Facing a possible GOP train wreck in the off-year congressional elections, Bush has apparently decided that he must appeal to bigots who believe that Mexicans are lazy, and flee to the United States to receive benefits of our badly fraying social safety net, and are culturally and/or genetically incapable of performing as loyal citizens in a democratic republic.
Those bigots are growing louder and more numerous. An ugly racist discourse heard daily on shows like “Hannity and Combs” and “Lou Dobbs Tonight” contends that new Mexican arrivals somehow don't understand "American" culture (whatever that is) and that their mere presence will change the country for the worse. “Half the 100 million Mexicans are still mired in poverty,” right-wing gadfly Pat Buchanan thunders. “Tens of millions are unemployed or underemployed. . . . Of the perhaps 500,000 who make it [to the United States], one-third head for Mexifornia, where their claims on Medicaid, schools, courts, prisons, and welfare have tipped the Golden State toward bankruptcy . . .”
Pat Buchanan, and his anti-immigrant allies don’t believe that the United States can absorb millions of Spanish-speaking residents and remain America. “And you’re rapidly changing the nature of the entire country,” Buchanan says. “We speak 300 languages. Unless we do something and make sure the things that unite us are elevated--like language and history and all the rest of it--we’re gonna lose our country, my friend.”
Buchanan’s sentiments assume that there's something intrinsic in "us" (by which he means "us white guys") that "them" (meaning brown folks) don't have. That argument has been made about every immigrant group that has ever arrived in the United States. The Mexican immigrants of today, like the Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants of yesterday in the United States collide head-on with a political system in which political and economic goodies are distributed according to one’s degree of “whiteness.” Such a system depends on the notion that so-called black, white, brown, red and yellow people represent “races,” distinct entities with innate qualities. To the contrary, there is more genetic variation — deviations in skin pigment, hair texture, inherited disorders, etc. — within the arbitrary racial boxes used to divide humanity than between each category.
Because they are social conventions rather than scientific categories, the definition of racial identities such as white, black, and brown, however, vary over time and by location. In the 19th century, Jews, Italians and the Irish were viewed by many ruling Anglo-Americans as non-white. The U.S. Census Bureau numbered Mexican Americans among so-called Caucasians in the early twentieth century. Just as randomly, they lost whiteness in 1930 when the Census Bureau placed them in a separate "Mexican" category.
Regardless of how arbitrarily these classifications are defined, however, placement in a racial category holds real-life consequences, determining to a large degree what neighborhoods one lives in, what schools attends, the quality of one’s jobs and wages, and how long one can expect to live.
Such a caste system serves to create in immigrants, who upon arrival are victims of racism, a sense of investment in the status quo. Formerly non-white Jewish, Irish, and Polish immigrants became “white” in part by accepting elite ideas of race and by supporting an economic system that provides a great deal for the few and the barely adequate for the many. If Mexicans are an outside group now, they still might enter the white man’s club if they accept predatory capitalism and adopt the language of anti-black racism. As Richard Pryor once said, the first word an immigrant learns in English is “nigger”
There have been two previous crises over immigration in American history, the period between the 1840s and the Civil War when Irish newcomers were depicted as racial outsiders, and the panic over Eastern and Southern European and Asian immigration that began in the 1870s but peaked between 1890 and 1925. A close look at these past controversies provides a likely guide to how today’s immigration debate will play out.
Early 19th century anti-immigrant racism found its fullest expression in the platform of the American or Know-Nothing Party, which rose and fell almost entirely within a two-year span, from 1854 to 1856. The Know-Nothings formed in response to the continued immigration of Germans and the sudden rise of Irish immigration after the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s. About 2.3 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1830 and 1850, the largest group coming from Ireland. The Know-Nothings promised to stop what they called as a cultural and racial invasion by the Catholic Irish. The Know-Nothings were virulently anti-Catholic, warning that members of that religion owed first allegiance to the Pope and thus were disloyal citizens, and were promiscuous drunks, a potent charge at a time when the Prohibition movement emerged as a political force.
Know-Nothings accused the Irish, frequently portrayed by the American press as near-apes, of lowering wages for “American” workers and accepting filthy living conditions. Nativists often compared the Irish to despised African American slaves. In the 1840s, it was common for Anglos to refer to the Irish as “niggers turned inside out” while African Americans were referred to as the “smoked Irish.” The Know-Nothing and anti-immigrant movements in the 1840s and 1850s sought to end legal immigration, ban Catholics from holding elective office, diminish the voting strength of new Americans by extending the period of naturalization from five to 21 years, and supported the use of the Protestant King James Bible in the public schools.
The Know-Nothing Party fell apart because its Northern and Southern wings couldn’t agree on slavery. Mid-19th century nativism lost salience as an issue because of the nation’s rush towards the Civil War, the decline of Irish immigration in the late 1950s, and the rising assimilation of Irish Americans into the American political system through what was then a white supremacist Democratic Party. The Irish North of the Mason-Dixon line, locked in competition with African Americans for low-wage jobs, spectacularly displayed the negrophobia required for higher status in this country’s caste system, violently resisting the draft in an1863 New York City riot. Insisting they would never fight a war to free black men, Irish rioters burned a black orphanage and shot and beat to death African Americans men and women, young and old in the city street. Once racial outsiders, by the late 19th century the Irish rose to leadership positions in politics and the labor movement. Irish union leaders banned black members, called strikes if black employees were hired, and insisted on higher “white men’s wages” for themselves as they forced African Americans to remain on the outside of the factory gate.
The next wave of anti-immigrant paranoia started in late 19th century. More than 14 million Europeans immigrated to the United States between 1870-1900. Before 1880, the Germans, the Irish, the English and Scandinavians made up 85 percent of immigrants arriving in the United States. After 1880, immigration from Europe dramatically shifted, with Italians, Hungarians, eastern European Jew, Turks, Armenians, Poles, Russians and other Slavic people accounting for 85 percent of all immigrants by 1896. At the same time, Japanese and Chinese immigrants arrived in large numbers on the West coast, even as Mexicans and other immigrants from Central and South America moved to California and elsewhere in the American Southwest.
Such numbers lead Theodore Roosevelt in warn in an 1906 address to Congress that the fast reproduction of these new immigrants, and the low birth rate among Anglo women, raised the specter of “race suicide.” Roosevelt charged that white women who did not have children represented criminals “against the race.” To many Anglos, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe seemed culturally backwards, ignorant, and bizarre in appearance. "These people are not Americans," the journal Public Opinion declared. "They are the very scum and offal of Europe." As a Midwestern coal miner complains in Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons’ book Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort., “Italians and Hungarians is spolin’ this ‘yere country for white men.”
These critiques of immigrants shared common features with earlier attacks on the Irish: that Jews and other Southern and Eastern Europeans lacked whiteness, and thus lacked the work ethic, thrift, energy, intelligence and morals to make it in this country. Madison Grant, in his best-selling 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, warned that Eastern and Southern Europeans and Jewish immigrants, whom he categories as a separate species, posed a serious threat to America. "The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners just as he is today being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women," Grant wrote, warning that unless trends were reversed, the so-called melting pot of American society would swallow up the racially superior, who would be replaced by "a population of race bastards in which the lower type ultimately preponderates." Popular magazines disseminated such attitudes, encouraging the rebirth of the long-dormant Ku Klux Klan, which became a dominant force in not just Southern but national political life by the early 1920s.
Hoping to preserve the nation’s “racial stock,” nativists passed a series of immigration restrictions between the 1880s and the 1920s. The Congress banned Chinese immigration n the 1880s, sharply limited Japanese immigration in 1907, and excluded laborers from most Asian countries in a 1917 immigration law. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 and centered in New England, lobbied for the exclusion of non-Nordic Europeans and successfully lobbied for the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. This legislation set immigration quotas at 2 percent of nationals from a particular country present in the United States in 1890, a move drastically reducing the immigration quotas permitted Southern and Eastern Europeans. The Italian quota, for instance, fell from 42,000 to about 4,000 and the Polish quota from 31,000 to 6.000.
This act barred the door to America for Jews who attempted to flee the Holocaust. American anti-Semitism became so rife that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, fearing a political backlash, resisted lifting immigration restrictions against European Jews throughout the 1930s and even after the United States declared war against Nazi Germany and the government had verified the existence of the Third Reich’s extermination camps. In 1944, Roosevelt agreed to support the establishment a single refugee resettlement camp in a remote part of upstate New York only with the understanding that the refugees would be returned to Europe after the war. America’s 1924 immigration restriction law doomed many Jews to Hitler’s gas chambers, though the total number who might otherwise have found safety in America remains a mystery.
We should keep this tragic backdrop in mind as we consider today’s immigration fracas. Whether or not we build a hideous Berlin Wall along our southern border, immigrants will continue pouring over our borders until nations like Mexico are no longer treated like open markets for modern slave labor. The NAFTA treaty destroyed the Mexican economy, with some of the chief victims small campesinos who are no longer able to compete with American agribusiness. These struggling growers, many of them indigenous people, become landless peasants and now head north to save their families from starvation.
The lies told about earlier immigrant groups are told now about the Mexicans and Central Americans who cross our borders every day. Immigrants have become this year’s gay married couples, a convenient scapegoat targeted by the political right. They are a threat shown on the nightly news scuttling across the border in grainy, nightscope vision footage bringing to mind a 1950s horror movie. The immigration “crisis” is so dire, according to Fox News’ John Gibson, that he recently called for a crude program of neo-eugenics. On the May 11 edition of The Big Story, Gibson took a break from ranting about the so-called war on Christmas to ask his viewers to “do your duty. Make more babies.”
Gibson cited a Census Bureau Report that said that half of all children ages 5 and under belong to minorities. "By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic. Why is that? Well, Hispanics are having more kids than others. Notably, the ones Hispanics call "gabachos" -- white people -- are having fewer.” Gibson’s comments exposes as deceit the claim that the anti-immigrationistas are only concerned about preserving the national culture and aren’t racists. Gibson obviously believes that being American means have a white skin.
Anti-immigrant fables presented uncritically on the media are easy to refute. Nightly on his news broadcast, CNN’s Lou Dobbs proclaims that modern immigrants don’t want to learn English and reject assimilation. It might interest Mr. Dobbs that, according to demographers, 19th century immigrants and their families took on average three generations of residence in the United States to completely master the language, while today’s immigrants are fluent in English in two generations.
Rather than using more in government services than they contribute in taxes, immigrants fork over $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in local, state and federal assistance combined, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Low wages and unemployment are more due to technology than to immigration, according to several economic studies. The Cato Institute studied the relationship of unemployment and immigration between 1900 and 1989 and could document "no statistically reliable correlation" between the two. Mr. Dobbs blames immigrants for bringing back diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis, when drug-resistant versions of these diseases began a comeback among our native homeless and poor as a result of the era of Social Darwinism launched by Ronald Reagan. Research by The Cato Institute also found that rather than bringing disease, that new immigrants are healthier than the native-born population in almost every measure.
Violent words precede violent actions. If the public is constantly fed propaganda that a group of people threaten their homes, their standards of living, their health and their safety, backlash inevitably sets in. This is already happening with the anti-immigration movement. While researching this paper, I came across a website where one young, white supremacist man noted that an on-line video game awards points to players as they shoot immigrants trying to illegally cross the border. Now, the man gleefully announced, the National Guard can do it for real. Sadly, this lone hacker is not alone as anti-immigrant attitudes have easily morphed into anti-Hispanic thuggery.
Vigilante groups like the Minutemen and lone actors have taken it upon themselves to fix what Dobbs obsessively calls our “broken border.” On April 22 of this year, a 17-year-old Texas Hispanic high school football suffered serious injuries after an assault by two white men, one an active neo-Nazi skinhead, according to Harris County authorities. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 17-year-old Keith Robert Turner, and 18-year-old David Henry Tuck, 18, targeted their victim when the young Hispanic man tried to kiss a young Hispanic girl Turner and Tuck believed to be Caucasian. The pair burned their victim’s neck with cigarettes, gashed his chest with a knife and stomped his head with steel-toed boots, while shouting anti-Hispanic slurs. They then stripped him naked and sodomized him with a patio umbrella pole. Tuck, the skinhead, kicked the pole “so far in that [it] caused major organ damage.” The unnamed victim remains in serious condition.
So-called mainstream anti –immigration activists are already forging ties with hate groups and encouraging violence to pursue their cause. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that on April 3. Border Guardians founder Laine Lawless, who once started a press conference by burning a Mexican flag before the Mexican Consulates in Tucson, Arizona, fired off an e-mail to Mark Martin, head of the Western Ohio unit of the National Socialist Movement. Titled , "How to GET RID OF THEM," the e-suggested offered suggestions for terrorizing illegals. “Steal the money from any illegal walking into a bank or check cashing place," she suggests. " . . . I hear the rednecks in the South are beating up illegals as the textile mills have closed. Use your imagination," she write later. "Discourage Spanish-speaking children from going to school. Be creative,” she concludes. Meanwhile, cowards in the media like Dobbs have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the involvement of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, former militia activists and other fanatics in the anti-immigrant movement or to report on anti-immigrant violence.
Immigration, properly considered, should be an economic issue and not a racial or cultural one. The same free trade policies that drive Mexican campesinos off the land and move Indians to flee Central America depress wages in the United States, and de-industrialize our cities, all for the benefit of economic elites and at expense to the global working class. Anglo workers and Mexican immigrant workers share more than their common humanity: they are robbed by the same forces of greed and exploited by the same robber barons. Rather than closing the border, the Anglo public, the media and our politicians need to open their eyes to the human toll of globalization and of not free, but unfair, trade. The great battle to be fought in America today is not between Mexicans and Anglos, but between rich and poor.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.