Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why Arizona SB 1070 Is Wrong

Last month, Arizona passed a new law, SB 1070. This bill was signed by the Republican right-wing governor, Jan Brewer. She’s Palin’s new best buddy, which tells you everything you need to know about her. The law states that people must carry documents with them at all times to prove they are legal residents. Officers who don’t do this can be sued by private citizens. Brewer et al claim that this will not lead to racial profiling. It’s hard to see the new law as anything other than racial profiling. Proponents of the law claim that you can tell who’s a citizen by the shoes they wear, for instance. SB 1070 is a legal mandate for racism, and is mean-spirited.

America is a country of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty invites everyone to come and seek freedom. Despite this open invitation, our country has a history of racism and nativism. The country was created on the twin crimes of ethnic cleansing and slavery. It must be noted that French, English, and even Spanish settlers did marginally better than Americans in their interactions with first nations. The United States has had no qualms about breaking treaties, claiming land, and massacring native Americans. African immigrants were brought forcibly to this country, and enslaved. This is our past, our heritage. As more English and German settlers came to this country, there were backlashes against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In 1880, for instance, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law defined Chinese, and eventually other Asians, as a distinct, inferior race. Chinese immigrants could not become citizens, and in many parts of the country, notably California, could not own land. The 19th century was the time when the concept of “race” was created. Jews were seen as subhuman. The concept of “moron” came in to existence, and people of certain ancestries were considered stupid and impossible to educate. When the IQ test was invented, the basic Stanford test, it was used to bar immigrants to this country. A patrol of female bureaucrats waited on Ellis Island to deny entry to those they thought were “morons”, based on a visual inspection. Others were given the Stanford test. Since most didn’t speak English, they didn’t do well on the exam. Nativist hysteria culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, which mandated limited quotas of immigrants of despised ethnicities. American eugenics was in full swing.

Jews were the target of much of the racist anxiety. In France, writers like de Gobineau and Chauvin (from whom we get the term “chauvinism”) considered race prejudice scientific. Jewish immigrants were eventually barred from disembarking in New York City, and were sent to Galveston instead. It was believed they would assimilate faster there. Newspapers like the New York Times blamed Jews for slums and illiteracy. They were thus guilty of living in the circumstances society proscribed.

America’s past informs the current immigration debate. This country has a history of racism and discrimination. Leave it to a bunch of old white folks in Arizona, and elsewhere, to revive the same stereotypes of the Other. (As an old white guy, I can freely call them out.) Everything Jan Brewer and Sarah Palin say about Mexican workers was said of Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Polish immigrants. Immigrants are stupid, lazy, violent. Same racism, different day.

Eleven cities are boycotting Arizona, and hopefully others will follow suit. No doubt the country needs immigration reform, and that is a complicated topic. Racism has to be taken out of the discussion, or reform can’t happen. SB 1070 inserts prejudice into the debate, and must be seen for what it is, namely, legally sanctioned discrimination.

America’s racist past must be acknowledged. But history isn’t destiny. Fortunately, we live in a country where we can express opinions on this law. When you look without, you are also obligated to look within. To say that we are “colorblind,” or that we “don’t have a racist bone” is not realistic. Growing up in this society, we have ingrained racist attitudes. It’s important to eradicate the racism within.

The insidious thing about SB 1070 is that it purports to address immigration issues, but instead condones racism. It’s an issue that calls us to examine the history of our country, as well as inner prejudice. By doing this, maybe, just maybe, we can move towards the world imagined by John Lennon when he sang “imagine there was no country… nothing to live or die for, and no religion, too…”

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