Arizona’s two black lawmakers reprimanded for speaking out against colleague’s use of racial slur

Republican lawmaker quoted a racial slur in an op-ed criticizing the leaders of the teachers strike.

Arizona's state capitol building. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
Arizona's state capitol building. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

Democratic Reps. Reginald Bolding and Geraldine Peten are the only black members of the Arizona state legislature. The two were reprimanded for speaking out against an op-ed written by a Republican colleague, a column that included a racial slur and derided black activists.

The op-ed, written by Rep. Maria Syms and published in the Arizona Republic, alleges that the two leaders of a teacher group protesting for better pay and working conditions are “political operatives.”

Syms describes the classroom of one #RedForEd leader as “exotic” because he teaches the lyrics of Pulitzer Prize-winning hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. Syms goes on to quote a lyric from one of Lamar’s songs, which includes a racial slur for black people. The Arizona Republic op-ed has since been updated to remove the expletive.

“This article attempts to discredit this teacher because he may have introduced lyrics in the classroom written by a black entertainer,” Bolding said on the House floor. “This article attempts to discredit this teacher because he ‘takes inspiration’ from a black civil rights activist. This article attempts to discredit this teacher because he ‘admires’ a professor that taught at a historically black college for women.


“The more I read the more I was disappointed that it appears to be OK to use a racial slur about black people in the article,” Bolding continued. “Let me be crystal clear: It’s not acceptable to us a racial slur even if that slur is used as a quote.”

Peten came to his defense and also spoke out against the language used in the op-ed.

The majority of the Republican-controlled House voted to formally rebuke both Bolding and Peten for violating House decorum.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard to follow the rules,” House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black or brown on whatever the color the color of your skin is, you follow the House rules.”


This formal rebuke of progressive lawmakers comes as 50,000 Arizona teachers and supporters rallied at the state capitol in Phoenix to demand more education funding and higher wages.

Last week, the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona Educators United (AEU), a coalition of educators, administrators, and education support professionals, announced that teachers had voted in favor of going on strike.

Education funding in Arizona tanked in the years after the Great Recession. State funding per student fell by 36.6 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state. Teachers are also leaving the state for smaller class sizes and higher salaries, leaving many vacancies.

The striking teachers want a 20 percent raise in addition to implementing a permanent salary structure, competitive pay for educational support staff, no new tax cuts until the state’s per pupil funding reaches the national average, and restoration of education funding to 2008 levels.


Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced a proposal earlier this month to raise teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, but teachers want the governor to explicitly address their other demands as well.

The Arizona strikes follow successful teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

Colorado teachers may soon follow in Arizona’s footsteps. Thousands of teachers participating in walkouts in Colorado are using their personal days to strike, leading four school districts to close on Thursday. Educators from Pueblo School District voted to go on strike last week, but legally can’t until May 4, when the state’s education and labor agency decides whether to try to broker a resolution with teachers. The state’s last teacher strike was in 1994.