Changing the question on race

I’ve had a few “race discussions” this week, both online and in person. The continuing saga of the HINI flu, as well as the tragic jury decision in the murder of Luis Ramirez, have been the stage of these discussions. The dance is an old one.

This week has reminded me of how far we as a society have yet to go with respect to race. Let me try to distill this down as cogently as possible and say that much of the difficulties I witnessed this week have to do with the way we ask questions about race in our daily lives as a precursor to establishing analytical conclusions.

As I tried to say in an earlier post, I don’t think the useful question in the trial of Luis Ramirez’ murderers is whether or not the decision was “racist.”  That’s a loaded question, culturally, but it is also a simplistic and very problematic one.  The answer tells us less of what we really want to know (how race works in our daily lives and institutions) than it creates a platform for indignation or anger.  Additionally, it assumes the foundational stance of white privilege, which is a negation of race and its consequences in our lives.  In asking “if” we are inherently positioning the answer to be as likely to be true as false.  Historical knowledge makes this the equivalent of asking “Is the world flat?”

The more useful question is, as I suggest above, how is race involved in our daily lives.  This leaves open a small space for those who fear confronting the situation by allowing them to try to establish a credible explanation for how it does not, but, more importantly, it focuses our gaze toward understanding the problem and finding ways to fix it.

Few of us who work on race issues were surprised when professional fear-mongers began spewing their misinformation campaign linking the spread of the H1N1 virus (“swine” flu) to “illegal” immigration from Mexico.  It is important to note that no rational person should think this.  There is not only not evidence to prove it, the evidence we have of cross-border migrations, as I said elsewhere, actually makes it unlikely.

Spain Swine Flu

The way this movement manipulates information to play to people’s worst tendencies, nurturing their fears and pushing them toward hate, is all-too familiar.  It is, sadly, an “American tradition” stretching back for almost two centuries.  That isn’t to say there aren’t other traditions, nobler ones contesting the less savory.  But it remains so.

If we stop to have to re-prove this well-established understanding to serve the lowest common denominator with respect to racial understanding, we do nothing than stunt our more general understanding.  Many people of color who possess this understanding live with repeated interjections of frustration because those who don’t know are always in the habit of making us explain it all.

But “it” is out there already.  That you do not know is not an accident or a natural exhibition of the condition of learning (“we don’t know until we learn”).  It is by design.  You don’t know these things because of a host of forces, many of which you contribute to nurturing on a daily basis.

My point is, race is a factor.  As a teacher, I can explain it to you, and I will do so with joy:

Part of the U.S. imperial project of the 19th and 20th centuries has been related the Spanish-speaking South.  From the habitual desire to take Cuba (beginning before Jefferson); to the U.S. war with Mexico (1846-48); to the work of the State Department on the behalf of U.S. transportation, agricultural, and manufacturing interests, the U.S. and its economic tentacles have had a firm grip over the social, political, and economic histories of parts of Latin America.

Those forms of imperialism–where a foreign power (like the U.S.) can exercise an inordinate amount of power over another sovereign nation (like Mexico)–have everything to do with the way the U.S. thinks about Mexico and Mexicans.  As David Weber argued in his 30 year-old essay “Scarce More than Apes’: Historical Roots of Anglo-American Stereotypes of Mexicans,” the historically constructed ideas of Mexican “otherness”–the inferiority, the filth, the genetic and cultural backwardness–sets the stage for how we receive and make sense of everything related to them.  This includes things like the “swine flu.”

But, as a person of color living in this place at this time, recognize, I am not always happy that you don’t know already.


Luis Ramirez and American Racism

On Friday, May 1, while thousands of people in the U.S. were marching for immigrants’ rights, an “all-white” jury in Pennsylvania acquitted two “white” teens of killing a Mexican immigrant.

Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17—along with Colin Walsh, 18, who did not stand trial but pleaded guilty to federal charges—beat up Luis Ramirez on July 12, 2008 in Shenandoah, PA.  They left him with his head so severely beaten that his brains were slowly leaking from his skull.  On July 14, Ramirez, who was an undocumented immigrant, died from his injuries.


There were accusations of racial epithets being used and of the crime being motivated by Ramirez’ ethnicity and race. One witness testified another youth who accompanied the accused teens shouted “This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.”  Others accused Ramirez of being violent and of instigating the conflict himself.

Now a jury found Piekarsky not guilty of third-degree murder; not guilty of voluntary manslaughter; and not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. They found Donchak not guilty of aggravated assault and not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. They found both guilty of assault. Without criminal records both are not likely to serve any time in prison.

For some coverage of the verdict, see the local Morning Call and CNN.

Some people are asking if the verdict is racist.  They want to know if these two boys were acquitted because of their race, or because of the race of the man they killed.  They wonder if immigration figures into it.

They are asking the wrong questions.

Shenandoah, the accused, the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, the witnesses, the police, the reporters, the people who sat and heard testimony, me, and you, we all have somethings in common.  We live in a society with a long tradition of nurturing a belief in the superiority of one “race” (the so-called “white”) over all others.  We live in a society with a long tradition of elaborating on the particular inferiority of each “other race.”  We live in a society with a long tradition of thinking of the nonwhite and the nonwhite immigrant and threats, as not human, and as inherently criminal.

These are not the only traditions in our society.  They are not equally encountered and inherited by each of us.  They do not absolve us of independent thought, or of the ability to interrogate and dismantle them.

But they are there.  Much more than  ideas, prejudices, and thoughts, they are the rationales our daily interactions with each other, and for our own interactions with systems of power.  They have been a shorthand for ordering our lives, for defining “we” and “they.”  They have played a role in helping you define yourself, who you are and who you are not.

In her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Daniel Tatum equates this to smog. We may not have created it, but we are born into a world polluted by it. Whether or not we like it, all of us—both people of color and “whites”—breathe it in.

Likewise, it is each of our responsibilities to do something about it.

LatinoLikeMe featured a few posts on the murder and subsequent flurry of national media attention. Even without doing much more than re-posting a story from another news source, they became heavily trafficked posts for this blog. They also inspired a host of comments. Read the ones below this post, for an example of the way certain people were moved.

You see, here’s the thing: none of the so-called “facts” here matter. No matter what “side” you are on, there should be no legal protection for beating a man until his brains seep out of his head. Irregardless of whose testimony you believe, we are all products of a reality which sympathizes “whites,” criminalizes Latinos, and dehumanizes immigrants.

I didn’t know Luis Ramirez. He might have been an asshole, he might have been a saint. In a few years, maybe more, most people not directly affected by this case will have forgotten about him, if they ever knew who he was to begin with. But that’s not really the point.

None of us should ever forget what these events tell us about ourselves, as individuals and as a society. As I wrote last summer:

“In the end, stories like this tell us far more about ourselves than about the victims or perpetrators–whether in how we make sense of it, identify with it, or seek to incorporate its balance into our lives.”


Life in United States is Not Getting Better

At least not if you ask Latinos.

The Pew Hispanic Center released a report today detailing the results of a national survey of Latinos.  “Half (50%) of all Latinos say that the situation of Latinos in this country is worse now than it was a year ago.”  The survey reveals a growing number of Latinos are finding life in this nation to be more difficult than in the past, to be marked by increasing levels of anti-Latino racism, and to be characterized by a growing amount of state intrusion into their daily lives.  The report can be accessed here.

In many ways, this is statistical evidence of the kinds of anecdotal evidence common on this blog and elsewhere.  As has been clear from these sources, there is a growing anti-Latino backlash in the U.S. that is not confined to just immigrants.

It has been on my mind a lot, I must confess.  Lately, I’ve been a little astonished at the level of ignorance expressed surrounding the sad events in Shenandoah, PA.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out some of the comments to posts on this very blog (like this one) or do a Google search for commentary on this story and see what you find.  In short, you will find there are a lot of people in this country who have found numerous ways to justify and/or rationalize the murder of another human being.  This isn’t that surprising, I know.  People do this everyday.  BUT, they usually do this by establishing the victims guilt within the broad (and often shifting) moral context of our society.  In this case, people have so dehumanized and criminalized Latinos (in general) and Latino immigrants (specifically) that their mere presence within the “national body” is foreign, suspicious, and often a threat.

Concerned groups and their blogging allies have been drawing attention to these events as something far more significant than a localized instance of violence.  Instead, blogs [example 1, example 2] and others have been analyzing how they are part of a much larger culture of hate and violence.  As the Southern Poverty Law Center is doing a great job of detailing on a regular basis, much of that hate is finding their target in the Latino body.

The “Border Beat” (September 15, 2008)

This week’s “Border Beat” brings us some familiar beats with some new tunes, all courtesy of life in ever-changing Latino USA.

• “Indiana legislators tackle illegal immigration again” (Indianapolis Star)
While immigration has seemingly disappeared from the national stage in this election year, it has done anything but in many local and statewide elections.  This coverage of the debate in Indiana is a reminder of how the growth of a visible Latino presence (both “legal and illegal”) presents new challenges and creates some new tensions in regions which had previously not been on the “brown radar.”  Sadly, analysis by one legislator which sees immigration as the cause of the “cost of health care, the cost of public education and the true social costs and the human rights abuses” does not suggest they are any closer to a true and meaningful solution.

• “Dallas suburb’s move on illegal immigration being fought” (Houston Chronicle)
This story of a small suburb pursuing its anti-immigration stance so vociferously is interesting if only for the fact that it is both suburban and the first do try this tactic in Texas.  Farmers Branch has been trying to institutionalize some version of this position since the marches of 2006.  I think the whole thing takes on even greater meaning when placed in the context of Texas history, a place once Mexican in every sense of the word.

• “New Immigration Ads Stir the Melting Pot” (Washington Post)
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has a decades-long record of both subtly and explicitly manipulating people’s racial fears and strategically placing them as the backdrop to arguments for immigration reform.  Whether spotlighting their concerns about population control or government spending they often manage to gain more momentum and consistency from the persistent fear of a brown nation.  Now, when some political groups manage to point this out, they get offended.  But they don’t directly dispute any of the claims.  Own your racist foundations!

• “Tensions escalate at anti-illegal immigrant rally in Shenandoah” (Reading Eagle, PA)
For all those people who continue to try and rationalize the beating death of Luis Ramirez as something other than a racist act of violence.

• “Faith Communities Launch Immigration Reform Campaign” (Christian Post)
Formal Christian organizations are mobilizing on the issue of immigration, and they are not all aligning with the radical right wing.  This is hopeful and, at it heart, theologically sensible.

Historical Photograph of the Week:
Agricultural worker in California, circa 1930s.  [Source.]

The Death of Luis Ramirez and Shenandoah, PA

An updated post on the latest news relating to the trial can be found here.

The horrific murder of Luis Ramirez and the increasingly tragic story of the small town in which it took place are both featured in today’s New York Times.

Mexican’s Death Bares a Town’s Ethnic Tension
By Sean D. Hamill

SHENANDOAH, Pa. — Crystal Dillman knows that four teenagers have been charged in the death of her fiancé, Luis Ramirez, that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is monitoring the case and that most people in this small town in the Appalachian Mountains believe it was a horrible crime.

But Ms. Dillman, the mother of Mr. Ramirez’s two young children, is not sure justice will prevail.

“I think they might get off,” she said of the four teenagers, “because Luis was an illegal Mexican and these are ‘all-American boys’ on the football team who get good grades, or whatever they’re saying about them. They’ll find some way to let them go.”

The case has raised similar concerns among Latinos across the country.

“For many Latinos, this is a case of enough is enough,” said Gladys Limón, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “And it can help us get attention to the wider issue that this is happening all over the country, not just to illegal immigrants, but legal, and anyone who is perceived to be Latino.”

Mr. Ramirez, 25, who had been in the country illegally for six years, picking crops and working in factories, died July 14 from head injuries received two days earlier.

Investigators said he had gotten into a fight with a group of teenage boys — most or all of them members of the town’s high school football team, the Blue Devils — who left him unconscious in a residential street, foaming at the mouth.

Exactly what happened during the fight is still hotly debated on Internet message boards in Shen’doh, as the town is called, with some saying it was just a street fight that went bad, and others claiming the teenagers singled out a Mexican immigrant for a beating and made anti-Mexican remarks.

Since Mr. Ramirez’s death, this town of 5,600 has been bitterly divided over the case, illuminating ethnic tensions that surprised town leaders.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘We don’t want to send our kids back to school because we’re afraid people don’t like Mexicans,’ ” Mayor Thomas O’Neill said. “That’s shocking to me. That is not the Shenandoah I know.”

Prosecutors have charged Brandon Piekarski, 16, and Collin Walsh, 17, with homicide, ethnic intimidation and other counts in adult court, though their lawyers are trying to have the case moved to juvenile court.

Derrick Donchak, 18, was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other counts, including providing liquor to the other boys on the night of the confrontation. All were members of the football team; Mr. Donchak was its starting quarterback.

A 17-year-old, whose name has not been released, was charged in juvenile court with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other charges.

They have all pleaded not guilty.

After anthracite coal was discovered near the town in the late 1800s, immigrants poured in, mainly from Europe. The hamlet grew to a borough of 25,000 before the mines started to close. The immigrant groups largely got along, but they also felt the need to ethnically divide not just their churches — some of which are still considered “the Italian church” or “the Irish church” — but also the town’s volunteer fire companies.

The town’s biggest festival every year is Heritage Days near the end of August, when the major ethnic groups, among them the Lithuanians, Irish, Italians, Greeks and, more recently, Mexicans, put floats in a parade and sell ethnic food from booths.

Mr. Ramirez’s death has also reignited a regional debate over immigration that began two years ago when the town of Hazleton, about 20 miles from Shenandoah, enacted an ordinance that sought to discourage people from hiring or renting to illegal immigrants.

At the time, Shenandoah, whose Hispanic population has grown to about 10 percent, from 2.8 percent in 2000, considered a similar ordinance but held off after Hazleton was sued.

Even then, there were signs of tension. After the debate over the Hazleton ordinance, Shenandoah’s Mexican community pulled out of Heritage Days in 2006.

“They just didn’t feel comfortable then,” said Flor Gomez, whose family runs a Mexican restaurant in town.

Many people believe the debate fueled by Hazleton’s actions helped create the environment that led to Mr. Ramirez’s death.

“Clearly there were a lot of factors here,” said Ms. Limón, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has been helping Ms. Dillman. “But I do believe that the inflammatory rhetoric in the immigration debate does have a correlation with increased violence against Latinos.”

Hazleton’s mayor, Lou Barletta, said he saw no connection to his town’s ordinance, which was scrapped after the town lost a court battle.

“It’s a tragedy what happened to that man,” Mr. Barletta said. “But I don’t believe our ordinance had anything to do with it. Every person is responsible for their own actions.”

James P. Goodman, the Schuylkill County district attorney, who is prosecuting the case, said ethnic intimidation cases were rare in his county.

But town leaders have now heard about a number of incidents from Mexican residents that were never reported. The town is trying to reach out to them, said Mayor O’Neill, who said he still could not believe the fear some residents had expressed to him.

“How it came to that point, I don’t know,” he said. “But maybe these are things that it is good that it came out.”