“American Inequality” in a time of crisis

It’s a sad “truism” of the U.S. past:

  • In the decades following the conclusion of the Civil War, as the South struggled to regain its economic footing and the expansion of industrial capitalism forever changed the way the American public related to work, the rise of new systems of racial segregation emerged to regulate the advancement of blacks in Southern society [source].
  • In the 1930s, amid the economic turmoil and uncertainty of the Great Depression, an estimated 1 million ethnic Mexicans were “repatriated” to Mexico. Rounded up into cattle cars, they left the U.S. with what they could carry, leaving behind their once vibrant dreams of prosperity for hard work. Shockingly, one in every four of those relocated were legal U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization [source].
  • A decade later, as the U.S. responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor with its full participation in the Second World War, more than 110,000 ethnic Japanese were forcibly relocated to camps in remote spots throughout the nation. They were called many things, but they were “concentration camps,” where people found themselves imprisoned for nothing other than the “color of their skin.” A majority of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens; almost two-thirds were under the age of 18 years [source].

As the above examples—and the historical record—substantiate, in moments of profound crisis American society has used “race” to stabilize itself.  For centuries, whether during wars, economic downturns, or social upheaval, varied forms of “white supremacy” have represented a fallback position for the nation.

Of course, that is not to suggest, conversely, that eras of prosperity are times of racial equality.  A racism based on white supremacy has been the political and cultural default of U.S. society for most of its two centuries.  The process of reinvigoration taking place in times of crisis has also served to sustain the broader schema of racial advantage and disadvantage by creating new ways of sustaining inequality.

That is also not to say there aren’t exceptions.  Last November, when Americans chose Barack Obama to serve as President of the United States, many celebrated the “historic” election as evidence this history was, finally, “behind us.” “It’s the second Emancipation Proclamation,” said one scholar, in reference to the 1863 document in which President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves [source], while a CNN political analyst declared it “the passing of an old order” [source]. Speaking for many in her generation, a 50-year old woman proclaimed “It’s like Martin Luther King’s dream coming true” [source].  Even supporters of the opposition party expressed an optimistic tone.  Said one, “My sincere prayer is that we can finally all live together without the heavy baggage of the past weighing us down” [source].

Less than a year later, what do we have?  A groundswell of people in fear of losing their jobs.  Already, 9.7% of Americans are out of work (15.9% of black Americans; 12.5% of Latinos) [sources].  Two wars continue to be waged in the name of this country, with more and more men and women returning to the front lines, a sanctioned trauma we are choosing to ignore.  And a growing number of people now owe more on their home than it is worth on the open market.

And people showing up at Presidential rallies with guns, characterizing Obama as Hitler, labeling him everything from a fascist to a socialist—all for proposing to give health insurance the poorest of Americans.  Others questioning his legal birth in this country, even though mountains of evidence prove it beyond any measure of rational thought.

Americans move to their “comfort zone” in times of crisis.  We put on our sweats, make a big bowl of mac ‘n cheese, and sit in the big chair in the living room.  And then we’re afraid.  And then we’re angry.  And then…

Well, you get the picture.


The “Border Beat” (March 24, 2006)

There has been flurry of immigration news this past week, most of it related to slow movements on the part of the federal government to find some alternative to workplace raids.  Here is the latest news from the borders that run deep into the heartland of this nation, and over a few of us along the way.

The “Border Beat” is at your service!

• “Pelosi Tells Illegal Immigrants That Work Site Raids are Un-American” (FOX News)
I know she looks crazy, but there’s a reasona bunch of smart people in San Francisco keep supporting Nancy Pelosi. It’s because, for a politician, she’s pretty smart, good, and principled. Well, she’s smart and good. Just look at what she told a bunch of Latinos in the beautiful city by the bay. And BTW, why do you think FOX was the only outlet to report this widely? Right! Because it the words “San Francisco,” “Pelosi,” and “legal and illegal immigrants” make them squeal like little, round…oh, sorry. I forgot this was on.

• “President Barack Obama to visit Mexico: Drug war, immigration to be discussed” (El Paso Times)
President O has scheduled his first trip to Mexico. Even though it will come during the spring break season–April 16-17–the two issues intended to dominate the meeting with Felipe Calderón are the twin “wars”–one drugs and one on brown bodies. Ironic that though both are forms of violence literally worsened by government enforcement and regulation, Obama’s team sees one as “Mexico’s fight” and the other as an issue in need of reform. Vamos a ver…

• “Obama’s civil rights nomination upsets some Latinos” (Los Angeles Times)
And here’s why President O made his big announcement about his upcoming trip to Mexico and his putting immigration front and center–because he had a room full of angry Latino politicos on his hands. The chispas from D.C. to L.A. is that Obama had picked Thomas Saenz to head up the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division (offered and accepted!) but then re-gifted his offer to another Latino star, Dominican American Thomas Perez. And why? Because Saenz is down with the illegals. And I ain’t even touching the whole “h” issue with which both “Tomás-es” struggle…

• “Obama wants to shift money, resources to SW border” (Associated Press)
Watch out what you wish for. Obama and company are stepping up the already healthy program of border militarization. Of course, they say its for added security in the wake of a wild Mexico drug war. What’s worse? Well, they’re prepping to make the argument that to afford it, we need to scale back workplace raids and shift funds to the border itself. So there! You get an end (or a reduction) in the human rights violations sponsored by your government, but we put more guns at the border. With friends like these…

• “Budget Cuts Lead to Health Service Cuts for Illegal Immigrants” (KNBC-TV)
Uhhhh, didn’t we already decide this in court? Oh yeah! That was the successful lawsuit against Prop. 187 that progressive won in defense of the human rights of immigrants, largely at the hand of lawyer Thomas Saenz, who Obama recently…ah man!

• “Recession changing flow of NE Ind. immigration” (Chicago Tribune)
This is less another story about the way a recession halts an immigration flow than it is a subtler phenomenon: how immigrants migrate within a receiver nation once here. No recession is evenly spread. And while home foreclosures are hitting the urban coasts in sharper ways than parts of the “heartland,” other aspects of the economic downturn are being more severely felt there.

• “A Slippery Place in the U.S. Work Force” (New York Times)
There is a reason people call it the only paper left in this country. In the latest installment of their ongoing “Remade in America” series, Julie Preston of the Times presents an exceedingly well-written story on the current economic crisis and immigration. For a follow-up, see the Times’ opinion section here.