Immigration and Racism

[17 May 2010]

By Rob Horning

While I was on vacation, I took a several-hour train trip from Vienna to Prague and spent the ride in a compartment with a genial group of elderly Australians who were in the midst of three-month European odyssey. They pleasantly taught us some basic geographic facts about Australia, some quirky expressions they use (e.g., “fair dinkum”), some vagaries about its political system, and the history of their country’s participation in the World Wars and so on. And they also blithely dispensed some details about Australia’s aboriginal people and the Muslim presence across Asia that seemed shockingly racist to our American ears. Apparently the aboriginals are a “stone-age” people who “can’t be trusted no matter what” because they will “rob you every time”. At some point during the trip, “political correctness” was obligatorily mentioned and laughed at as if it, rather than broad stereotyping, was a sign of blinkered pettiness and small-mindedness.

It had me wondering whether America should actually be proud of their accomplishments on the “political correctness” front. Americans are certainly no slouches when it comes to racism, but most of the Americans I spend any time with (not in any way a representative sample) are so acutely conscious and embarrassed about the legacy of slavery and the omnipresent inequalities between blacks and whites in the U.S. that they are typically circumspect about expressing racist views, even if they secretly believe them at some level. It is difficult for me to imagine white Americans casually telling total strangers on a train about how blacks are. But it’s indicative of the general situation that I had to remember after the fact to insert the word “white” in the previous sentence to modify “Americans.” I like to think an integral part of the American Dream is the idea that humans can overcome their tribalist instincts to form inclusive units of community, unified by ethical beliefs about respect and equality rather than by blood and tradition. But after the Arizona law, and the general public’s indifference about it, I am starting to doubt that most Americans see it that way.

What’s happening on the immigration front makes it clear that white America’s sense of entitlement, its belief that only they are the “real Americans” (though in fact they are lapsed Europeans) hasn’t gone away. Anti-immigration commentators may occasionally try to spin their resentment of brown-skinned non-English-speaking people as based on economic concerns (“Mexicans stealing our jobs”) but as this Factcheck.org study (via Matt Yglesias) shows, legal and illegal immigration doesn’t hurt American workers in general.

Study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs. There is even broad agreement among economists that while immigrants may push down wages for some, the overall effect is to increase average wages for American-born workers.

Kevin Drum, here, citing this story by Chris Hayes, points out that such explanations don’t motivate political action. John Tanton, the immigration activist Hayes profiles, explains that appeals to “identity” turned out to work much better than rational arguments rooted in economics. Thus the respectable-sounding economic arguments end up serving as ideological cover for the real motive force behind anti-immigration sentiment, the fear among some white Americans that they will lose their ability to guarantee a better life for themselves and their offspring on the sheer basis of their skin color. In their near-explicit race hatred, the anti-immigrant zealots reveal what lurks behind the platitudes of democracy and equal opportunity that many Americans espouse as official ideology: the conviction that American society’s institutions justify their existence by protecting white American privilege, by defining “authentic” American identity in specific terms as white and Christian. And if institutions begin to fail to promote and preserve such an identity, they lose their legitimacy in the eyes of certain whites (c.f., the Tea Party activists and “birthers” who question the legitimacy of the state that has “betrayed” the volk), who at that point would not hesitate to throw ideals of democracy and equality and opportunity on the bonfire. Hayes notes Tanton’s repeated use an invasive species upsetting an ecosystem as a metaphor for immigration. It’s very telling—from such a view, humans are not free individuals able to travel and settle the world as they see fit, but are instead members of a species who should stay in their particular petri dish. It’s of a piece with the conservative ideal of stable, immobile communities in which every person knows his or her immutable place in the hierarchy.

Australia, incidentally, long limited immigration to whites and had no qualms about such a policy until very recently. I wonder if that had anything to do with the attitudes my friends on the train were willing to espouse.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/125727-immigration-and-racism/