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“Our ‘Real’ America”: Whiteness Is Still A Proxy For Being American

Anyone can make a fool of himself. So it’s tempting to dismiss last Thursday’s mega-gaffe by Florida Representative Curt Clawson as indicative of nothing more than the fallibility of the human brain.

But think about the nature of Clawson’s goof. Sitting across a congressional hearing room from Nisha Biswal, an official at the State Department, and Arun Kumar, who works at the Department of Commerce, Clawson addressed the two Indian-Americans as if they were representatives of the government of India. Which is to say: He had trouble recognizing that two Americans who trace their ancestry to the developing world are really American.

In today’s Republican Party, and beyond, a lot of people are having the same trouble. How else to explain the fact that, according to a 2011 New York Times/CBS poll, 45 percent of Republicans think President Obama was born outside the United States? Is it because they’re well versed in the details of which kind of birth certificate he released and when? Of course not. It’s because they see someone with his color skin and his kind of name and think: Doesn’t seem American to me.

In fact, Obama’s opponents, including Democrats, have been raising questions about his Americanness since he began seeking the presidency. In a March 2007 memo, Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, argued that she should attack Obama for “not [being] at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.” Had Obama been white and named Joe Smith, Penn’s line of attack would have been inconceivable, since Obama’s thinking and values were typical of a liberal Democrat’s, and similar to Clinton’s own. Penn’s effort to question Obama’s Americanness was entirely a function of the fact that he traced his ancestry to the third world and had spent some of his childhood abroad.

Since Obama defeated Hillary Clinton, it has been the Republicans’ turn. Newt Gingrich has claimed Obama possesses a “Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview.” Dick Cheney has said, “I don’t think that Barack Obama believes in the U.S. as an exceptional nation.” Indeed, a major thrust of the GOP’s attack on Obama is that he doesn’t understand America, doesn’t believe in America and wants to turn it into something fundamentally different from what it has always been. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was attacked relentlessly for his supposed lack of personal integrity and failure to serve in Vietnam. But conservatives rarely questioned his connection to the United States.

It’s not just Obama. In various ways in recent years, conservatives have questioned the Americanness of American Muslims. Michele Bachmann suggested that Huma Abedin and other Muslim-Americans serving in the national-security bureaucracy might be more loyal to foreign Islamist movements than to the United States. Another former Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, in 2011 said he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet because “Muslims in this country, some of them, try to force their Sharia law onto the rest of us.” A Public Religion Research Institute poll that same year found that 63 percent of Republicans believed Islam contradicts American values.

The link between the GOP’s tendency to question the Americanness of Muslim- Americans and Clawson’s assumption that the Indian-Americans sitting across from him were not American becomes clearer when you realize that in contemporary American discourse, “Muslim” is often seen as a race. Several of the most high-profile hate crimes committed in “retaliation” for 9/11 occurred not against Muslims but against South Asian Hindus or Sikhs. Representative Peter King has called for profiling suspected terrorists based upon their “religious background or ethnicity,” even though Islam is no more an ethnicity than is Christianity. The implication, of course, is that Muslims are brown.

One even sees traces of this tendency to un-Americanize immigrants from the developing world in the way some Americans see Hispanics. When Arizona in 2010 passed a law empowering law enforcement to detain anyone who presented a “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country illegally, critics rightly wondered what criteria the police could possibly use to suspect someone of being undocumented other than the fact that they looked or sounded Hispanic. A 2012 poll by the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that one-third of Americans believed most Hispanics in the United States were undocumented. In other words, many Americans associate being Hispanic with not being legally American. That’s pretty similar to the assumption Congressman Clawson made about Biswal and Kumar.

There’s no point in continuing to ridicule Clawson. Everyone’s entitled to a dumb mistake. But it’s worth noting how unlikely it is that he would have mistaken an Irish-American for a representative of the government of Ireland or a German-American for a representative of the government of Germany. Throughout our nation’s history, whiteness (itself a shifting category) has been used as a proxy for Americanness. And as Clawson reminded us last Thursday, it still is.

 

By: Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, July 27, 2014

July 28, 2014 Posted by | Bigotry, Minorities, Race and Ethnicity | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Unnecessary And Excellent”: Why “Make Them Learn English” Is The Key To Immigration Reform

Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to “learn English and civics.” They don’t detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there’d be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it’s completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it’s an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform.

The reason it’s unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at school and eventually at work. The next generation grows up with only a little bit of the language of the old country, which they pick up from their grandparents, but they spend almost all their time speaking English. And the generation after that often knows nothing of their great-grandparents’ language beyond a few colorful expressions.

That’s how it has worked for one group of immigrants after another, and as Dylan Matthews reminds us, that’s how it’s working for the current group of immigrants. There is some variation among people who come from different places, but the basic picture is clear: you don’t need to “make them learn English,” because they’re going to learn it anyway, or at least their children are. That’s probably how it worked in your family, and it’s certainly how it worked in mine. My great-grandparents, who came to America as adults, knew very little English; my grandparents, who came as children, were bilingual; my parents can follow a conversation in Yiddish but not speak it very well; and my siblings and I just know a few little Yiddish snippets. (When I was a kid my grandmother had an annoying habit of telling long, apparently hilarious stories in which just the punch line was in Yiddish, so I never knew what the hell all the older people were laughing about.)

So why is the “make them learn English” provision so politically important? Because it’s the key that unlocks wide public support for immigration reform. As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration. We can’t divide the country into “pro-immigrant” and “anti-immigrant” groups, even if you might be able to make such a division among politicians or talk-show hosts. Apart from a small population of hard-core nativists, most Americans acknowledge that we’re all descended from immigrants of one kind or another, whether your ancestors walked across the Bering Strait land bridge, came over on a slave ship, or drove down from Toronto. They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don’t understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I’m not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it’s undeniable.

So imagine an individual citizen/voter who has those two contradictory feelings. He sincerely wants his country to welcome immigrants, and he thinks that cultural diversity is basically a good thing, but he got a little freaked out last week when he went down to the drug store and felt like he just got transported to Mexico City. He doesn’t like feeling alienated, but he also doesn’t like that tiny voice inside him that says “Send them back where they came from!” He knows that voice isn’t right, but when he sees signs in other languages or hears other languages spoken, that voice gets a little stronger.

What the “make them learn English” provision says to him is: Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK. We’re going to make sure that this wave of immigrants is woven into the American tapestry just like the prior waves of Irish and Italian and Chinese immigrants. They won’t take America over. They’ll become American.

The truth is, that’ll happen whether or not we make undocumented immigrants take an English test before they can become citizens. But there’s no reason not to do it. If some have to take an ESL class in order to pass, that’s fine—accelerating their learning curve a little will be good for them, and the cost probably won’t be too high. The real benefit, though, will be to reassure the majority of Americans whose feelings about immigration are complicated. And once you get enough of them on board, it becomes possible for risk-averse politicians to do the right thing.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 29, 2013

January 30, 2013 Posted by | Immigrants, Immigration | , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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