José Cobas encountered the internet uproar over the graduation speech by Prof. Sandra Soto at the University of Arizona on May 14, and asked me what I thought. Here is my response, with a few clarifying notes.
The clarifying notes: The occasion was the graduation ceremony held by the college of social and behavioral sciences, held separately from the main commencement so that all the SBS students can get individual recognition. The ceremony is held in a huge arena at the Tucson convention center. Students are seated on the floor of the arena, and family members and other guests are in the tiers of seats all around this floor. Faculty, department heads, and deans who are participating in honoring the graduates attend in academic regalia and are seated on a platform at the front of the floor of the arena. I was there to “hood” a new Ph.D. whose thesis I had directed, and the dean’s office asked me to join Sandy Soto and two other faculty members as a “name reader,” reading out the names of the graduates as they crossed the platform. Sandy and I were seated right behind the podium so we could change places quickly. Sandy was selected as graduation speaker. I’m not sure how the selection process works (I’m actually retired from the university), but I’m sure it was partly because she is a very well-regarded teacher. My email to José Cobas:
As it happens, I was sitting right next to Sandy on the podium and so right behind her when she made her speech. The booing was frightening. It was NOT coming from the students, seated on the floor of the arena. It was coming from families in the seats all around us. People tried to applaud to counter it but the booing just got louder. Sandy had to stop a couple of times because it was clear her words would not be heard if she continued. The booing finally died down when Dean Jones stepped to the microphone and urged the crowd to permit a “civil discourse”. After her talk Sandy was a “name reader” as each of the graduates came to the podium to be acknowledged, and she got warm smiles from students and at least one took a second (this was all very choreographed and went very fast since on the order of 1000 names were read) to thank her for the speech.
There were many, many Spanish-language surnames and first names in the list of those graduating (I was the reader who followed Sandy). If you read her talk you will observe that it is very carefully worded and very honest. She urges the graduates to use their education to think critically about these issues, and she inserts the “human” side, her own feelings, and those of the Tucson High School students she had met with earlier that week who are under attack for their support of Mexican-American studies courses. I do not think that she expected the kind of response she got, the talk was very judicious, in my view — nothing but facts and her thoughts about what the recent burst of anti-Hispanic legislation felt like to her as a person, no name calling at all. However, people were not listening.
I had the very strong sense from the booing that the tone was not just, “We disagree with you”, but something like, “Who does that greaser bitch think she is?” (I hope you will forgive me the vulgar language). I was surprised that even a couple of my own colleagues that I spoke to after the ceremony, while agreeing with the message, felt that it was an “inappropriate topic” for a graduation speech, which I guess is supposed to be nothing but the blandest platitudes for fear a “captive audience” would be offended. So much for the highest goals of the university … It does seem clear to me that many, many White people in Arizona are not ready to engage in dialogue of any kind. Their minds are made up, they dread the slightest loss of power, they utterly reject even the most thoughtful challenges to their ideas, they give lip service to “critical thinking” and “honest dialogue” but are not ready to in fact participate in that. It was not a happy experience. Since I was obviously a very senior person, all robed and draped in several kinds of medals, I made a conspicuous show of shaking Sandy’s hand as she sat down. I’ve realized watching the video clips that we were behind the banners and the podium so that probably didn’t make any difference at all. Anyway obviously Sandy should be very proud of what she said and the way she comported herself at the time and since, with great dignity.
I’ll also take this moment to share my own feelings about SB1070 (obviously the attack on Mexican-American studies is completely racist and ridiculous. Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is some kind of threat to the United States? It’s had 50 years to do its evil work (;-)) and somehow I don’t find among the many things that are wrong with my world much that can be traced to poor Paolo Freire). Anyway, back to SB1070 — I think there has been too little attention to how spectacularly counter-productive SB1070 is in the face of a real fear, that human smuggling is coming under the control of the Mexican drug cartels and their criminal allies in the U.S. Law enforcement people (except for that grandstanding idiot Sheriff Joe) have always, always taken the position that they do NOT want to be involved in enforcement of immigration law, the responsibility of the Border Patrol and ICE, because they want people to feel that they can come to the police to report crimes and to be witnesses. SB1070 absolutely ignores decades of that policy. Immigrants who are the victims of crime under SB1070 cannot go to the police.
The only place they can (and will) go is to counter-mafias. I don’t think SB1070 will survive a constitutional challenge, but if it does, Arizona is going to be like 19th-century Sicily. My own “policy position” is that the US, Canada, Mexico, etc. — whoever the “NAFTA’ countries are, must have something like the European Schengen agreements that permit the free flow of labor. After all, if Brits can handle Polish plumbers, we can surely cope with a handy flow of Mexican roofers, brick-layers, and who knows what else — maybe some rocket scientists or some of their entrepreneurial talent too. I don’t think this is going to happen and I think the reason it’s not going to happen is racism.