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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Playing with Immigration and Race

Playing with Immigration and Race
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

One would assume that the biggest, overriding issue for the next election would be Iraq, but there's evidence that immigration — which ultimately means race — could play an even more significant and decisive role. Of course candidates and pundits will insist that their real concerns are law & order, terrorism, security, and the budget, but in the end debates about immigration seem to turn far more around the axis of race and skin color than they do around anything else.

It's rare that you'll hear race actually mentioned in any explicit manner because taboos against racism are stronger than ever while reasonable, scientific-sounding arguments on behalf of racism have so little credibility. This doesn't mean that they have disappeared, though, because they continue to be fed by more fundamental attitudes about "otherness," skin color, culture, tribalism, etc., and can be expressed in neutral-sounding debates that are supposed to be about immigration, crime, welfare budgets, and so on.

There are several good reasons to treat immigration debates as hinging more on race than anything else. One is the fact that complaints are all about dark-skinned immigrants from south of the border rather than white immigrants from Europe. All the political reactions are aimed at America's southern border with Mexico and all the populist reactions are aimed at Hispanic immigrants. Granted, insofar as illegal immigration is a problem, Hispanic immigrants are more of an issue than Ukranians, but that only explains disproportionate results — it does not justify targeting Latinos exclusively.

Another is the fact that "solutions" to the problem of immigration look so much like the "solutions" to non-existent problems in areas such as welfare where there was a clear stigma being attached to blacks regardless of facts and evidence. People claim to be worried, for example, about too many benefits going to illegal immigrants, and this sounds a lot like people's complaints about black "welfare queens" during the 1980s. In both cases, the "solution" is to cut off benefits on a broad scale in order to save money. In reality, illegal immigrants contribute more to the system than they take out — just as it is (and was) also reality that poor whites can be just as reliant on welfare as African-Americans.

Technically, "racism" requires references to biological characteristics rather than culture and it is true that, in principle, that prejudice towards immigrants on the basis of religion, language, and dress might be better labeled as some form of enthnocentrism. In practice, however, cultural prejudices and separation are justified on the basis of arguments which describe them as natural, essential, and immutable. Thus cultural and biological traits are blended together into an almost seamless fabric, fully warranting the label of racism — or at least "cultural racism" — when discussing such prejudices.

Furthermore, we should take care not to wear historical blinders here: the experiences of Latinos and Hispanic immigrants are similar those of past immigrant groups. Whiteness in America is something that has been culturally constructed and achieved by various groups, rather than simply a neutral biological designation. Jews weren't always treated as genuinely white, and the same was true of Italians and Irish — all groups which today would immediately regarded as whites rather than anything else.

It is unlikely that someone from Spain would not be regarded as white for biological purposes, but racially they aren't very distinguishable from Latinos, are they? Insofar as they are, it's because of Latinos' Native American heritage, and that makes complaints about their "immigration" rather misplaced. This means that Latinos are just the latest target for being non-white immigrants and thus are being forced to bear responsibility for all the cultural, political, and social fears which conservatives can load them up with.

The problem is that otherwise liberal voters are have the same fears and are also buying into the scapegoating of Hispanic immigrants. Democratic politicians could get a lot of milage out of generally liberal platforms which include a strong anti-immigration component. Opposing the scare-mongering of the GOP will earn the gratitude of Hispanic voters, of course, but might drive away many white voters — a situation similar to how the Republican Party picked up so many previous Democrats through their Southern Strategy.

Following the GOP lead means validating their arguments and allowing false anti-immigrant beliefs to continue — not to mention undermining basic liberal principles. Those opposing it risk being kept out of office. This is hardly a pleasant choice, is it? The only winning strategy would seem to be to oppose the scare-mongering in a manner which also gets people to reject the underlying premises those fears rely upon, but that means injecting complicated arguments and seriousness into a political system that has developed powerful antibodies to such irritants. There just doesn't seem to be much for a person to draw any optimism from.

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