Sunday, February 04, 2007

Eliminationism in America: IX

[Continuing a ten-part series.]

Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII and VIII.

Part IX: The Structural Legacy

Probably the most stark reminders of the legacy of eliminationist racism in America are its Indian reservations, which remain home to the tiny remnant of native peoples, though increasingly even those places are being encroached upon by whites seeking to take over those lands. The rise of the casino economy has improved conditions for many tribes, but the hard reality of life on most reservations remains one of horrendous poverty and wasted potential.

In a day and age when we like to congratulate ourselves for having outgrown racism, though, we acknowledge the poor conditions on Indian reservations and write it all off to past racism. What is not so easy to acknowledge, perhaps, is the reality that reporters in Indian Country -- including Steve Hendricks, author of The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country -- have amply documented: namely, that the squalor and cultural oppression of Indian reservations has been systematically sustained by the U.S. government well into this century. (Be sure, incidentally, to check out Hendricks' recent post at the General's place.) There is also the persistent problem of anti-white hate crimes perpetrated against Indians, which is notable for the absence of an active response from law enforcement.

However, most Americans never travel to Indian Country and are unfamiliar with the problems there. Few of them ever have contact (knowingly, at least) with Native Americans. They likely will reflect little on what the eliminationist rage their ancestors vented on the Native Americans over a century ago has cost them today, in a world where a diverse society able to employ multiple, various perspectives is a competitive cornerstone.

The great tragedy of the genocide of the native Americans, beyond its cruel injustice, is in its utter waste of human potential: the America that could have been. Though the Indians' ecological ethic has at times been overstated, what is incontestable is that over the centuries before the arrival of Europeans, they lived relatively healthy lives and sustained a healthy population on the continent for many centuries, a population that indeed affected its landscape but sustained a natural bounty of surprising diversity. In a time when we are constantly reminded of the limits of human civilization for sustaining itself in a viable biosphere, a dose of the Native American conservation ethic could even today serve us well indeed.

But as I say, Americans have little exposure to real Indians and thus have little reason to reflect on the costs of history; that particular episode of our eliminationist history is thus easily brushed to the corners of our consciousness. Not so easy, perhaps, is our long effort to oppress and eliminate black Americans, as well as the same for Asian Americans and nonwhite immigrants, if only because their sheer numbers are so much greater and their dispersal among the population much broader. Yet we have done our best -- and continue to.

For all this history, we also continue to pay a price, both cultural and economic. Beyond the fissures that racial lines drawn long ago continue to generate, there is the cost in creativity and enterprise that puts us at a disadvantage in a global economy where those lines are disappearing.

Charles Mudede at The Stranger a few years ago observed the stark differences that can be seen today between Seattle and Tacoma, two cities twinned in much of the national perception of the Puget Sound, but starkly divided in terms of their relative vitality. Whereas Seattle's bustling racial diversity, particularly its vibrant Asian culture, has produced an economic powerhouse and a robust public image, Tacoma's long history of exclusion and backward thinking has produced a metropolis mired in its past:
The second self-imposed blow was Tacoma's infamous expulsion of Chinese immigrants on November 5, 1883. Granted, every city in the Northwest experienced sometimes-deadly anti-Chinese riots, but the government in other cities stepped in at some point to restore order (Seattle declared martial law and issued warrants for leaders of the Chinese-expulsion movement.) Tacoma's officials, on the other hand, helped force most of the city's Chinese community onto a train headed for Portland. Tacoma faced national embarrassment because of the incident, and its backward way of settling racial disputes became known as "The Tacoma Method." It has yet to recover from this humiliating recognition: Recently, the Tacoma News Tribune published an article titled "Tacoma faces up to its darkest hour," which posits that Tacoma might have turned out differently had it not booted out its Chinese population. "First, it is the only [city on the West Coast] that doesn't have a large Chinese American population," says the article. "[The last] census figures suggest there are fewer people of Chinese descent in the city now than there were in 1885."

The News Tribune editorial, in fact, lamented the absence of the energy and enterprise that Chinese Americans brought with them, adding that the restrictive mindset established not just by the expulsion itself, but by the subsequent actions that allowed it to stand, produced a civic culture that was hostile to new ideas and new peoples.

Such reflection, however, is rare. Most often, we like to overemphasize the progress that has been made racially since the Civil Rights era -- while the reality is that the majority of our accomplishment has been more in the legal arena than in the larger societal one, and the bulk of it has been a result of a small handful of laws passed over a brief period in the 1960s: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Subsequent efforts to create a color-blind society, such as affirmative action and busing, have been muted in the years following by efforts to do away with them.

At the same time, very little has been done to tackle the larger problem of structuralized, institutional racism, created by decades of prejudice that created a segregated society divided into largely white suburbs and rural areas, while nonwhites remain clustered in inner cities, and the resulting segregation by class and power, economic and political.

Indeed, we seem to remain obdurately ignorant of the nature of these issues. What happens more often than not is that we reflexively fall back to old attitudes: The "problem," as we see it, must be with those nonwhites themselves. After all, the thinking goes, slavery ended in 1865, and we did away with Jim Crow and officially sanctioned prejudice in the 1960s. If blacks still fail to advance, it must be something wrong with them. If they fail to move up and into the suburbs, it must be their fault.

Because they offer the illusion for whites of avoiding "the problem" of black neighbors by giving them places to move where blacks don't, sundown towns and suburbs make integrated neighborhoods hard to achieve -- indeed, they actually cause white flight. This is embodied by the way whites will substantially flee formerly all-white neighborhoods and communities once they have been successfully "invaded" by nonwhites.

And as James Loewen observes in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Aspect of American Racism,, local communities have their own ways of getting around and indeed undermining federal anti-discrimination laws when it comes to "preserving their way of life": Racial covenants remain quietly observed among home buyers and sellers, even when they have been removed from the documents and titles. Real estate agents remain careful not to break color lines, if for no other reason than getting a reputation for breaking those lines will ruin one's business quickly in those communities. Law enforcement officers will quietly harass nonwhites making any kind of unexpected appearances in formerly all-white communities.

Moreover, they put their problems elsewhere. This is particularly true of the suburbs -- where the percentage of the total American population, between 1970 and 2000, grew from 38 percent to 50 percent; that is, suburbs are now home to more Americans than its cities and rural areas combined. Suburbs have become the preferred American way of life.

As Loewen notes, these suburbs behave as "defended neighborhoods":
Once they get into the NIMBY mind-set, they try to keep out any problem or "problem group," pawning off their own social problems of central cities and multiracial, multiclass inner suburbs. Consider those members of society who are dramatically downward mobile -- some alcoholics and drug addicts; some Downs syndrome children; many schizophrenics; elderly people whose illness and incapacity have exhausted their resources and their relatives; employees fired when an industry downsizes and no one wants their skills. Every social class -- even the most affluent -- generates some of these people. Elite sundown suburbs offer no facilities to house, treat, or comfort such people -- no halfway houses for the mentally ill or ex-criminals, no residential drug treatment facilities, no public housing, often not even assisted-living complexes for the elderly or persons with disabilities. This is no accident. Elite white suburbanites don't want such facilities in their neighborhoods and have the prestige, money, and knowledge to make their objections count. "Without such homes, people with mental illnesses often wind up homeless, especially in wealthy areas," according to an AP article telling how an elite white neighborhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, blocked a halfway house for years.

When sundown suburbanites do become homeless, they simply have to leave. Most sundown suburbs do not allow homeless people to spend the night on their streets, and of course they provide no shelters for them. "In suburban jurisdictions," said Nan Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2000, "there is no sense that these are our people." Community leaders worry that if their suburb provides services, that will only bring more homeless people to their town because no other suburb does. The result, nationally, is that cities provide 49% of all homeless assistance programs, suburbs 19%, and rural areas 32%. Yet suburbs have more people than cities and rural areas combined. Less affluent inner suburbs and central cities must cope with the downwardly mobile people that more affluent sundown suburbs produce, as well as with their own. These social problems burden cities twice. ...

This process is not something relegated to the past, but is in fact an ongoing one as the suburban lifestyle continues to grow. Witness, for example, the spectacle of suburban Atlanta breaking away from the city, largely along racial lines:
A potentially explosive dispute in the City Too Busy to Hate is taking shape over a proposal to break Fulton County in two and split off Atlanta's predominantly white, affluent suburbs to the north from some of the metropolitan area's poorest, black neighborhoods.

Legislation that would allow the suburbs to form their own county, to be called Milton County, was introduced by members of the Georgia Legislature’s Republican majority earlier this month.

Supporters say it is a quest for more responsive government in a county with a population greater than that of six states. Opponents say the measure is racially motivated and will pit white against black, rich against poor.

"If it gets to the floor, there will be blood on the walls," warned state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus who bitterly opposes the plan. Fort added: "As much as you would like to think it's not racial, it's difficult to draw any other conclusion."

... About 25 miles to the south in downtown Atlanta, the Rev. J. Allen Milner said he is afraid the tax revenue loss would have a devastating effect on those who need government help the most.

"If you take that money out of their coffers, human services will suffer greatly," said Milner, a black man who runs a homeless mission and is pastor of the Chapel of Christian Love Church.

This is a trait of the suburban mindset that Loewen observes [pp. 371-372], namely, that they reflect a redirection of resources away from society's poorest segments back into those segments already succeeding, making the rich even richer. As it happens, this is also illustrated by another Atlanta suburban district:
Sundown suburbs are politically independent and usually quash efforts at metropolitan government. Their school systems are separate and usually oppose metro-wide desegregation. They resist mightily what they view as intrusions by people or governments from the larger metropolitan area or the state. ...

[Thomas and Mary Edsall, in Chain Reaction] point out that the principle of self-interest explains what otherwise might seem to be an ideological contradiction: sundown suburbanites usually try to minimize expenditures by the state and federal governments, but locally they favor "increased suburban and county expenditures, guaranteeing the highest possible return to themselves on their tax dollars." The Edsalls cite Gwinnett County, Georgia, as an example. Gwinnett, east of Atlanta, is "one of the fastest growing suburban jurisdictions in the nation, heavily Republican (75.5% for Bush [senior]), affluent, and white (96.6%)." Its residents "have been willing to tax and spend on their own behalf as liberally as any Democrats." Such within-county expenditures increase the inequality between white suburbs and interracial cities. They do nothing to redress or pay for the ways that Gwinnett residents use and rely upon Atlanta and its public services.

When it comes to race in America, we've always thought of the persistent poverty and concomitant crime of the inner city as "the problem," or at least its chief embodiment. But as Loewen notes [pp. 374-75], the problem, or at least its source, is embodied in the all-white communities that have a history of, if not eliminating them outright, at least making nonwhites unwelcome:
Most people, looking around their metropolitan area, perceive inner-city African American neighborhoods as "the problem." It then follows all too easily that African Americans themselves get perceived as the source of the problem. ... So whites generalize: blacks can't do anything right, can't even keep up their own neighborhoods. All African Americans get tarred by the obvious social problems of the inner city. For that matter, some ghetto residents themselves buy into the notion that they are the problem and act accordingly.

... It takes an exercise of the sociological imagination to problematize the sundown suburb. As one drives west from Chicago Avenue toward Oak Park, the problems of the Near Northwest neighborhood in Chicago are plain. Oak Park then presents its own problem: can it stay interracial, having gone from 0.2% African American in 1970 to 22.4% in 2000? The source of both problems lies not in Chicago Avenue in either city, however, but elsewhere -- in neighborhoods miles away that look great, such as Kenilworth, which in 2000 had not one black household among its 2,494 total population. Once one knows its manifestations, white supremacy is visible in Kenilworth, the sundown suburb, and in Near Northwest Chicago, and it is inferable in Oak Park as well. Lovely white enclaves such as Kenilworth withdraw resources disproportionately from the city. They encourage the people who run our corporations, many of whom live in them, not to see race as their problem. The prestige of these suburbs invites governmental officials to respond more rapidly to concerns of their residents, who are likely to be viewed as more important people than black inner-city inhabitants. And they make interracial suburbs such as Oak Park difficult to keep as interracial oases.

The chief dynamic driving this is a certain dishonesty on the part of many whites on the issue of race. Most people understand that racism is deeply stigmatized in our society -- "racist" is a negative, ugly word, and no one likes being accused of being one. But privately -- being the products of mostly white enclaves where the stereotypes on race, both negative for blacks and nonwhites, and contrastingly positive for whites, persist -- they cling to views that are most charitably explained as the end result of generations of ignorance.

We've seen vivid instances of this recently with the increasing openness of right-wing pundits at making racially incendiary remarks, rhetoric that plays out on the ground level in such "pranks" as the racist student party at Tarleton State in Dallas.

But these aren't "isolated" incidents; in fact, they more endemic than the rare publicity that arises in cases like the Tarleton party suggest. A recent study by a University of Dayton researcher found that this kind of behavior is actually becoming increasingly common among young people:
At a large Midwestern university, several white friends get together for drinks. One person makes a racial joke, another starts singing a song filled with derogatory words. A student makes a greeting card with the 'N-word' written on it and passes it around the room, despite objections from a few others. No one outside the group hears the banter or sees the card.

This scene comes courtesy of a student who participated in a scholarly study in which he was asked to observe conversations happening around him that involved race. In a forthcoming book, a researcher at the University of Dayton identifies hundreds of these journal entries describing what she considers to be racist conversations or events that are often tolerated when the white students are talking among themselves.

The results might help shed light on the controversial parties at numerous colleges that involved white students wearing blackface and dressing in stereotypical ghetto garb on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"What strikes me is how common these antics are and how casually students say the 'N-word'," said Leslie H. Picca, one of the book's co-authors and an assistant professor of sociology at Dayton. "What the MLK parties show is that there isn't an awareness among white students that their actions are problematic, even if black students aren’t around to hear.”

Picca's research shows that while many white students are prone to making derogatory comments in a "backstage" setting (a private gathering of friends), they are unlikely to start such a conversation when in a "frontstage" situation (a public setting where people of color might be present.) The research is featured in the book, "Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage," scheduled for release from Routledge Publishing in April.

Most whites like to claim that they eschew racism, and even justify their opposition to such programs as affirmative action on the dubious assertion that it constitutes a kind of "racial preference" that is the basis of racism itself. Yet their actions speak louder than their mere words, and the reality demonstrates that whenever blacks attempt to make whites their neighbors, the response is white flight to more "pristine" elite suburbs. Loewen observes [p. 389]:
The lengths some whites go to avoid African Americans is surprising. The seat of Forsyth County is 40 miles from Atlanta. In 2002, a newcomer relayed that when her family moved to the Atlanta area, "our realtor told us that if we did not like 'blacks' then Forsyth was the perfect place for us." Despite the distance, Forsyth County evolved from independent sundown county to sundown suburb before finally desegregating in the late 1990s. ...

White flight to sundown exurbs is a national problem. Forsyth County more than doubled in the 1990s, making it the second fastest-growing county in the country. While Forsyth is no longer flatly closed to African Americans, for every new black resident 100 new whites move in. Many of the other fast-growing counties share similar demographics, including Delaware County, 2.6% black, outside Columbus, Ohio; Pike County, Pennsylvania, 3.3% black, outside New York City; and Douglas County, 0.7% black, near Denver. The racial motivation behind this sprawl is clear, at least to Atlanta sociologist Robert Bullard: "That's not where people of color are."

The impulse to defend "white culture" by residential segregation has come surging to the forefront of the national consciousness with the immigration debate, which has proven, more than anything, to be a conduit for extremist thought into the mainstream of the national discourse. Probably the most prominent, and high-level, example of this is Patrick Buchanan and his race-baiting screed, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, which at its core is about reviving old eugenicist myths about race and whiteness, all couched in such terms as "defending white culture." This mindset, in fact, is infecting all levels of conservative discourse.

As I explained some time back:
This is why you can now hear Bill O'Reilly declaim on national television:

That's because the newspaper and many far-left thinkers believe the white power structure that controls America is bad, so a drastic change is needed.

According to the lefty zealots, the white Christians who hold power must be swept out by a new multicultural tide, a rainbow coalition, if you will. This can only happen if demographics change in America.

And then there's John Gibson:

First, a story yesterday that half of the kids in this country under five years old are minorities. By far, the greatest number 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.

... To put it bluntly, we need more babies. Forget about that zero population growth stuff that my poor generation was misled on. Why is this important? Because civilizations need population to survive. So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can't carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way -- a slogan for our times: "procreation not recreation."

As Alex Koppelman points out, this kind of rhetoric almost precisely mirrors the kind of talk popular with the eugenicists and white supremacists who whipped up anti-immigrant fervor against Asians a century ago:

Gibson's words, to be sure, are filled with the echoes of a dark past -- specifically, echoes of Madison Grant's landmark racist screed The Passing of the Great Race, once used to justify eugenics, and the use of quotas in setting American immigration policy. Grant, too, was concerned about immigrants doing more than their part to populate the country:

"[L]arge families among the newly arrived population are still the rule," Grant wrote back in 1916, "... The lowering of the birth rate among the most valuable classes, while the birth rate of the lower classes remains unaffected, is a frequent phenomenon of prosperity. Such a change becomes extremely injurious to the race if unchecked."

This fetish about the birth rates of brown people compared to white people has remained a constant of the white-supremacist set for all of the past century; it was a central component of Klan activity in the 1980s, and was the centerpiece of David Duke's political career beginning in the mid-'80s. As recently as 2000, he would write:

"We are fighting for the preservation of our heritage, freedom and way of life in the United States and much of the Western World. Ultimately, we are working to secure the most important civil right of all, the right to preserve our kind of life. Massive immigration and low European American birthrates coupled with integration and racial intermarriage threatens the continued existence of our very genotype. We assert that we, as do all expressions of life on this planet, have the right to live and to have our children and our children’s children reflect both genetically and culturally our heritage."

Likewise, the "English only" push, inextricably intertwined with racist immigrant-bashing, has been circulating on the extremist right for years. In recent years, the movement to create such a law attempted to pose itself as a legitimate organization called English USA, but it didn't take long for its racist roots to show:

In the 20 years since it was founded by anti-immigration activist John Tanton, U.S. English has billed itself as a well-meaning group that "promotes unity and empowers immigrants by encouraging them to learn English." But the organization, which lobbies to establish English as the official U.S. language, has not been able to steer clear of controversy, especially since one of Tanton's secret memos was leaked in 1988.

"In this society ... will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?" Tanton asked.

... James Lubinskas, who came on as director of communications for U.S. English last spring, had been the assistant editor or a contributing editor at American Renaissance, a magazine that promotes "scientific" racism, from 1998 until at least last October. He has spoken at least once at a conference of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens and has contributed frequent articles to that group's newsletter.

In 2000, Lubinskas shared a stage with former Klan leader David Duke at a gathering of another white-supremacist group, the American Friends of the British National Party -- a fact he denied in a letter to Washington Post columnist Terry Neal, who summarized the Southern Poverty Law Center's findings in an Aug. 13 article. At the same event, another fellow speaker was Sam van Rensburg, then a leading official of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.

The reason for the growing conservative embrace of these longtime appeals from the extremist right is simple: their power base is rapidly crumbling under the weight of the Bush administration's ineptitude, both at home and abroad.

Most importantly, it is losing chunks of its base of support over the immigration issue, particularly as far-right appeals (such as the "invasion" and "Reconquista" claims) gain broader circulation and popularity. Rather than stand up to this extremism, the White House approach has been to mollify it with empty gestures like placing overextended National Guardsmen on the border.

Over at Blogesque, Len examined Bush's speech carefully and observed that it resembled nothing so much as an old Nixonian "law and order" speech, the kind he gave as he adopted the "Southern Strategy":

Border security is an issue that undoubtedly needs to be addressed, but why is it suddenly such a big deal? Because it has been pushed to the forefront by a bunch of xenophobic nutjobs and their media enablers. Under pressure by the radical right, Bush's speechwriters loaded his address with carefully-selected framing, and Democrats need to be very careful not to just tapdance through that minefield.

On the streets of major cities, crowds have rallied in support of those in our country illegally. At our southern border, others have organized to stop illegal immigrants from coming in.

Bush implies that those who rallied, if not criminals themselves, are accomplices. He also implies that those who assemble homegrown border patrols are on the side of law and order.

... An appalling number of serious national security issues under this administration have been marked by gross incompetence and opportunistic cronyism. What could possibly make people think they can get this right? Bush's embrace of the issue is merely an attempt to change the subject from his disastrous Iraq war and its attendant executive overreaches. If Bush wants to put the National Guard on the border but the National Guard is already overextended, is it so difficult to open the discussion about why they're overextended? Despite what the pundits and the strategists would have us believe, the war in Iraq has been consistently unpopular since early 2004.

Len calls this Bush's "Southwestern Strategy," though he points out that the term was actually coined by Mario at Nuestra Voice last year, in a post that was truly prescient:

The "Southern Strategy" used code words and phrases to deliver its racist anti-African American message to bigots. The GOP was able to hide its play to the lower selves of white southerners with the words "quotas", "crime", and "welfare queens". The words may have been precise but the message was broad. The word was "crime" but the image was African American men. The phrase was "Welfare Queen" but the message was about African American women. The word was "quota" but the message was keep them out of "our" schools.

In the "Southwestern Strategy" the words are about immigrants. It may be the border that is being 'patroled' by "minute men" but we all know that it is an attack on our community in general. The words may be "border risk" and "illegal invasion" but the "Southwestern Strategy" plays at the meta level like the "Southern Strategy" and the idea is Latinos, all of us legal or not, are not welcome.

The important thing to understand about the Southern Strategy is that, while originally geared toward Southern whites, it actually proved quite resonant in other places as well -- particularly the rural and suburban Midwestern and Western states.

Digby, springboarding from a Paul Glastris piece from 2005, examined this in some detail the other day:

This article points out that one of the big reasons for this new obsession with the evils of illegals is that the migration pattern has changed: many are settling in towns that never saw any latinos before. The culture shock is disturbing to people who aren't used to hearing Tejano music and seeing burrito stands crop up in their neighborhoods. And it's not just that they are settling in regions that are unfamiliar --- it's that they are settling in smaller towns which are by definition less cosmopolitan. This is new for them.

And, because all these things are happening in smaller towns in the south it is evoking certain anxieties and knee jerk reactions among some people --- and panic among business owners and others who are desperate to keep migrant workers in the labor pool or lose what they have. Culture meets economic necessity in places like Kentucky and it isn't an easy problem to solve.

Indeed, the Latino migration is occurring in many precincts that, historically, were all-white by design, as Loewen's work demonstrates in excruciating detail. Most of the "sundown towns" that Loewen documents were in the Midwest and West -- the same places where we're hearing complaints about a "Mexican invasion" now.

These same "sundown towns" have, unsurprisingly, a history of following racial election appeals, including broad support for George Wallace in 1968, and Republican presidential candidates in the ensuing years, as Loewen notes, all of whom made use of the Southern Strategy's core appeal to white racial interests:
As a result of such leadership, Republicans have carried most sundown towns since 1968, sometimes achieving startling unaninimity. ... So the "southern strategy" turned out to be a "southern and sundown town strategy," especially in sundown suburbs. Macomb County, for example, the next county north of Detroit, voted overwhelmingly for Wallace in the 1972 Democratic primary. Wooed by Nixon, many of these voters then became "Reagan Democrats" and now are plain Republicans. The biggest single reason, according to housing attorney Alexander Polikoff, was anxiety about "blacks trapped in ghettos trying to penetrate white neighborhoods." [pp.372-373]

The core appeal of the Southern Strategy, as even the GOP admits now, was all about protecting white privilege, and so its reach ran well beyond the South. The same is true of the newly emerging conservative "Southwestern Strategy" -- and it is one that may similarly cut across regional and even party lines.

The lion's share of this is a product of the nativists' appeal to the notion that "white culture" is under assault from an "invasion" of brown people. The chief complaint is focused, predictably, on immigration laws -- the same immigration laws whose cornerstones are the anti-Asian agitation of the early 20th century, when it was assumed that the "alien" Asians could never become "real Americans."

So from the nativist contingent we mainly hear about the "illegal" status of these new immigrants from Latin America. "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" is one of the Minutemen's favorite T-shirt slogans.

To which the appropriate response is: "What part of 'bad law' don't you understand?"

The bottom line in the immigration debate is that current immigration law -- as well as the proposals being floated by the Tancredo wing of the Republican Party (including James Sensenbrenner) -- is inadequate for dealing with the realities forced on us by economic forces which no amount of border fence and no mass expulsions will overcome. As I explained before, there are two forces driving the current wave of emigration: 1) a massive wage and standard-of-living gap between the United States and its immediate and most populous neighbor, and 2) the increasing demand for cheap labor in the United States.

Stressing that these immigrants' status as "illegal" begs the whole question of whether the laws on the books are adequate or just. They just create a whole class of criminals out of people who come here to work, and the latter has always been the driving force in immigration throughout our history.

But the nativists don't care. They like simple solutions. It's easier to blame the poverty-stricken pawns in this economic game, and take their anger out on them, than to deal with the core problems. What they're interested in is a scapegoat. After all, that's what they do. They identify "the problem," and then set out to eliminate it.

Constantly shouting "illegals!" furthers the nativists' aims by separating these people from the rest of us: they're non-citizens, and thus by extension almost non-entities. Perhaps even non-human. And thus the underlying eliminationism comes floating to the surface.

You could hear it, for instrance, in the right-wing blogger (wouldn't you know it, another of those "reformed liberals" who now claims that he and his "Red State" kind represent the real America). In a post decrying those "illegal aliens," he compared them to rats:
We can learn from Buffalo, New York. Now in Buffalo the rat problem in the city was a huge one. Exterminators could not handle the problem. But then in 2001 the city mandated that everyone would have to begin using special anti-rat garbage totes that the rats could not open. With no way to get to the garbage, the rats left Buffalo. Now, they went to the suburbs and now the suburbs are fighting them. But it is no longer a problem for the people of Buffalo, New York. Here is how to do the same with our problem:

1) No services.

Absolutely no services of any kind for those who cannot prove they are in the country legally. Nothing but emergency medical care. Without all the social services, medical and other services provided for them, the illegals will find life here less attractive.

2) No schools.

Absolutely no schooling for anyone who cannot prove they belong here legally.

3) No easy birthright.

Change the law. Now, if you are born here, you are a citizen. I say, if you cannot prove that you were born here and that your mother was here legally at the time, then your citizenship is that of the mother and not of the USA.

4) No legal status. No drivers licenses. No bank accounts. No ability to sue a citizen. No legal standing for anyone who is in this country illegally.

5) No free lunch for "The Man".

Make it a criminal offense (and enforce it if it is already on the books) to hire an illegal alien, or to rent a dwelling place to him, or to sell him a home knowing that he intends to live there. Make employers provide documentation for all of their workers. You put the onus on "The Man" and it suddenly becomes less appealing to take advantage of the illegals.


Anyone familiar with eliminationist rhetoric recognizes this motif: compare the object of elimination with vermin, and then describe the steps you need to take to "exterminate" them.

Indeed, the "rats" comparison has a particularly ugly history: it was, after all, one of the most effective pieces of imagery in film created by Nazi propagandists in drumming up hatred of Jews, as Richard Webster explained in describing the film Der Ewige Jude, which Webster notes "formed part of a propaganda programme designed to justify to the German people the deportations of Jews which were already taking place, included a powerful montage sequence in which Jews were compared to rats. In the words of the commentary, 'rats ... have followed men like parasites from the very beginning ... They are cunning, cowardly and fierce, and usually appear in large packs. In the animal world they represent the element of subterranean destruction.' Having noted that rats spread disease and destruction, the commentary suggested that they occupied a position 'not dissimilar to the place that Jews have among men'. At this point in the film, footage of rats squirming through sewers is followed first by the image of a rat crawling up through a drain-cover into the street and then by shots of Jewish people crowded together in ghettos."
There is, of course, nothing intrinsically anti-semitic (or racist) about the image of the rat. However, presenting images of Jews as unclean insects or rodents was perhaps the most effective way not only of arousing and confirming anti-semitic hatred but of directly inciting physical violence by stirring some of people's deepest fears and anxieties. The same idea was used in 'instant' propaganda exercises to prepare for mass murder. According to one account, peasants recruited by the Germans in occupied countries in order to help in mass murders were given an intensive training course which lasted only a few hours, and which consisted in the study of pictures representing Jews as small repulsive beasts (Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1949, p. 54)

It also has a history of use in America, particularly in immigration and race debates. Recall, for instance, that James Phelan, a U.S. Senator from California, made nearly identical attacks upon Japanese immigrants. Phelan was urging the passage of immigration restrictions and "alien land laws" that stripped immigrants of the right to own land, and whipping up fears that the West Coast would (thanks to those evil "picture brides" and their progeny) soon be overrun by "yellow people," when he explained it thus:
The rats are in the granary. They have gotten in under the door and they are breeding with alarming rapidity. We must get rid of them or lose the granary.

It's also been used in recent years to demonize gays and lesbians.

Fortunately, the blogger in question seems to be extremely obscure, with limited influence. But it's interesting to see the "vermin" motif popping up increasingly in discussions of illegal immigration, particularly paired with discussions of rounding up and deporting all illegal aliens.

After all, it's not just obscure bloggers doing this. It includes guys like Michael Savage, who claims millions of listeners, and says, with great regularity, things like this:
"If you take to the streets with the vermin who are trying to dictate to us how we should run America, even though they're not even entitled to vote or be here, you're going to be thrown out of office."

Likewise, you're hearing a lot of talk about rounding up and deporting all illegal aliens. But you don't hear any of them telling us how they intend to achieve this --despite the fact that we're talking about 11 million people and, without question, one of the pillars of an economy increasingly built on cheap labor.

You can hear this not just from organizations like VDare -- rated a "hate group" by the SPLC but endorsed by Michelle Malkin and many others -- but also from people with real influence and power, like Newt Gingrich and James Sensenbrenner.

The result has been a surfeit of Nativists from every corner of the country, each taking part in a general tide of eliminationist sentiment directed, once again, at "illegal immigrants." You can see the crest of this tide in the demand, from the likes of Michelle Malkin and the VDare crowd, for the immediate arrest and deportation of the millions of illegal immigrants currently in the country.

Nevermind, of course, that a substantial portion of these "illegals" are the spouses and parents of legal immigrants and citizens; nevermind that deporting them means breaking up families; and nevermind that these same "conservatives" talk out of the other side of the mouths, rather loudly, about "family values" and "preserving the family." One of the more pernicious anti-immigrant groups, in fact, calls itself (in classic right-wing Newspeak) "Families First on Immigration." Nor should we mind any concerns that in the process, we'll be forced to recreate the nightmare of American concentration camps.

No, what matters is "defending white culture." Thus, as surely as flies follow shit, we've been seeing an increase in hate crimes against immigrants in places like Georgia:
The official census numbers say Georgia's Hispanic population climbed 300% in the 1990s, adding up to 435,000 newcomers; demographers say the real number, counting illegal immigrants, is probably twice as high, and climbing. And like California before it, the state has become an epicenter for radical anti-immigration activism.

Immigration into other Southeastern states has generated low-level controversy and occasional outbursts of anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Georgia, many of the allegations are familiar: higher crime rates, littered streets, gang activity, millions spent on health care and education for "illegals."

But the backlash here has been unusually fierce. At first, the resistance was scattered, mostly taking the form of police crackdowns — arresting day laborers for loitering -- and old-fashioned racial rhetoric.

In the formerly homogenous town of Chamblee, just north of Atlanta, white residents began complaining as early as 1992 about the "terrible, filthy people" standing on their street corners. At a town council meeting, one official infamously suggested that residents set bear traps in their yards to keep the Hispanics at bay. Another councilman wondered aloud whether Chamblee whites should form a vigilante group to scare off the immigrants.

... To immigrant-rights activists like Tisha Tillman, Southeast regional director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the hate crimes in Canton show just how deep a chord these groups' messages are striking.

"The kids who committed these crimes had grown up listening to people saying that Hispanic people were lower forms of life," she says. "We know what kind of effect that rhetoric has. Day laborers are the canaries in the coal mines for immigrant communities -- they're out there, exposed, as visible symbols of the community. When they're being targeted, you know there's something seriously wrong."

This is the nature of the eliminationist beast: It begins with rhetoric, and then becomes endorsed by officialdom, all of which combine to give permission for action. When right-wing pundits bandy this kind of talk, they're giving sanction to violence, and voice to the darkest side of the American psyche.

Next: The Human Legacy

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