Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Neoliberalism and Attrition in Arizona

I am approaching questions about gender, justice, and neoliberal transformations through my ongoing efforts to understand the attacks on ethnic studies and (im)migrants in the state of Arizona, as well as my desire to bring feminist/queer analysis and politics to the activist/educational strategies used to push back against those attacks.[1] I think that neoliberalism is a useful category of analysis for exploring the roots of the particular form of xenophobia that is rampant in—and beyond—Arizona. It helps to illuminate and contextualize the state’s efforts to create and manage privatization and individualism as the state’s mantras.

Arizona’s early white settlers and developers—benefitting from a long and violent history of settler colonialism—maximized on abundant, inexpensive land as they carefully designed Tucson and Phoenix for white, wealthy residents in search of retirement leisure (golfing; quiet mazes of expansive, separated houses on large lots with backyard swimming pools), privacy and individualism (low-to-no property taxes, libertarian leaders), whiteness (well-policed racial segregation), and an endless supply of cheap labor to build/maintain/clean/service all of the above (mexicanos contained in the “inner city,” and Native Americans on the outlying reservations).[2] Today, all of those features, thickened by neoliberal, transnational capitalism, continue to influence daily life in Arizona, from voting patterns to racial projects, such as the school-to-prison pipeline and urban renewal/removal, to the militarization of the border.

Arizona’s governor, Janice Brewer, has been very clear about the neoliberal ideology that undergirds her policies. In her January 18, 2011 policy agenda, “Building a More Prosperous Arizona,” she wrote that “[f]aithful adherence to limited government and populist virtues is a hallmark of Arizona’s first hundred years, and it is a quality to which we must remain steadfast if Arizona’s second century is to build on its first.”[3] (From there, she went on to call for tax incentives for businesses and tax cuts for corporations.) When state leaders argue for the elimination of K-12 ethnic studies, “birther rights,” indigent healthcare, prisoner lunches, public funding of higher education, affirmative action programs, and all-day kindergarten—to name a few of the most recent austerity initiatives—they structure their arguments to make it seem like those services, programs, and rights are the sources of the state’s financial crisis and that the people who benefit most from those services are mexicanos, especially the undocumented.

These neoliberal economic measures contribute to a strategy of attrition, also enacted through immigration and education policy. If the attrition strategy was already explicit in SB 1070’s declaration of policy (“to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona”),[4] then it became further authorized in the demonization of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program (MASP)—a state-funded program created in 1998 as a direct response to a 1978 federally-mandated order to desegregate TUSD schools. In a recent interview, state superintendent Huppenthal characterized the state’s efforts to shut down the MASP in these ways:

  • “We are in the winning values business.”
  • “We stretched them [defendants of the MASP] out. And so when we finally encountered them in court it was a knock-out punch.”
  • “We did what Hannibal did to the Romans.”
  • “This is the eternal battle of all time—the forces of collectivism versus 
individual liberty.”[5]

Huppenthal’s grandiose invocation of ancient imperial battles positions MASP students, teachers, and supporters as external war enemies of the United States. And he has no qualms about explaining that he fights that enemy through attrition (“We stretched them out”).[6]

When I consider the question of how neoliberalism is lived in my local context, I am immediately reminded of Audre Lorde’s repeated line in “A Litany for Survival”—“we were never meant to survive.”[7] The way that mexicanos live neoliberalism in Arizona is through being caught up in the painful reality of knowing, on the one hand, that their labor is still needed and (secretly) wanted in the state; but, on the other hand, knowing that the majority of voters and leaders in the state do not want to see them, live near them, or hear them speak. And this is why the attack on and eventual shutting down of MASP have been so successful. This program was easily framed by critics as an irresponsible use of tax dollars. But also, the MASP’s well-documented success in improving the lives of Chicana/o students (who had higher grades, higher graduation rates, and increased access to college) meant that there was a growing, educated brown citizenry familiar with, and capable of fighting for their histories, their rights, and their culture by voting, protesting, and engaging in other forms of civic participation.

Demographic shifts in the state not only include a growing Chicano population, but, importantly, a widening age gap between the aging white population and young brown people. These shifts are deployed in a number of insidious ways in order to generate support for neoliberal policy and to renew the original state architecture of whiteness, wealth, leisure, individualism, and privacy. The baldly explicit strategy of state leaders is the attrition of brown people. This is why the family-based, pro- immigrant-rights argument—that without immigration reform (the Dream Act, in particular), individual Mexican families will be fractured—gains little traction with Arizona leaders. The more these families are fractured, the better for separating these families through incarceration and deportation. That would make it harder for family members left on this side of the border to live. Attrition, here, is fundamentally about self-deportation.

The challenge is learning how to push back against this well-oiled strategy of attrition. How do you even begin to assert your right to be? It also means trying to understand how to make space for feminist/queer insights and politics in a push back that, thus far, has leaned quite heavily on the family, tradition, hypermasculinity, internal cohesiveness, and identitarian suspicion of outsiders, and whose attendant fissures and fragility are pronounced and bewildering.[8] In closing, I want to remember one of the valuable teachings that Lisa Duggan articulates in Twilight of Equality?: neoliberalism encourages fragmentation and single-issue politics.[9] In order to enliven the pushback in Arizona and challenge the norms that underwrite it, we have much to learn from the work of thinkers who have come at the problem of attrition from a variety of angles: queer responses to attrition in the context of “a culture’s desire that gay people not be;” critical indigenous studies’ insistence that progressive peoples examine our own relationship to—and blind spots about—settler colonialism; and women of color reminding us that “it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.”[10]

  1. I want to thank Janet Jakobsen and Elizabeth Bernstein for inviting me to participate in their “Gender, Justice and Neoliberal Transformations” workshop at Barnard. Thanks to Janet and Elizabeth, together with all of the participants, the workshop was a lively, pleasurable, and generative experience. [Return to text]
  2. See Lydia R. Otero, La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City, (Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2010); and Tom Zoellner, A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, (New York: Viking, 2011). [Return to text]
  3. [Return to text]
  4. Full text available at: [Return to text]
  5. “WFP Interviews John Huppenthal, Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction,” Western Free Press 6 Mar. 2012. [Return to text]
  6. Nowhere in HB 2281 is there a provision for the forced removal of ethnic studies books from TUSD classrooms. The recent, dramatic removal of those books is yet another step in the gradual wearing away that is attrition. [Return to text]
  7. Audre Lorde, “A Litany of Survival,” The Black Unicorn (New York: Norton, 1978).
 [Return to text]
  8. In an unpublished talk delivered at the Combating Hate, Censorship, & Forbidden Curricula Conference in Tucson, AZ, December 2-4, 2010, Cherríe Moraga critiqued the heteronormativity of the 2010 Alta Arizona Protest in Phoenix: “As I observed the speaker’s stage for hours where hombre after hombre spoke, while Xicanas were reduced to mere translators on stage, I asked myself: Where are the mujeres? Where is la Xicana indígena voice of resistance? Where is the queer? … I fear El Movimiento remains as lost as it was 40 years ago.”
 [Return to text]
  9. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, (Boston: Beacon, 2003). Arizona AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rebekah Friend is one of the few who have linked HB 2281 to the neoliberal downsizing taking place on Brewer’s watch: “HB 2281 […] is part of a bigger, repressive attempt nationwide to control parts of the population, from women’s health care to workers’ and immigrants’ rights […] It’s a mindset to cleanse out ethnic studies, unions, and all social spending generally that we in unions and others have fought for, like the eight-hour working day, child labor laws and social security.” “Arizona Unions Aid Educators’ Fight Against the State’s Anti-Ethnic Studies Law,” In These Times. [Return to text]
  10. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995) 79; Andrea Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism,” GLQ 16.1-2 (2010): 41-68; Lorde 1978. [Return to text]