation ceremony as her own personal soap box to push her political beliefs upon a captive audience and I greatly disagree with that view of the situation. They've also made the argument that the speech should not have touched on political and sociological issues, but should have been congratulatory and inspirational. My question is: how does one inspire students who are studying SOCIETY and POLITICS to go out and make a difference with their knowledge, without discussing society or politics?!

Dr. Soto was rightfully addressing a law that has thrown the state of Arizona into the national spotlight, is causing cities nationwide to revoke their contracts with the state, is having huge economic impacts due to boycotts, and is causing its residents (and workers) to flee. If you're a recent graduate of Public Policy, Sociology, Government, Journalism, or Economics (to name a few relevant majors), you'd better be paying attention to this!

Dr. Soto was also addressing the law that will eliminate one of the very fields in which she teaches and in which dozens if not hundreds of students were graduating from, and even more have taken classes in and benefited from throughout their approximate 17-year long education (from K-Bacherlor's). She was addressing the state's attempt to eliminate the histories and cultures of a large portion U of A students and their families from the public education curriculum. I don't care what your major is, that should piss you off and make you want to do something.

Many who were opposed to her comments also claimed they simply did not want the graduation ceremony injected with such a "controversial" issue. At the University of Arizona, SB 1070 is NOT a "controversial" issue. In fact, there is very little controversy surrounding the law at all because the vast majority of students, professors and entities on campus oppose it and have been very vocal and active in their opposition.

Student protests, new student groups and a petition drive have erupted on campus. Furthermore, the Associated Students passed a resolution against SB 1070, touting it as "a bill that promotes racial profiling as a viable law enforcement technique" that will have a negative impact upon the University, financial impacts included.

So, to Dr. Soto, thank you for speaking your mind. While I'm not a student graduating from U of A this year, I found your comments inspirational and entirely relevant, and I feel certain that many students and audience members did as well.

1 comment:

J. Baldridge said...

As a student graduating in that very ceremony, I could not agree with you more. I was one of the many students on the floor who gave Dr. Soto a standing ovation. That ceremony was about honoring our scholarship and the critical thinking skills we have developed over the years, and I appreciated her comments deeply.

For those who want a social sciences graduation ceremony to be filled with noting but vapid platitudes, I would advise them to consider carefully just what, precisely, their graduating children and friends have been studying for the past half-decade, and then realize that Dr. Soto's speech was a way of reflecting positively on the empowerment our education has given us. The people in the audience who "booed" were booing at me, and all the rest of us.