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24.4.07

Mayberry and Racism in Casa Grande

Environmentalism is generally considered a left-wing issue, but it has an unfortunate tendency to get tied up with un-progressive positions on other issues. This is clear here in Casa Grande, where the overarching theme of local politics concerns the direction that the city's rapid growth is taking it. The debate is carried on in reference to the Mayberry ideal, a certain vision of rural life that underpins both newcomers' attraction to the area and older residents' unease with them.

The Mayberry ideal is generally positively inclined toward the environment. It creates a strong presumption against growth in general, and in particular against the kind of sprawling growth that dominates the city today. This growth is environmentally detrimental, as its landscape of walled-off high-income housing is water-intensive, promotes reliance on cars (to commute all the way to Phoenix every day, or even just to get around the decentralized town), and encourages the building of big box stores and separate shopping plazas rather than mixed-use areas. Perhaps its biggest oversight is its lack of accommodation to smart growth, such as public transportation, preferring instead to cling to small-town rurality.

But the Mayberry ideal has a darker side, in that Mayberry was a white town. We don't have any local Don Imuses willing to say it in bluntly racial terms, but there is a clear undercurrent of anti-diversity sentiment in the city council race. Candidates -- particularly the two whites, Tina Cramp and Mary Kortsen -- hinted at the undesirability of "those kind of people" moving to Casa Grande, bringing their urban crime and meth problems to our quiet town.

But the clearest example I've seen came from a recent community forum on the police department's treatment of the black community. As reported in today's Dispatch (not yet posted online), Tad Roberts told the forum:

There was an incident where certain kids had driven up to a fast gas station here in town, coming out of football practice, and they were told that their kind of element was not wanted in Casa Grande. Just because the kids had on some sweats, had a little rag on top of his head.

I have to commend the police officer that rolled up. He said (to the initial officer), "why do you have those three young men sitting on the curb like this?" The first officer said "well, they're not the element we want in Casa Grande, they look like drug dealers." And the other officer said, "that's Mr. Roberts' son, you get in the car and you go home and take your cousins with you." The officer felt like this big.


The forum generated a host of other complaints of the sort commonly made when a largely white police force patrols a black neighborhood -- lack of service, hiding in cars rather than building rapport with the community, etc. But I highlight the story of Roberts' son being stopped because the first officer's explanation points at the rotten heart of the Mayberry ideal -- "they're not the element we want in [our town]." Whether "they" are the snowbirds, "California transplants," and retail chains moving into the sprawling developments, or black people (especially if they engage in typical urban black culture), they're not wanted because they disrupt the small-white-town ideal.

Casa Grande needs a new ideal, one that motivates resistance to environmentally destructive sprawl while also resisting attempts by dominant groups to seal the town off as the property of "our kind of people" by marginalizing their neighbors.

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