Robert Gittelson: Immigration Reform and Racial Tensions
The taboo subject of racism in this country was served up on a silver platter for President Obama to address this week, (by former President Jimmy Carter, among others), and the President passed. I am positive that on some level, he probably wished that he could take this opportunity to address that important subject, but because of sensitive political considerations, felt that the time wasn’t right for him to speak. I, on the other hand, am not restrained in that regard, so I will not have to pass. Therefore, I wish to put in my two cents.
First of all, let me be clear. There is no question but that racism is alive and well in this country, and around the world. In some, it is a deep seated hatred, and in many, it is a subtle bias. In most, it is something that we dare not talk about in mixed company. By the way, mixed company in this case is a perpetuation of that very bias, because mixed company means “others,” or people that are, in some way, shape, or form, differentiated from ourselves.
Let me explain what I mean. When I was a kid, my parents got very upset with me for telling a “Polish” joke. At the time, polish jokes were the rage. They explained that Polish jokes were offensive to Polish people, and so I stopped telling those types of jokes. Nowadays, the same jokes are often repeated as “blond” jokes. I myself am blond, but I turn the other cheek.
Similarly, being white, I dare not ever use the “N” word. Of course, black people are free to use the word all the time, but if a white person says it, he can literally be taking his life in his hands. Being blond, (okay, a little grey), and having blue eyes, (okay, a little green), in my lifetime I have heard many, many Jewish racial epithets or racially insensitive slurs against Jews, but only because I don’t look particularly Jewish, (I am). However, if you want to hear a really good Jewish joke, ask a Jew. In fact, my mother – the one who told me never to tell Polish jokes – just e-mailed me about 30 of them to me; (Example: “There is a big controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins. In Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school”).
The point that I’m trying to make, is that until the day when a black man can tell that joke to an Asian American, in front of a Jew, and they can all chuckle about it without being self-conscious, there will exist an element of racial tension.
So, what does all of this have to do with Comprehensive Immigration Reform? Everything. I know in my heart, and in my mind, that racial intolerance is behind a percentage of the “anti’s” resistance to CIR. How high of a percentage? I don’t know, but does it really matter? The fact is that to a degree, there is an element of racial bias that is behind the “anti” movement. Ironically, it will not be until long after CIR passes, perhaps not until a generation or two has passed, that we will see real progress toward the assimilation of immigrants into the “accepted” mainstream of our culture, and the seamless fabric of our society. That is the way it is, because that is the way that it has always been in America, and around the world.
People are, as a species, wary of the members of another tribe, or strangers from the next village over. Call it a healthy skepticism. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up – much less people that are strangers – because we acknowledge that a difference exists. Human nature dictates that until we get to know these people on a personal basis, we will be cautious of them. Perhaps in many cases, we are automatically predisposed to distrust a certain race or culture through previous bad experiences, or through an upbringing that preaches against tolerance of certain “others.” That is tough to break, because we have to unlearn what we are raised to believe. The only chance that we have, as a society that wishes to tear down the walls of racial insensitivity, is to first tear down the physical or metaphysical walls that separate us.
Until the day when the 12 – 20 million undocumented immigrants amongst us are free to work, live, and fully participate in our society, full assimilation is impossible. We cannot and should not be a country that has a “caste” system, similar to what was the accepted norm in India. In this case, the “illegal” caste is stigmatized, and if the anti’s succeed in obstructing CIR yet again, they will perpetuate a caste of “untouchables” right here in the land of the free.
So why me? Why am I working so hard to get CIR passed? After all, I’m here legally, and nobody is asking to see my papers. Is it because of my long work experience with immigrants? Partially. Is it because I see this struggle on a daily basis because of my wife’s Immigration practice? Partially.
The other day, I spoke at a press conference about CIR, and particularly about the role of the census, and it’s importance. Afterwards, I was mingling with many of my fellow speakers. One of them was an Hispanic inner city teacher, and we had an interesting discussion. However, one thing that she said goes to the heart of why I am so involved in speaking out about this issue. She thanked me for speaking out about CIR, because, in her words, “people needed to hear about this issue from someone like me.” She wasn’t talking about my work experience, she was talking about the fact that I am white. Of course that is true, and that is, in fact, one of the main reasons why I speak out. Call it an unfortunate fact.
People need to hear white people like me advocate for CIR, because we look like we could be Republicans. It’s not that my “white” words carry more weight than “brown” words, but we carry different weight. A brown person can say many convincing things about the urgent need for CIR, but some white people won’t be as receptive to his or her arguments coming from a brown person as they would be if they came from a white person. Call it another unfortunate fact.
Let us remember all the way back in history to last year. Among the “progressive” Democrats, 90% of women voted in certain primaries for Hilary Clinton, where in the same primaries, 90% of Black people voted for now President Obama. There were no major or fundamental differences between their positions on the issues. The blacks voted black, and the women voted women. That is racial or gender bias that is measurable, and it is real. Therefore, the Democrats should not feel that they have a monopoly on moral indignation when it comes to issues of bias. There exists in this country a “healthy” fear of the “other.” The problem is that the fear is not actually healthy at all. Our racism holds us back from our potential for greatness. We are, as a country, less than we should or could be, through our biases, and because our minds are not as open as they should or could be.
This is a time of great possibility for our nation. We took a tentative first step toward the moral high ground, and voted for change. Now we have to have the courage to embrace it. We stuck our toe in the water when we voted for Obama. Now we have to be brave enough to go “all the way in.” There is nothing easy or comfortable about confronting racial issues. However, doesn’t that fact make these conversations all the more important?