White people's racial discomfort

It's the overwhelming motivation behind those opposing a path to citizenship for millions of aspiring Americans

Published August 6, 2013 5:00PM (EDT)

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa                            (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Mark Zuckerberg spoke out yesterday in support of immigration reform, along with other leaders in the tech and business industries. The day before, a major evangelical Christian association reaffirmed its support for a path to citizenship. And a majority of Republican voters — even GOP primary voters — support immigration reform. Yet House Republicans have stalled comprehensive immigration reform legislation because they are playing to a small base of extremist right-wingers who respond to racialized divisiveness.

Regarding undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, Iowa Rep. Steve King recently said,

They aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.  For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there who weigh a hundred and thirty pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling seventy-five pounds of marijuana across the desert.

With that one image — “calves the size of cantaloupes” — Rep. King captured the implicit racial discomfort behind opposition to basic immigration reform in America. And make no mistake, racial discomfort is the overwhelming motivation behind opposition to creating a path to citizenship for millions of aspiring Americans.

Opponents will try to argue otherwise, claiming their stance is rooted not in blanket disdain for new immigrants but in a law-and-order-based notion that undocumented immigrants “broke the law” and shouldn’t be able to “jump the line” to citizenship.  But even this contains embedded racial coding. White folks speak of their own honorable immigrant forebearers, forgetting both that there was no “line” to speak of when most of our immigrants came to the United States because until fairly recently in our nation’s history, we didn’t have immigration laws or restrictions. And those who did come, especially Irish and Italians, were originally subject to the same sort of racialized discrimination their descendants are embracing now.

Meanwhile, the class of wealthy, white Wall Street bankers, many of whom illegally foreclosed on hundreds of thousands of family homes and crashed our economy, retains its power and prestige — but low-wage, brown-skinned immigrants simply working hard to feed their families are called “criminals”?

Rep. King’s colleagues, Republican and Democrat alike, have thankfully condemned his overtly biased — and extremely messed up — characterization of young immigrants. And yet what King arguably did was merely say what many of his compatriots are thinking: that undocumented Latino immigrants are some kind of dirty and dangerous underclass threatening our pure (read: white) nation. These voices have long talked about undocumented immigrants “flooding” or even “invading” America, which isn’t just economic or political imagery but cultural: an implicitly biased sky-is-falling sense of America as we have known it becoming something different, something foreign.

The sense of disastrous and destructive change to the American way is understandable. After all, economic inequality in America has grown tremendously while mobility is more stagnant than ever. Certainly we made progress in expanding social, political and economic opportunity in the last several decades, especially to women and people of color, but the vast majority of Americans have been working harder and harder for less and less. The present reality for most middle-class and working-class Americans is bleak and the prospects for their future and their children’s future is worse. Amid the panic brought on by such uncertainty and devastation, it’s easy to look around and draw correlations between other changes in our cultural landscape — pinning economic decline to the increase of people of color in the workplace or the expansion of women’s reproductive freedom or the growing number of Latino immigrants. The economic anxiety of working- and middle-class white America is clearly and dramatically misplaced, but their anxiety is still real and justified.

It can be hard to talk about implicit racial bias in America when we have been taught for generations to watch out for and suppress explicit racism but where we have ignored for too long the unconscious ways that bias stews and seeps out. Even the most well-meaning among us exhibit implicit bias in small and large ways. And yet in public policy debates, including around immigration reform, it can be too easy to dismiss implicit racial bias as a factor because we as individuals so readily deny its influence. Opposition to immigration reform becomes cloaked in supposedly race-neutral rationalizations about economic opportunity and cultural access that have, in fact, always been racialized in our nation’s history and are no less so today.

The answer, though, isn’t in accentuating those racial divisions by lumping all immigration reform opponents in with the flagrancy of Rep. King, but emphasizing economic solidarity and racial bridge building, meeting the real anxiety of all Americans with policy solutions that lift us all up together. Common-sense comprehensive immigration reform along with serious job creation policies will ultimately smash both nativist racial bias and economic anxiety like a pile of canteloupes dropped to the wayside of problematic public discourse.

By Sally Kohn

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Immigration Immigration Reform Latinos Mark Zuckerberg Rep. Steve King White People