A recent internet posting declared that it’s not about being against immigrants. It is about doing things legally. Illegal immigrants are as if someone sneaked into your house through a basement window, crept up the stairs into the kitchen, and yelled FEED ME! It went on to demand that others stop distorting the facts. All the writer wanted is for the government to enforce existing laws.
It sounds perfectly reasonable to some, and racist to others. Why? The key is in its construction. It’s a parable bracketed by two reasonable statements: Do things legally; Enforce existing laws. That makes a lot of sense, and all the more to those who believe that law and order, as a fundament condition of a stable prosperous society, has been severely weakened. In between is the parable about a home invader sneaking up on a home owner and demanding loudly to be fed. The request to stop distorting facts implies that the parable accurately describes what the facts are. Does it? In certain places and circumstances it might, but not in the full scheme of things where study after study demonstrates that immigrants, legal and illegal, add to the economy without burdening it. Those macro findings are not believable to people living in communities where immediate conditions say otherwise. Nor are they believable to a large number of the population who choose to disbelieve them because they have heard stories about the hordes of illegals filling hospitals, schools, and jails, demanding welfare, not paying taxes, and they believe them to be the greater truth. No amount of proving otherwise is likely to change their minds.
Is the post racist? The parable sounds very racist to many of us. Why? It shows no regard for circumstances and conditions that lead people to escape in hope of a better life elsewhere. It shows no regard for the complicated, nearly unworkable, processes for legal immigration. It shows no awareness of the reality of undocumented family members for whom this is the only homeland they have every known. It shows no awareness that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for government aid programs, yet are required to pay income and social security taxes – unless they work for unscrupulous employers who keep them off the books. In that case it is the employer cheating all of us. It shows no attempt at any humanitarian compassion. It appears to open the door to indiscriminate acts of discrimination against anyone suspected of having the wrong name, wrong color, wrong accent.
Is it racist to agree with the post? Not necessarily. But it does indicate a blindness to the systemic racism tightly woven into the fabric of American life. The immigration issue gets further complicated by the violent corruption infecting too many of the nations to our south. Our temptation is to want to address complicated problems with overly simple explanations of them. That doesn’t mean simple solutions are not in order, only that simple explanations lead to wrong solutions. However, I’m digressing. There is something in us that resists charges of personal racism, and that does not want to face the reality of systemic racism. In the first instance, unless one is an unrepentant supremacist proud of one’s racism, even the suggestion that one might be racist be is like being scolded by some self righteous jerk demanding confession of a guilt that can never be forgiven or erased. Who wants that? In the second instance, an examination of systemic racism forces us to exam the uncomfortable historical truths of a system rigged in favor of white people (men in particular) over all others. It’s a truth that has been hidden behind treasured myths about who we are as Americans, and some of us don’t want to give up those myths. It’s painful to admit that our ancestors were wrong in some of what they did. It isn’t helped by those who appear to want the current generation to magically change the past. We certainly don’t want to repeat the past, but neither can we change it. Confronting it with honesty is important, but we can only go forward, we can’t go backward.
Here are two suggestions. First, stop scolding. It doesn’t do any good. It just makes stubborn people more stubborn, malleable people more malleable, and the rest of us angrily muddled. Second, let the marginalized and losers in history books correct the record without half of us taking umbrage and the other half moralizing with finger pointing contempt. Then we have a chance to set a new course together. No doubt future generations will chastise us for getting it wrong, but it will be the best we can do with what we have.