Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Less Desirable People: Racism and the Politics of Immigration

Karl Marx once observed that history repeats itself: first as a tragedy and the second time as a farce. Recent events in the Dallas area suggest that we will soon witness tragedy compounded by catastrophe.

Last November, the Farmers Branch city council passed Texas’ most severe anti-immigrant ordinance. Ordinance 2903 made English the official language of Farmers Branch and prohibited landlords from renting to undocumented workers, with daily $500 fines imposed on property owners until they comply. Opponents of the anti-immigrant measures, meanwhile, gathered enough signatures to get the rental ban placed on the municipal ballot May 12, hoping voters would reject the measure. Voters approved the ordinance, however, by a more than 2-1 margin and political analysts predicted that other cities across the nation would soon follow the path blazed by Farmers Branch

Supporters of Ordinance 2903 deny that the law stemmed from anti-Mexican racism. Farmers Branch city councilmember Tim O’Hare, the measure’s chief proponent, claimed that undocumented workers “come from poor conditions, get . . . free medical care, get a free education, [don’t pay] taxes, and compared to their living conditions before . . . live like kings and queens." O’Hare argues that immigrants have brought crime, declining public schools and welfare dependency to the once prosperous suburb.

None of those claims are true. In 1970, the city was an almost entirely white backwater with a slumbering economy and a declining population. With immigration, Farmers Branch transformed into rapidly growing town of 28,000 with 37 percent of the population of Mexican descent. Immigration turned Farmers Branch into busy hive of economic growth that claims more than 80 corporate headquarters and 2,600 small and mid-size businesses, many of them owned by Mexican Americans and other non-white residents. Property values in Farmers Branch have exploded and SAT scores in local schools have risen. R.L. Turner, a school with a population that is 70 percent Hispanic posted the best reading and math scores in the school district. Statewide, immigrants paid $425 million more in state taxes in fiscal year 2005 than Texas spent for social services and law enforcement related to Mexican immigrants.

One never hears complaints about the 6 percent of illegal immigrants who come each year from Europe or Canada. It is easy to suspect that “immigrant” is a code word for “Mexican.” Tim O’Hare revealed more about the attitudes underlying his anti-immigrant campaign than he intended when he complained that undocumented workers lowered property values and “When that happens, people move out of our neighborhoods, and what I would call less desirable people move into the neighborhoods, people who don't value education, people who don't value taking care of their properties." For O’Hare, it required no documentation to contend that the overwhelmingly Hispanic immigrants are “less desirable” and don’t consider education important.

Immigrants have become this year’s gay married couples, a convenient scapegoat targeted by the political right. CNN’s opinionated news program “Lou Dobbs Tonight” daily broadcasts a segment called “Broken Borders” which argues that Mexican immigrants lower the wages of American workers and pose a physical threat as well, allegedly spreading diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and even leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) to the white population. Dobbs has shown himself willing to lie to promote his anti-immigrant agenda. On the April 14, 2005 edition of his show, reporter Christine Romans aired a tape of anti-immigrant activist Madeleine Cosman, professor at the City College of City University of New York's Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. "We have some enormous problems with horrendous diseases that are being brought into America by illegal aliens," Cosman claimed. Romans followed the taped comments by stating that Cosman "told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years." In fact, according to the National Hansen’s Disease Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there were just 398 cases between 2002 and 2004, not 7,000.

As Media Matters noted in a May 18 report, “Cosman appears to have derived her false claim by misinterpreting a February 18, 2003, New York Times article. The Times article, written two years before Cosman's article, compared the ‘900 recorded cases in the United States 40 years ago’ with ‘today,’ in which ‘more than 7,000 people have leprosy.’” In other words, HHS reporters there were 7,000 total Hansen’s Disease cases in the United States in the 2002-2004 time period, not 7,000 new cases as Romans reported. Just as importantly, while the New York Times article did suggest that Hansen’s Disease had appeared in some immigrant communities, it did not specify the number of existing cases attributable to immigrants, legal or undocumented.

Dobbs has repeatedly tripped over himself trying to rationalize his continued defense of Romans’ falsehood. In a May 6 “60 Minutes” portrait recently repeated on CBS, Dobbs refused to concede any error when reporter Leslie Stahl confronted him with the HHS numbers, arrogantly declaring, “If we reported it, it’s a fact.” After proclaiming his infallibility, on the May 7 edition of "Lou Dobbs Tonight" he told Romans, "I stand 100 percent behind what you said." Romans then insisted that the 7,000 number was not made up by citing, in a mind-spinning feat of circular logic, the erroneous Cosman article.

Dobbs then tried a new tactic in subsequent broadcasts by dishonestly claiming that Romans was referring to all active cases, and was not claiming that immigrants caused 7,000 new cases of leprosy. The tape says otherwise. The implication of Romans’ report was clear: immigrants caused an unprecedented surge of leprosy and illegal immigrants were to blame

During his “60 Minutes” interview, Dobbs presented his Mexican American wife Debi as proof that he is not racist. By this logic, the late segregationist presidential candidate and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who until the 1970s regularly laced his campaign stops with the “n-word,” was not a racist because he had a sexual relationship with an African American woman that produced a daughter he secretly supported for decades.

Dobbs adamantly denies that he is a racist. He visibly rankles when critics charge that leaders of the anti-immigrant movement are bigots. Yet, how does Dobbs explain the published record of author and would-be president Pat Buchanan and his fawning treatment of Buchanan when the pundit appears on his show? Dobbs invited Buchanan on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” to fluff the book, “State of Emergency.” Buchanan’s book approvingly cites works by explicit white supremacists like James Lubinskas and neo-Confederate Clyde Wilson. Buchanan writes that America became great not because of the beliefs enshrined in documents like the Declaration of Independence, but because of the “genetic endowments” of the nation’s European founders. “If we do not get control of our borders,” Buchanan writes, “by 2050 Americans of European descent will be a minority in the nation their ancestors created and built. No nation has ever undergone so radical a demographic transformation and survived.”

Not convinced Buchanan is a racist, Lou? Try this nugget from Buchanan’s writings: "Was not Western civilization vastly superior to the indigenous civilizations it encountered and crushed, from the Aztecs and Incas in the Americas to the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist civilizations from Africa to the Far East?” How about this passage? "Our ancestors were not paralyzed by guilt. Confident in their culture and civilization, they believed in their superiority over what Kipling had called the 'lesser breeds without the law.'"

Elsewhere, Buchanan declares that "This idea of America as a creedal nation bound together not by 'blood or birth or soil' but by 'ideals' that must be taught and learned ... is demonstrably false," Buchanan writes in the book. In other words, to Buchanan, a nation is defined by race, not shared beliefs. America rose to power as a white nation and faces decline if it becomes a brown nation. Comparisons of the American right wing to German National Socialism the 1930s are made too often and too easy, but Buchanan is directly quoting the Nazi Party’s definition of Germany as a nation bound by “blood and soil.”

So how did Dobbs, the self-proclaimed non-racist, respond to Pat Buchanan’s description of non-whites as “lesser breeds?” Given a chance to prove his anti-racist bona fides, Dobbs instead greeted Buchanan warmly. "Congratulations on the response to your book," Dobbs enthused, and then concluded his interview by urging his viewers to buy a copy of Buchanan’s tirade. "The book is ‘State of Emergency,’ Dobbs reminded viewers. “I'm going to repeat it one more time. The book is ‘State of Emergency’ . . . You've got a lot of readers, so keep it rolling."

Buchanan’s arguments have a sickening familiarity to anyone familiar with American history. The same charges Buchanan makes against Mexicans have been applied to just about every immigrant group that has ever arrived in the United States. In the 19th century, it was the Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who supposedly were unable to function in a free, Anglo-Saxon democracy and would undermine American culture from within.

Rejecting the idea that there was a single “white” or “Caucasian” identity, 19th century scientists claimed they had measured distinct differences in the facial angles, skull sizes, and brain capacities of Anglo Saxons, the Irish, Central Europeans, people of Mediterranean descent, Eastern European Gentiles, and Jews. In country still dominated by elites of English descent, American scientists placed Northern and Western Europeans, particularly Anglo-Saxons, at the top of the racial hierarchy. Anglos supposedly possessed the greatest intelligence, the bravest souls and the most creative minds. Central Europeans ranked behind Northern and Western Europeans, while Southern and Eastern Europeans, including Russian and Polish Jews, ranked as the least intelligent and the most criminal. Warning of the danger of Jewish immigrants, one Baptist publication in 1889 described Jews as being “as distinct a race among us as the Chinese.”

Jews, sometimes described as Orientals because of their distant Middle Eastern origins, were criticized like later Mexican immigrants for being unwilling or unable to assimilate into the culture of any land in which they settled. Headlines warning about “The Jewish Invasion” in publications like McClure’s Magazine resemble modern headlines about the rising Latino tide, such as the February 2007 edition of D Magazine in Dallas, an issue emblazoned with a photo of a Mexican flag-bearing pro-immigration rally and the headline “The Mexican Invasion: Why We Need It.”

Gentiles in the late 19th century and early twentieth century complained that one could walk blocks through the streets of cities like New York without hearing a word of English and complained about Jews who clung to their alien Yiddish language. (Demographers, by the way, estimate that Jewish families took three generations of average to adopt English as their primary language, as opposed to two generations for modern Mexican immigrant.) Just as hardworking Mexicans later drew complaints for bringing down the wages of American workers, Gentiles a century ago saw something sinister about Jewish work habits and thrift, which they took as symptoms of relentless greed aimed at undermining Gentile wealth.

Well into the twentieth century, Dallas Gentiles continued to see Jewish immigrants, particularly working class Jews who came to Dallas from Eastern Europe in larger numbers in the late 19th century, as racial aliens who would undermine American culture, the English language, and the living standards of so-called “white” men.

Among the most prominent of Dallas’ anti-Semites was attorney Lewis Meriwether Dabney, a member of the city’s prominent Critics Club. Dabney urged Dallas leaders to restrict immigration and eliminate the right to vote to all but the most "qualified" white men. Cities like Dallas, he complained, had filled with inferior whites, such as "mongrelized Asiatics, Greeks, Levantines, Southern Italians, and sweepings of the Balkans, of Poland and of Russia.” Dabney worried that inferior whites had been tainted with a Socialist ideology "poisoning the rising generation with doctrines all right for Russian Jews but not to be tolerated by any free Anglo-Saxon soul." He urged his Dallas audience in 1922 to end "promiscuous immigration" by Jews and other biologically retrograde groups.

No group in 1920s Dallas warned more vociferously of the dangers Jewish, Greek, and other so-called “non-white” immigrants posed to the city’s white working class than did the Ku Klux Klan. Dallas dentist Hiram Wesley Evans, who rose from leadership of the KKK’s Dallas chapter to become national leader of the organization, charged that Eastern and Southern European immigrants poring into cities like Dallas represented racial degenerates who would destroy America from within. Only Anglo-Saxons could truly respect the rule of law, Evans declared in 1923 “Klan Day” speech at Fair Park. "From the British Isles and Scandinavia and Germany and Holland and Switzerland have come people born to that divinely essential attitude. Let more of them come. They are our kinsmen in tradition and ideals. But generations, or centuries, cannot school the Latin, the Greek, the Balkan and the Slav to that fundamental conception."

The Klan represented no marginal group. The Klan represented a national political power in the 1920s, dominating states like Indiana, and Dallas had the largest chapter in the United States with 13,000 members. The Klan had a tragic impact on American immigration policies in the 1920s. As a result of lobbying by groups like the Klan, the United States Congress enacted that era’s version of the fence along the Mexican border: the 1924 National Origins Act, which set quotas for immigration by Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans such as Russian Jews at such a low level that the law virtually shut off entry to the United States to anyone not from Northern and Western Europe. (Ironically, under the same type of pressure brought to bear on today’s much-debated “guest worker” proposals, agricultural special interests in California got Congress to exempt Mexican migrant workers from the 1924 immigration restrictions.) The law had deadly consequences. In the 1930s and 1940s when Jews tried to flee Nazi German’s murderous anti-Semitic rampages across Europe, they found the doors to the United States welded shut.

Like Mexican immigrants today, Jewish immigrants aroused suspicions among Anglo Protestants because of their language, their religion, their supposed refusal to assimilate, and their alleged lack of loyalty to their new countries. Of course, the experience of Jews in the United States is not identical to the present generation of American newcomers. Anti-Semitism significantly declined in America after World War II. The horrors of the Holocaust undoubtedly chased many explicit anti-Semites into the closet. The growing perception by Gentiles that their differences with Jews were religious and not racial, allowed the Jewish community a higher position in the American racial hierarchy. However, no equivalent of the mass sympathy and guilt engendered among American Gentiles by the Holocaust, or the Evangelical Protestant sympathies with Jews who are seen as the Biblical Chosen People, has mitigated the racial marginalization of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants in today’s culture.

Like the debates in 1924, today’s immigration controversy has potentially deadly consequences. The proposed ugly, Berlin Wall planned for the Mexican (but not the Canadian) border will make the flight of economic refuges from Mexico and Central America more dangerous and more lethal. Meanwhile, the rhetoric pumped into the airwaves by Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan and Tim O’Hare, dehumanizes Mexicans and will, if unchecked, provide a license for violence or worse aimed at today’s immigrants.

The immigration debate ultimately is about the type of nation we are. Those who want to build a wall on the Mexican border believe that nationhood rests on skin color. Any nation built on so fragile and unstable a concept as race rests upon a foundation of sand. If one wants to see America’s likely future should the anti-immigrant forces prevail, one should take a cook’s tour of other places where a frightened and insecure majority, clinging to a false, race-based idea of patriotism, have tried to impose by brute force their culture and identity on another people: the still gutted streets of Belfast in Northern Ireland, the mass graveyards of Bosnia, or, closer to home, the despairing, poverty-cursed streets of American Indian reservations.

Someone once said that where they burn books, they soon burn people. We should add that where a powerful majority seeks to eliminate a minority culture and language, or to define nationhood by blood and soil, genocide soon follows.


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.

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