With a sense of deja vu, Arizonans find themselves once again
cast in the national limelight over race relations.
Ten years ago, the issue was over cancellation of a state
holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. This time, the spotlight's
glare is cast by President Clinton's initiative to conduct a
national dialogue on race, with Phoenix hosting a two-day White
House conference that begins today.
Arizona, once a relatively homogeneous population of Anglo
residents seeking a retirement or winter haven, has undergone a
dramatic shift in the past decade that reflects the changing
demographic makeup of the US as a whole. As such, it has become a
crucible of late 20th-century race relations, with Hispanics,
Asians, African-Americans, native Americans, and Anglos all
searching for racial harmony.
While there remain signs of prejudice, some minority
participants in the campaign for civil rights say much has changed
here. "I think there has been some improvement. I see where people
of color are advancing in civic as well as private business," says
the Rev. Warren Stewart, an African-American leader in the civil
rights movement here.
Bumpy path to greater racial equality
Arizona's path of progress, however, has been anything but
smooth. In 1987, then-Gov. Evan Mecham canceled the King holiday,
and national black leaders staged an economic boycott of the state,
resulting in millions of dollars in lost convention, hotel, and
The National Football League even dropped plans to play the
1993 Super Bowl in Phoenix, in an effort not to become embroiled in
the dispute. But Arizonans, smarting from the sting of being
labeled "racist" by outsiders, went about changing things.
A King holiday was approved by voters in 1992 - the first in
the nation to be endorsed by a public referendum and a major reason
that Clinton chose Arizona for today's forum. And in 1996, the
state gained some redemption when it hosted the Super Bowl, in
which Arizona's multicultural makeup was a prominent theme.
Meanwhile, immigrants have found Arizona a more welcoming
environment than either Texas or California, because of the absence
of anti-immigration rhetoric like that which inflamed both states
in the early 1990s. Today, immigrants from Mexico and Central
America in metropolitan Phoenix number more than 300,000, and their
influence is felt in everything from the music of northern Mexico
that is heard on the airwaves, to supermarkets that are patterned
after the mercados of their homeland. …