Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Energizing the racist right

You know, it's possible to make a case that immigration is an important problem that needs addressing without resorting to racist rhetoric and scapegoating -- though, Lord knows the nativist right hasn't figured that out yet.

But I think you can also make the case that, in reality, it isn't that big a problem, especially placed in the perspective of the life-and-death issues at stake in the fight against terrorism, or the looming threat of global warming, which strikes at our very survival as a species.

What strikes me in any event as far more significant than immigration is the way the nativists piling onto the issue have resurrected the racist right in America.

It's now OK, apparently, to talk about preserving the white majority, as national media anchors have done recently, without having anyone point out that you're regurgitating David Duke's talking points.

And the effect that's having on the ground, besides getting a lot of mainstream folk nodding along, is that it is drawing the old racist right -- the National Alliance, the Klan, the Council of Conservative Citizens -- out into the open. They're emboldened now because they can hear things they've been saying in their meeting halls for years now being bandied about by Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly.

All the whining from the pro-Minuteman faction about "media bias" notwithstanding, most media coverage so far has just tiptoed around this reality.

So give some credit to Time Magazine for recognizing it, and reporting on it:
With immigration perhaps America's most volatile issue, a troubling backlash has erupted among its most fervent foes. There are, of course, the Minutemen, the self-appointed border vigilantes who operate in several states. And now groups of militiamen, white supremacists and neo-Nazis are using resentment over the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. as a potent rallying cry. "The immigration furor has been critical to the growth we've seen" in hate groups, says Mark Potok, head of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center counts some 800 racist groups operating in the U.S. today, a 5% spurt in the past year and a 33% jump from 2000. "They think they've found an issue with racial overtones and a real resonance with the American public," says Potok, "and they are exploiting it as effectively as they can."

Both Potok's group and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are worried that extremists are burrowing their way into the anti-immigration mainstream. Mark Martin, 43, of Covington, Ohio, is a chef at a French restaurant and tends his backyard organic garden. But he also dons the black and brown uniform of western Ohio's National Socialist (read: Nazi) Movement. "There's nothing neo about us," he says. Martin admits he frequently harasses day laborers and threatens them with deportation. "As Americans, we have the right to make a citizen's arrest and detain them," he insists. "And if they try to get away, we have the right to get physical with them." Martin gleefully boasts about leading eight fellow storm troopers in disrupting a May 1 pro-immigrant rally in Dayton by taunting protesters. Although police ultimately restrained him, Martin believes his agitation was worthwhile because it attracted new recruits. "After the rally, the Klan called us," he says. "Now we've started working together more often."

In addition to white supremacists, the immigration debate seems to have reinvigorated members of the antigovernment militias of the 1990s. Those groups largely disbanded after the Oklahoma City bombing orchestrated by militia groupie Timothy McVeigh and, later, the failure of a Y2K bug to trigger the mass chaos some militia members expected. "We've seen people from Missouri and Kentucky militias involved in border-vigilante activity, especially with the gung-ho Arizona group Ranch Rescue that used face paint, military uniforms and weapons," says Mark Pitcavage, fact-finding director of the ADL. "It's a natural shift. Militias fell on hard times, and this anti-immigration movement is new and fresh."

No doubt, though, we'll hear more whining that this kind of reportage is just "playing the race card."

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