I’m heading home tomorrow, after being on the road for a couple of weeks, during which Arizona’s new and frightening anti-immigrant legislation was being passed, triggering vast and vastly appalled protest. I am glad to see from news photos that the scope of May Day protests exceeded expectations, but the photos also seem to say that those from communities most directly affected by anti-immigration laws made up the bulk of protesters.
Marching in the streets isn’t the only way to speak out. The tide can be turned when a sufficient number of people of goodwill, especially those who have no direct stake in the specific controversy, stand up for human rights and social inclusion by writing letters and op-eds, engaging neighbors in conversation, making art about the issues, educating other members of their own communities, and countless other actions. I am glad when I see black and white people—whose families may have been here for generations (voluntarily or not)—take public stands on this issue, which adds to the general understanding of how basic human rights, not special interests, are at stake.
It reminds me of a time I was part of a presentation on the cultural price of racism at an arts conference in the Midwest. A young African American man approached the other presenter and myself after the session ended.
“That’s a great gimmick you guys have there,” he said.
“Gimmick?” we asked.
“You know,” he explained, “being white and talking about racism.”
That was more than twenty years ago, but the degree to which it is still a “gimmick”—an oddity, a rare event—shames us all. That’s why I’m glad to see a couple of recent statements making the rounds. If you haven’t already seen it, check out Tim Wise’s essay on RedRoom.com entitled “Imagine: Protest, Insurgency and the Workings of White Privilege.” In measured tones, he creates a hypothetical, asking the reader to speculate about the likely reaction should the recent excesses of the Tea Partiers and their ilk have been performed instead by people of color, for instance:
Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters–the black protesters–spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government. Would these protesters–these black protesters with guns–be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.
That’s also why I was glad to see Frank Rich’s interesting column in today’s New York Times. Historically, anti-immigrant movements arise at times of economic stress, when personal prejudices are whipped into public campaigns by demagogues who want to ensure the continuity of their own privilege and power. The current version seems to offer a slightly new wrinkle. Rich describes how the rise of the Tea Parties’ “Take Back America” movement has granted permission for public bigotry to Republicans courting that angry white segment of voters. He makes the increasingly obvious point that as racism against people of color rises, so does the determined denial of its existence:
In this Alice in Wonderland inversion of reality, it’s politically incorrect to entertain a reasonable suspicion that race may be at least a factor in what drives an action like the Arizona immigration law. Any racism in America, it turns out, is directed at whites. Beck called Obama a “racist.” Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor a “Latina woman racist.” When Obama put up a routine YouTube video calling for the Democratic base to mobilize last week — which he defined as “young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women” — the Republican National Committee attacked him for playing the race card. Presumably the best defense is a good offense when you’re a party boasting an all-white membership in both the House and the Senate and represented by governors who omit slavery from their proclamations of Confederate History Month.
Some people say that a tacit moratorium was imposed on acknowledging racism during the Obama campaign, a measured silence that was presumed to smooth an African American candidate’s path to the Oval Office. You could even argue that if it was a conscious tactic, it worked: if more had been made of race, perhaps many Americans’ racism would have surfaced in response, causing Obama to lose the election. But now, more than a year later, we are paying a very high price. Our national conversation has retracted to the point where the right wing is allowed to co-opt the term “racist” to describe advocates of racial equality and most of the rest of us don’t talk about it all.
It was especially surreal, this last week or so, to be working with dedicated community artists, talking with them about how to handle the anti-immigrant feeling that arises in communities when a newcomer group asserts its right to be visible in the public arena, as by the creation of a mural or festival. Often, those who resist such assertions of cultural heritage are themselves descended from immigrants, although the irony of doing unto others the harm that has been done to your own ancestors rarely figures into the conversation.
Each such situation appears distinct in scope, in consequences, in specifics and details. But at heart, they are all the same. If it possible to inspire longtime citizens to empathy for those oppressed by such policies, that is the best course, because it educates even as it advances justice. And if it is not, then those who embrace justice tempered by love must make ourselves known as an unbreachable majority, prevailing despite objections.
A few years, I had the opportunity to address public cultural officials in Sant Boi, a town near Barcelona that was a stronghold of Catalan culture against the repressive forces of the Franco regime, which aimed to eradicate a heritage strongly associated with political resistance to fascism. Not long before I visited, the first Catalan constitution guaranteeing cultural rights had been introduced, the Statute of Autonomy. New immigrants were arriving from Latin America in large numbers, and quite a few long-time Catalan nationalists were resistant to what they saw as a dilution of their own embattled culture and heritage.
I will leave you with a few paragraphs from my talk, which casts the choice as doing the right thing willingly or gruntingly:
Your situation is…complicated by a conflicted relationship with Spain, which might be symbolized by the question of whether Catalonia is its own nation (nacion) or a nationality (nationalidad) within the Spanish nation. There is a painful history of cultural suppression before the restoration of democracy, and I imagine that creates an intricate ambivalence, a simultaneous desire to be connected and to be protective.
So in a sense, the tangled relationship between Catalonia and Spain mirrors the tangled feelings that arise between new, non-Catalan immigrants and those who feel protective of Catalan cultural heritage. This is undeniably challenging: it is natural to want to protect what you have, especially if it has been threatened. Yet if the predominant social atmosphere is one of suspicion and resistance, the result is perpetual alienation and conflict, escalating fear and mistrust.
You have a very difficult and noble task, which is to behave toward newcomers to your community as you wish others beyond Sant Boi to behave toward you: with respect and a spirit of inclusion, recognizing and appreciating differences within a presumption of equality. In your jobs within the municipal cultural sector, your responsibility is to maintain an overview, a larger perspective than that of a single individual looking only at his or her own feelings and circumstances. You have a great opportunity to extend a hand in both directions: to people who have been here for generations and feel threatened by newcomers; and to newcomers who fear that they are unwelcome. This is a challenge, but it is a worthy one. It reflects the cultural policy of Catalonia: as the Statute of Autonomy says: “the only truly free country is the one in which each individual may live and freely express different identities without any hierarchical or dependent relationship between them.”
I said to these people in Spain what I would say to every one of my fellow residents of the United States:
Thus, the goal…must be to find a way for everyone to live together in mutual respect and appreciation. There is no other legally, morally or socially viable position; anything other than a sincere commitment to inclusion will exact a high price, poisoning your own culture with resentment and resistance. So this social challenge becomes a personal challenge for everyone in your positions: will you embrace it willingly, or accept it reluctantly and grudgingly?