Many years ago while speaking at a large southern university, a white student in one of my audiences asked why, if the South were really so racist, black folks seemed to be moving back to the region in such large numbers?
Indeed, he was right about the trend: in a reversal of the Great Migration of the early 1900s, the last few years of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st have witnessed the substantial movement of African Americans from the North, Midwest, and West back to the South whence so many of their forbears came.
Although his premise was itself flawed — after all, I had never claimed the South was uniquely racist (far from it), and as a southerner, I’ve long known better and said so — the question itself was easy to answer. It’s the answer that most any black person would have offered had he asked them, which he had never apparently thought to do.
Simple, I explained: Sometimes it’s just easier to deal with the racism you know — the kind that doesn’t come with pretense or liberal denial or protestations of greater enlightenment. Southern racism isn’t fancied up or often camouflaged. It’s raw and unambiguous. Northern versions — and God knows the versions one finds in places like Portland, Seattle, or the Bay Area — come with so many layers of defensiveness and cloying assurances of progressivism that they can be smothering. Sometimes it’s just better to know where you stand.
Shorter version: if you’re going to deal with racists, sometimes it’s best if they’re just racists rather than being both racists and liars.
The same is true when it comes to the immigration debate. I have far more respect for the David Dukes of the world who say they seek a border wall and deportations to maintain a white majority than I do for those who insist their nativism is devoid of racial antipathy and stems solely from concern about the legality or “illegality” of migrants to the nation. And the reason is simple: David Duke may be a Nazi, but he’s not a prevaricator as to motivation. Those who say racism plays no role in their opposition to immigration, however, are, almost without exception.
And I prefer my bigots straight up, no chaser. They’re easier to deal with, easier to expose, and far easier to defeat.
Anti-Immigrant Sentiment is Not About “Following the Rules”
Of course, when you suggest that opposition to immigration from Mexico or Central America is really about deep-seated racial hostility and a desire to maintain white hegemony, many are quick to deny it.
“We’re not against immigration or immigrants,” they insist, “we just think they should come the right way, legally, like our ancestors did.”
But of course, this line of argument is both historically absurd and insincere. As for what “our” (presumably European) ancestors did: to give them a pat on the back for having “come legally” ignores the fact that for most of American history there were no laws preventing their entry, and thus no laws to break.
Thanks to the Naturalization Act of 1790, which made “all free white persons and only free white persons” citizens of the U.S., pretty much immediately, there was virtually no way for them to have come illegally even had they been so inclined. To praise the law-abidingness of people who didn’t break a law that didn’t even exist is self-evidently preposterous.
And frankly, looking back on our ancestors, ask yourself: If there had been laws prohibiting their entry, and yet, they had been close enough to come to the U.S. anyway, do we really think they would have refrained from doing so, even as they sought to escape persecution and destitution, just because they wouldn’t want to break the law? Surely not. They would have done the same thing as current immigrants; the law be damned.
But more to the point, the argument about legal versus illegal immigration is fundamentally disingenuous, because concerns about the legal status of new migrants are not even remotely what bothers anti-immigrant forces.
Don’t believe me? Fine, feel free to test it.
Ask one of these folks who claim that they wouldn’t mind Mexicans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans coming, so long as they come legally if they would support streamlining the application process, so as to make it easier for such persons to do just that?
If they are so compassionate and willing to welcome these newcomers to the U.S., so long as their entry is above-board, then why not advocate immigration reform that would make it easier for them to come in a documented fashion? Significantly ease the process, simplify the paperwork, and slash the wait times for so-called legal migration, so that persons wishing to come to the U.S. would have no reason to risk their lives crossing the border, or being trafficked by charlatans taking advantage of desperate families, because they could come legally in a quick, efficient and safe manner.
Legality and illegality, after all, is not a function of some immutable characteristic of immigrants themselves; it is merely a function of how the law defines legality, how complicated legal immigration is made, and how the law is enforced. If migration were made easy enough, few would cross the border undocumented. There would be no need to do so.
If all that bothered the new restrictionists were the legal status of those coming to the country, then they would presumably support such policy changes, promote immigration liberalization, and put away their angry rhetoric. That they don’t recommend anything like this — not one among them — betrays their real motivations quite clearly.
Further demonstrating that it is the ethnicity of immigrants that concerns them and not their legal status, note that few in the anti-immigration crowd demonstrate any real worry over the millions of persons currently in the country “illegally” who merely overstayed otherwise valid visas.
At least 4 in 10 of the currently undocumented in the U.S. fit this description. In other words, they did not cross any border lacking proper documentation. They came legally, either as students or workers, and remained after their visas expired. And why might they be less concerned about such “illegals” as these? It seems fair to conclude that the disproportionate whiteness of many of them — students, workers or visitors from Europe or Canada — might have more than a little to do with it.
Ultimately, anti-immigrant sentiment is motivated by an implicit form of white nationalism, which holds that “real Americans” are white and that all others are interlopers, or at least lesser Americans than we who hail from Europe. To them, brown is the problem.
Misremember When: The Truth About European Immigration
The other way in which the new nativists seek to deny the racist motivations of their xenophobic stance is by insisting that their concerns have nothing to do with race or culture, per se, and everything to do with the supposed misuse of public resources. Current migrants, they claim, simply have different and less salutary motivations for coming here than prior waves of immigrants. It’s not that they’re brown but that their mindset is different.
According to the narrative of the new white nativists, our ancestors came in search of freedom and liberty — in other words, on the basis of deeply-held values and principles — while today’s migrants are only coming for stuff: jobs or health care or other public benefits that they don’t pay for the way citizens do, via taxation.
Putting aside the fact that undocumented migrants do not receive more in public benefits than they pay in taxes, nor have much impact on the employment picture for native-born workers, the larger function of this argument is to place new immigrants in some kind of alternative moral universe. In such a place, not only is their material impact called into question; so too their very motivations and ethics, which are then found lacking relative to our own and those of our predecessors.
Framed this way, past immigration can retain its specialness, its mythic status as a movement of persons yearning to be free of the yoke of foreign oppression and can be separated from any purely selfish motivations, like the desire for land or riches.
To believe that one’s ancestors just wanted freedom while someone else just wants a job (as if being able to support one’s family didn’t also help purchase a certain kind of freedom), is to elevate one’s own forbears in some hierarchical pyramid of moral value. It is to suggest that while naked self-interest is what motivates Mexicans, we plucky Anglos (or Irish, or Germans, or whatever) had (and have) more high-minded concerns.
Yet this hagiographic remembrance of the Euro-American past is utterly without merit. As James Baldwin explained in 1963:
What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really seem to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts.
In other words, the ancestors of those of us from Europe, and in each generation of migrants to these shores, were the losers of their respective societies: they were desperate, they were hungry, they were, in short, coming here for stuff no less so than the family from Juarez or Tegucigalpa or Guatemala City today.
The principle is not what drove them; empty bellies were quite enough. Freedom was their touchstone perhaps, but mostly insofar as one could not be substantively free so long as one could not feed one’s family. The winners didn’t leave the places where they were winning, and why would they? If one were doing well in the old world, why would one choose to get on a boat with one’s kith and kin and take to the high seas in search of a new start? No indeed, the winners stayed put, while the losers climbed aboard and made the journey.
And this is no calumny upon their character, but quite the opposite; it is meant to indicate the fundamental commonality between us and those we have deemed the dreaded other. It is to suggest that in our failure to understand our own history — and especially the fact that none of our ancestors actually wanted to come here either — we build a wall between ourselves and current migrants that prevents us from acting on the basis of human compassion, the way most would if we could see ourselves in the other.
By believing that our families’ dreams were fundamentally different and more valid than those of Latinx migrants, we perpetuate a dehumanization that ensures cruelty towards persons whose motivations to come here are largely the same as those that drove our ancestors.
The fact is, few people in history have ever really wished to leave their countries of origin. No one likes to move. For the most part, whether here or anywhere else, whether in this era or any other, migration patterns are driven by desperation. Most of us would prefer to be able to make it, to survive, to thrive, to support ourselves and our families right where we live, without having to pack up and go to some new place, where we will be forced to start all over again.
And surely no one would willingly subject themselves to the hostility and outright hatred being thrown in the faces of today’s immigrants, all for the sake of emergency medical care and a slot in a frankly underfunded public school. But sadly, that is what they are being subjected to, by persons too beholden to their own founding mythology to realize that insofar as we treat newcomers like permanent outsiders, we spit on the memories of our own forbears, so many of whom wanted the same thing as desperate families today.
At the very least, if we are going to spit upon them, can we at least have the decency to own the motivation behind the expectoration? To not insult the intelligence of those we demean by pretending it’s about something else? Because it’s bad enough to be a racist. It’s infinitely worse to be a racist who isn’t even honest enough to admit what they are.
I’m an antiracism educator/author. I Facebook & tweet @timjacobwise, podcast at Speak Out With Tim Wise & post bonus content at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise
This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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