Since 2003, I have been taking a group of doctoral students to South Africa during the summer. Every year I am amazed and humbled by the absolute beauty of the country. When I look up at Table Mountain in Cape Town or take the ferry to Robben Island, my breath is taken away by the majestic boldness of nature in Southern Africa. But at the same time, I know the history of the country. I know that the English and Dutch enslaved, violated, and oppressed those Blacks who originally lived on the land. Moreover, White South Africans continued to force the Black majority in the country to live under Apartheid rule until the mid-1990s. In the land of their ancestors, Blacks were not considered full citizens and were required to carry “papers” that they were forced to produce on demand. I often wonder how the White South Africans could live in a place that is so beautiful and inflict such pain and hatred on others. Unfortunately, resources—in South Africa’s case, immense resources—can make people greedy and bring out the evil in humanity.
Like South Africa, Arizona is a place of immense beauty. I traveled to Sedona and the Grand Canyon a few years ago with my family and found the land vivid in its color and sublime in its spatial expanse. Yet, here too, racism rears its ugly head in the form of a “pass law” directed against Latinos. The law allows racial profiling and requires people to carry “papers.” Although the state’s leadership denies the racial implications of their new law, a little bit of critical thinking reveals their true intentions. Just as greed and evil surfaced in South Africa and as people fought over resources, the racist ruling in Arizona is about resources as well. Arizona’s leaders, who supported this legislation, are afraid that a browner country will mean a country with fewer resources for them. In their hunt for “illegal immigrants” they are willing to violate the rights of many of the state’s residents.
The United States has always touted its leadership role as the standard bearer of freedom and democracy. Yet in this case, we have not led but regressed, allowing the racism of our past to taint our country’s beauty. I think we are better than that.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).