A project of the Center for Community Change

The Cure for Racial Intolerance

Here is the latest from our guest-blogger, Robert Gittelson:

The power of the Presidency to shape debate in this country is not to be underestimated. In the midst of attempting to forge ahead with his reform of our nation’s healthcare industry, President Obama answered one question that touched on the issue of racism, and that’s all that the mainstream media of this country has been talking about for the past 48 hours. When the President implied that the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates at his home was “stupid,” it set off a maelstrom of social commentary about the state of racism in America.

Well, the way that events unfolded at the home of Professor Gates may very well have been stupid, and it was certainly avoidable. However, I can’t help but wonder, where has all of this mainstream media coverage and mass social commentary been, in the face of the real and true racism that has both subtlety and overtly been associated with the issue of Comprehensive Immigration Reform over the past several weeks?

Certainly, we have seen elements of racism in the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, in the Shawna Forde murders, in the Sheriff Joe Arpaio 287g controversy, and in the confrontation between Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan, to name but a few recent issues. Any yet, I can’t help but feel that these issues are in many ways mere precursors to the firestorm of debate on racism that will be coming this fall, when the legislative battle over CIR is scheduled to start in earnest. I have a very strong feeling that, “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I have some history with this. About a month or so before the Senate voted on McCain-Kennedy back in 2007, I wrote an article that anticipated the evil tide of racism that I realized was about to be unleashed, in which I stated:

“When this call for immigration reform started in earnest last year, I had hoped that a civilized discourse on the issues would be followed by useful and needed legislation. I am wary, but I still hope that helpful legislation can pass this year. However, it is obvious to me that in addition to new laws, a new tolerance and open-mindedness will be required of our country to aid in the assimilation and equality of our immigrant population. A lot has happened in our country over the past 40 years or so, but in the case of racism, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

As the racial tension that Obama’s remarks clearly have demonstrated still exists in our society has escalated over the past 48 hours, I want to bring up another article that I wrote exactly two years ago this week, when Jeff Sessions led his Republican cohorts in defeating CIR in 2007.

The old proverb, “familiarity breeds contempt”, took on an ironic twist in our recent national debate, as it was the lack of familiarity that “exposed” a contempt that was already all too present among a very vocal minority of citizens. Clearly, the rancorous debate that was spawned by the now dormant CIR created a national “tension” that, while lethal to the passage of needed legislation on this issue at this time, might yet yield positive results on a national level. Clearly there is a deep racial divide that exists in our society, which thus exposed can be bridged, but it is the building of that bridge that must demand our focus and our energy.

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke specifically and with prescient insight on this issue over 40 years ago, when he wrote the following passage:

“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension”. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that is was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for non-violent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

I find it particularly ironic, but certainly not surprising, that is was Jeff Sessions, the senior senator from Alabama, that led the crusade against CIR in the recent senate debate. Wouldn’t it make Dr. King smile up in Heaven if it turned out to be Sessions that was the gadfly that inadvertently helped men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism? That could possibly turn out to be the case, if we can harness the societal tension and refocus our energy on building bonds that will tie us together as a fully integrated society. That starts with familiarity, and familiarity starts with assimilation.”

We are about to see history attempt to repeat itself, as Jeff Sessions will once again attempt to defeat CIR this fall. His recent sneak attack at CIR through inserting e-verify amendment into the appropriations legislation earlier this month, and especially his pitiful and remorseless attack on Judge Sotomayor during this month’s confirmation hearings, indicates that Sessions hasn’t mellowed with age since 2007.

Sessions’ antics bring me to reflect on the words of Archbishop of Denver Charles J. Chaput’s speech on the urgency of CIR last month, when he said:

“We made our immigration crisis in a bipartisan way. Now we need to solve it in a bipartisan way that involves good people from both parties or no party.  …We become what we do, for good or for evil. If we act and speak like bigots, that’s what we become. If we act with justice, intelligence, common sense and mercy, then we become something quite different. We become the people and the nation God intended us to be. The future of our country depends on it. ”

President Obama’s comment brings the issue of police involvement in racial issues, such as the 287g agreements, into stark relief. This issue is part and parcel of the greater debate on why our country so urgently needs CIR. Alan Bersin, President Obama’s border czar, assured police administrators that a transformation is underway in Homeland Security.

From USA Today:

“There’s no question that under this secretary there’s been a sea change,” Bersin said, adding that ICE already is focusing more on workplace violations rather than immigrant roundups. However, he concluded, enforcement is likely to remain schizoid “until there is a reform of immigration law that is acceptable to the American people. Police administrators were especially critical of the government’s so-called “287(g)” program which provides for state and local police to enforce immigration law. The program has created nationwide confusion and controversy.”

And from the NY Times:

“Turning local cops into immigration enforcers makes racial profiling more likely while sending a chill through immigrant neighborhoods, where victims fear and avoid the police and crimes go unsolved for lack of witnesses. As a police chief in the report said: “How can you police a community that will not talk to you?”

Finally, the recent comments by Pat Buchanan to Rachel Maddow showed how there are still some white people that would frankly rather have what Restrictionists have labeled a “cohesive society,” instead of the melting pot that CIR would legitimize. Specifically,

“When asked why the overwhelming majority of justices have been white, Buchanan declined to explicitly cite discrimination, but explained that “White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks, who were 90% of the nation in 1960 when I was growing up and the other 10% were African-Americans who had been discriminated against. That’s why. (Later, Buchanan attacked Maddow for being out of touch and seemed to slam judges who support affirmative action when he stated): You know what they ought to do? They ought to defend the rights of white working-class folks.”

In closing, it was the commentary of Restrictionists such as Jeff Sessions and Pat Buchanan that led to write a Letter to the Editor piece last summer, in response to a letter that had been posted by a self professed Restrictionist:

“I felt duty bound to protest, because enough is enough. In particular, the comment in that letter about, “a prudent restrictionist policy advocation that promotes a cohesive society,” is fraught with danger in the guise of softly spoken innuendo. When a letter advocates a “cohesive society”, it by definition then must exclude those that don’t “fit in”.

This very idea flies in the face of everything that our free society stands for. In this country, we are tolerant of almost everything except intolerance.

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