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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
As many of you already know, on August 5, 2012, a gunman opened fire on a worshippers at the Sikh Gurdwara temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding three others before killing himself. The shooter has been identified as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and a self-avowed White supremacist.
Clearly, words fail to convey the nature of sadness, loss, and tragedy of this event. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to the families of those killed and wounded, to the Sikh American community in the area, and to all of us as human beings that have to live with the specters of hate and violence all around us.
Many, particularly our political leaders, have called this incident “senseless,” implying that it was an irrational and mindless act of a clearly deranged and mentally ill individual. Unfortunately, this sentiment fails to acknowledge that rather than being an isolated incident, these killings have a cause and origins beyond just the state of mind of the person who pulled the trigger.
In other words, there is an entire sociological context to why the killer did this and multi-level factors that, without a doubt, influenced the killer’s thinking and pushed him to go on his murderous rampage.
War on Terrorism an its Collateral Victims
We can start with the legacy of 9/11 and how the subsequent “war on terrorism” has left thousands, perhaps even millions, of innocent bystanders in its destructive wake. Specifically, I am talking about groups such as Muslim Americans, Indian Americans, and particularly Sikh Americans who have been and continue to be perceived as terrorists. In the case of Sikh Americans, much of this unfortunate association is tied to the turban that the men are required by their religious faith to wear. In other words, in the mind of racists, they’re just another “towelhead” and therefore, a terrorist.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Sikh Americans have been murdered as a direct result of 9/11 hysteria — four days after the events of September 11, 2001 and as illustrated in the excellent documentary “A Dream in Doubt,” Balbir Singh Sodhi was similarly gunned down by a person who perceived him to be a Muslim and therefore, a terrorist. On top of that, political “leaders” such as Peter King, Michelle Bachmann, and Joe Walsh continue to use their public positions to fan the flames of suspicion and hostility against all Muslim Americans, all of which lends more credibility to equating Muslim with terrorism.
Combined with the recent killings at Oak Creek WI, these incidents of racial and religious hate against anyone perceived to be Muslim are not isolated. Instead, they are part of a clear pattern of mistaken identity, irrational guilt by visual association, and jingoistic hysteria that unfortunately is still alive and well almost 11 years after 9/11.
Anti-Immigrant Nativism and Xenophobia
Related to this is the nativist and xenophobic climate that has also strengthened since 9/11. Much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is seemingly directed at undocumented immigrants but unfortunately, since hate and intolerance cut a wide path, has also been directed at legal immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that have a large immigrant contingent such as Latinos and Asian Americans.
The foundation of this nativist and xenophobic climate is the belief that immigrants (legal and otherwise) are not “real,” “legitimate,” or “official” Americans. In turn, much of this belief about who is a “real” American is based on the “traditional” image of those who are perceived as “real” Americans — White, Protestant, and born in the U.S. Those who lack one of more of these traits are seen by many who do as being inferior to them and therefore, less deserving of the identity of “American.”
As I tell my students, one of the most time-tested and historically consistent patterns in U.S. society is that whenever there is economic competition, almost always, it will lead to racial/ethnic hostility. This pattern has played itself out over and over again, and has involved basically every group of color throughout American history. Unfortunately, it is also rearing its ugly head once again today as the current recession has led to heightened competition for increasingly scarce economic resources between Whites (who have been used to enjoying a relatively stable standard of living but are now fighting just to stay in the middle class) and groups of color and immigrants (who many Whites perceive to benefiting at their expense).
Unfortunately, the conditions for heightened economic competition seem to be the “new normal” as the gulf between the rich (i.e., the top 1%) and everyone else (i.e., the 99%) widens, as powerful financial corporations continue to exploit their political influence and gain unfair advantages in their quest to maximize profit, and as ordinary Americans fight even more among ourselves for an ever-decreasing piece of the pie. With all of this in mind, the bottom line then becomes more clear — when people feel threatened, they become defensive at guarding whatever they have left and hostile towards those who they feel are try to take what is “rightfully” theirs.
This lashing out is part of a larger “White backlash” movement that I have described before. Faced with changing demographics and how the U.S. population is gradually but surely becoming less White, the emergence of people of color, the continuing consequences of globalization and decline of U.S. superiority around the world, and the normalization of economic instability, it is not hard to see why many Whites have become quite angry that their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is being politically, economically, and culturally threatened.
At the moment, many White Americans are feeling very threatened and upset by the changes taking place around them — their economic stability and standard of living are on the decline and, unable to see the institutional forces that have created this situation, their immediate reaction is anger and to lash out at “those other people” — minorities and immigrants.
This individual and collective anger has emboldened many Whites to publicly, forcefully, and passionately lash out at people of color and immigrants, with examples across the spectrum of violence. The institutional shifts and societal changes that influence these examples of backlash are not going away any time soon, and unfortunately, neither do I expect such examples of White backlash to decline any time soon.
And Yet, There is Still Hope
In the midst of all this, there is still the bright glimmer of humanity — the power of shared suffering to bring us together and for friends and strangers to unite and help each other out. No doubt you have seen examples of this in the aftermath of natural disasters as our fellow Americans donate what little discretionary funds we have to help those who have lost everything, and for friends, neighbors, and total strangers to help rebuild the devastated communities.
The same thing can happen in the wake of acts of violence like this. As the NBC News clip below shows, the memorial service to honor the six Sikhs killed was attended by about a thousand people, with Sikhs and non-Sikhs united in grief, sympathy, and hope.
Ideally, no, it should not take mass murders and hate crimes like this for us as Americans to wake up, recognize how our social environment and many of our national leaders are fanning the flames of hostility and hate, and to unite as human beings to change things are the better. But it seems that sometimes it takes a spark to light a fire, something Asian Americans have known for a while now.
Maybe this is that spark and hopefully, there will be a silver lining to this tragedy.
I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).
For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):
I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.
[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.
It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.
I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.
Lesson 1: White Privilege
Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.
In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.
But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.
But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.
That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.
Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.
Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.
In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?
Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?
Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image
Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.
In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.
This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .
Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia
At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.
The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.
When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:
For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”
Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.
2009: Gary Locke and the Future of Asian American Identity As Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke prepares to become the U.S’s new Ambassador to China, I look at how he represents the forging of a new identity for Asian Americans as they contribute to strengthening American society in the 21st century.
Not only are we nearing the end of the year but also the end of the first decade of the new millennium. I recently posted about the best and worst news events of 2010. In this post, I would like to take an even broader look at news events and other political, economic, cultural, and demographic trends of the last 10 years to identify what I consider the most important and significant issue that has affected racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. so far in the 21st century.
There are certainly many potential issues, trends, and events from which to choose. An obvious one are the 9/11 Attacks and the resultant War on Terrorism. As I’ve detailed since that fateful day in 2001, lives of Americans from all racial/ethnic backgrounds were literally changed overnight, not the least of whom were and are Arab and Muslim Americans, who have to balance their dual identities of being both Americans while also frequently being seen as “enemies in our own backyards.”
Another clear choice would have been the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.’s first non-White President. His campaign and eventual victory were certainly very historical moments in the racial/ethnic landscape of American society. For good and for bad, they further brought many underlying racial issues to the surface of American society and resulted in both more cohesion and divisions across racial/ethnic lines.
Further, a third good choice could be the emergence of Unauthorized Immigration as a divisive, hot button issue within American society. As the need for cheap labor increased, so did the numbers of immigrants from all over the world but particularly from Mexico and Central America arriving in the U.S. to fill that need. In the process, their presence led to numerous and ongoing debates and conflicts over whether their presence is good and bad for the country.
But in the end, I believe that one racial/ethnic issue in particular is even more significant than the others. This issue has become a underlying political, economic, and cultural dynamic that has exacerbated, intensified, and reinforced the effects of the other three that I mentioned above. In many ways, this issue has become a fundamental factor upon which many contemporary forms of racial/ethnic inequality and controversy are now based. That issue — the most significant racial/ethnic issue of the decade — is Globalization.
Globalization: Its Forms & Effects
Of course, there are different definitions of globalization. For my purposes, I define it as the contemporary and ongoing institutional process involving increasingly frequent and complex political, economic, and cultural interconnections and competition between countries and groups of citizens around the world.
Globalization can also take many specific forms. As I detail below, those that have had significant effects on racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. this first decade of the 21st century include demographic change, outsourcing and postindustrial occupational shifts, increased economic competition in the global marketplace, and decreased economic stability on the institutional and individual levels.
In taking each form one at a time, the first significant effect of globalization on American society and racial/ethnic relations is demographic change. For some time now, due to the continuation of high levels of immigration from non-European countries and the relatively high birth rates of non-White racial/ethnic groups, the U.S.’s population is gradually shifting from overwhelmingly White to more racially diverse and multicultural. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that if current trends are sustained, Whites will cease to be the majority population somewhere around 2050. Whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group by far but for the first time in several centuries, non-Whites will comprise more than 50% of the U.S.’s population.
These demographic changes have already transformed the racial/ethnic composition of numerous cities, metropolitan areas, and states around the country. Further, such shifts have inevitably led to political and cultural transformations as well in these locations as well, such as the creation of new ethnic enclaves and communities where the majority of the population are Asian American, as one example. As social disorganization theory describes, such demographic changes have inevitably led to some resentment and tension between more established residents (predominantly White) and “newcomer” groups (who are predominantly non-White).
Globalization has also resulted in accelerating postindustrial trends in the occupational structure of the U.S. While the U.S.’s economy has been gradually shifting from one dominated by manufacturing to one focused more on services, in the past two decades, globalization seems to institutionalized a segmented labor market in which almost all new jobs that are created are located either near the top of the occupational structure (involving knowledge management and information technology, requiring high levels of education and job skills, and resultant high pay) or near the bottom (manual labor service sector jobs that require little education or job skills and involving low pay and job security). New middle-level (for example, “blue collar” skilled manufacturing) jobs are much less common these days.
The New Normal: Economic Instability
What this means for racial/ethnic relations is that there is more economic competition for jobs that offer some opportunity for social mobility. In the past, White workers were able to count on these mid- and high-level jobs that would propel them and their families into the middle and upper classes through succeeding generations. But today, due to globalization (and other factors), Whites face more frequent and more intense competition for such jobs from immigrants and non-Whites.
This is important because one of the most consistent sociological patterns through the years has been that whenever you have economic competition, almost always it will eventually lead to racial/ethnic hostility. Taken together, this increased economic competition seems poised to become the norm in the near future due to the ongoing effects of globalization and related forces.
However, because many White Americans have grown accustomed (perhaps even feeling entitled) to economic security and a middle class standard of living, these fundamental institutional changes and feelings of economic insecurity are likely to be the biggest shock to them. Feeling destabilized themselves and perceiving that others (particularly immigrants, American non-Whites, and international non-Whites) to be benefiting at their expense, it is not surprising that many Whites would ultimately feel threatened, angry, and engage in some form of backlash or scapegoating.
Therefore, it is within this context that I feel that globalization is the most significant racial/ethnic issue of this past decade. The demographic shifts and economic instability brought on by globalization and felt by many Americans, but particularly White Americans, forms the foundation upon which much of the anti-immigrant and anti-minority tensions, hostility, and backlash of the past 10 years is based, along with magnifying its political, economic, and cultural effects.
The war on terrorism and much of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim suspicions involve the conscious or unconscious fear of America’s majority White and Christian cultural dominance being threatened. In many ways, Barack Obama’s election as our first non-White President also symbolizes a loss of power for the majority White establishment. And much of the vehement opposition to unauthorized immigration again is based on the direct and indirect fear that non-Whites are “taking over” or “invading” the U.S., determined to “overthrow” its majority White culture.
So while there have been many notable and important news events in this past decade that have affected racial/ethnic relations, from a sociological point of view, one significant common thread among them all is that, to a large extent, they are based on the demographic, political, economic, and cultural effects of globalization and how such effects are perceived to be a threat to the institutional power and hegemony of the U.S. White majority population.
A common theme in many of my recent posts has been the backlash among many White Americans against various demographic, cultural, political, economic, and globalized changes taking place in American society and the world in general. As their percentage of the U.S. population continues to shrink, as non-Whites become increasingly prominent in our society (represented at the very top by Barack Obama), and with the recession heightening their fears and insecurities, many White Americans have reacted angrily to their traditional “way of life” being threatened.
I don’t really enjoy writing about such incidents and would really like to let it go and instead, focus on more positive aspects of American society moving forward in the 21st century. But unfortunately, these kinds of racist backlash keep happening over and over again. The latest example involves Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean American who recently won the New York City Marathon. This video clip from MSNBC focuses on his well-earned victory:
Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, his victory has also led to charges that his victory should not really count as an “American” victory because he is not “really” American:
He was widely celebrated as the first American to win the New York race since 1982. Having immigrated to the United States at age 12, he is an American citizen and a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels. But, some said, because he was born in Eritrea, he is not really an American runner. . . .
The online postings about Keflezighi were anonymous. One of the milder ones on Letsrun.com said: “Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.”
A comment on The New York Times’s site said: “Keflezighi is really another elite African runner by birth, upbringing, and training. Americans are kidding themselves if they say he represents a resurgence of American distance prowess! On the other hand, he is an excellent representative of how we import everything we need!”
In a commentary on CNBC.com, Darren Rovell wrote, “Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.”
To clarify, Keflezighi came to the U.S. at the age of 12, so he is part of what sociologists tend to call the “1.5″ generation — immigrants who came to the U.S. at age 12 or younger and who were raised, socialized, and educated primarily within American society. As the NY Times article also notes, he is “a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels.”
The question becomes, if Keflezighi is not a “real” American, then what exactly are the qualifications of being a “real” American?
Apparently, coming to the U.S. at a young age and being raised and educated in the U.S. doesn’t qualify one as a “real” American. Neither does being a naturalized citizen. And according to many, being born in the U.S. is not enough to qualify someone as a “real” American either, as many Asian Americans will attest to, having their loyalties questioned, challenged, and attacked.
We need to call it for what it is — White racism, plain and simple.
The sad fact is, for many Americans, unless you are White, you will never be a “real” American. That includes non-White or -European immigrants and U.S.-born racial minorities. This institutional mentality has a long tradition throughout American history. Perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the Cherokee Nation.
In the early 1800s, with Whites encroaching on their traditional lands in the south, the Cherokees were basically told that if they wanted to physically survive, they had to discard their “savage” ways and become Americanized. The Cherokees proceeded to do just that and completely changed their way of life — they learned English as well as romanized their traditional language, began wearing “American” clothing, set up a bicameral governing structure based on Congress’s model, and changed their economy from one based on hunting to one focused on farming and trading.
But in the end, their efforts were in vain because they basically learned that despite their actions, since they were not White, they could never be American. The Cherokee were subsequently evicted from their lands and in the infamous “Trail of Tears” episode of American history, forcibly marched from northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee one thousand miles westward. Along the way, about 25% of the estimated 15,000 who started died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, or were murdered before finally reaching the Oklahoma territory and their newly-established “reservations.”
Even though non-Whites may display all the “normal” characteristics and behaviors of a “typical” American — being fluent in English, getting a good education and a good job, owning a nice house in the suburbs, paying taxes, voting in elections, attending Christian churches, going to ballgames and having backyard barbecues — unless you are White, your identity as a “real” American will inevitably be challenged in one way or another.
Often, naturalized Americans have done more to establish their “American-ness” than those who are American by accident of birth. Which isn’t to say that naturalized Americans are more American than domestically-born Americans; being American isn’t a question of degrees. Instead, it’s simple math: one is or one isn’t American.
As I’ve said before, change does not come easily and without resistance of one kind or another and unfortunately, this anti-immigrant and anti-minority backlash will exist for the foreseeable future.
President Obama’s first 100 days in office have certainly been momentous and ambitious. While most of his attention has been focused on the economy and the recession, he and his administration are still planning major initiatives in the near future on other policy issues. As many observers point out, this includes the always controversial issue of immigration reform:
Mr. Obama will frame the new effort — likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue — as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,” said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.
Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May, administration officials said, and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall. Some White House officials said that immigration would not take precedence over the health care and energy proposals that Mr. Obama has identified as priorities. But the timetable is consistent with pledges Mr. Obama made to Hispanic groups in last year’s campaign.
He said then that comprehensive immigration legislation, including a plan to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, would be a priority in his first year in office. Latino voters turned out strongly for Mr. Obama in the election. . . . But with the economy seriously ailing, advocates on different sides of the debate said that immigration could become a polarizing issue for Mr. Obama in a year when he has many other major battles to fight.
Opponents, mainly Republicans, say they will seek to mobilize popular outrage against any effort to legalize unauthorized immigrant workers while so many Americans are out of jobs. Democratic legislative aides said that opening a full-fledged debate this year on immigration, particularly with health care as a looming priority, could weigh down the president’s domestic agenda.
In preparation for intensifying the national debate about immigration reform and as the New York Times reports later, the policy positions are starting to come together, as illustrated by a major agreement between the country’s two largest labor unions on forming a united position on how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country:
John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.
The accord endorses legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and opposes any large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers, officials of both federations said. . . .
But while the compromise repaired one fissure in the coalition that has favored broad immigration legislation, it appeared to open another. An official from the United States Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community remained committed to a significant guest-worker program. . . .
In the new accord, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win have called for managing future immigration of workers through a national commission. The commission would determine how many permanent and temporary foreign workers should be admitted each year based on demand in American labor markets. Union officials are confident that the result would reduce worker immigration during times of high unemployment like the present.
Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and 5.4% of its workforce. Their children, both those who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and those who are U.S. citizens, make up 6.8% of the students enrolled in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.
About three-quarters (76%) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population are Hispanics. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico, numbering 7 million. Significant regional sources of unauthorized immigrants include Asia (11%), Central America (11%), South America (7%), the Caribbean (4%) and the Middle East (less than 2%). . . .
They are especially likely to hold low-skilled jobs and their share of some of those occupations has grown. In 2008, 17% of construction workers were undocumented, an increase from 10% in 2003. One in four farmworkers is an unauthorized immigrant. . . . The 2007 median household income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000, well below the $50,000 median household income for U.S.-born residents. In contrast to other immigrants, undocumented immigrants do not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they live in the United States.
The Pew report does not take a political position in regard to undocumented immigration and instead, as good social science should do, provides anyone who is interested with valid, reliable, and objective information and data to more accurately support whatever position they have on the issue.
As I’ve recently written about, it’s shaping up to be another fierce battle between those who take an “deportation only” approach versus those who see the bigger picture and advocate “comprehensive reform.” I just hope that within this debate that opponents of legalization for undocumented immigrants refrain from demonizing and dehumanizing the people involved and instead, see the issue as an institutional and structural one, more so than an individual-level one.
Presuming that President Obama and his administration follow through on their plans to put the issue of immigration reform on the front burner of American politics, there will be plenty to say about this issue in the coming months.
Update: Shortly after I published this post, the swine flu began making headlines all around the world, particularly here in the U.S. Since it apparently originated in Mexico, unfortunately but predictably, we are now seeing a racist backlash against Mexico and Mexicans, as described by MSNBC:
“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”
That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. There is even talk of conspiracy. Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”