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Racism Renewed
America’s War on Immigrants

Khalid Abdul Muhammad was one of those Nation of Islam demagogues who won himself his 15 puddles of fame in 1993 when, in a speech to a New Jersey college audience, he called for genocide against whites, called Jews “bloodsuckers,” railed against the Pope and had some bile left over for homosexuals. It was an Exxon-Valdez-size toxic spill onto America’s multicultural ecology, where rumors of perfect rainbows had been premature anyway. For the media, here was a chance to stick it to the other side, to turn the tables and show how blacks do racism — all the while missing the larger picture: The racial shoals of the new century weren’t going to be black and white. Not predominantly so, at least. They were going to be brown, the brown of immigrants: Latin American, Arab, South Asian.

It didn’t start with 9/11. Resentment over “illegal” aliens began building, like walls along the Mexican border, in the 1990s. It only intensified after the attacks of 2001. An ugly convergence has taken place since. Just as the Bush administration uses the so-called war on terror to justify its Conan-the-Barbarian assault on the democratic institutions it claims to be spreading, the country’s xenophobes are using the war on terror as a front for all sorts of racist initiatives.

A few weeks ago the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it a crime, even for churches, to give refuge to immigrants who can’t show proof of their legal status. (I’m with Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who urged his California parishes to break the law should it become one.) Earlier this year the House approved building a 700-mile wall along the border with Mexico , a $2.2 billion sham exceeded only by the Minuteman Project, whose armed vigilantes hunt for people crossing the border. no differently than if they were coon-hunting revivalists. In Florida , legislators are willing to extend migrant workers the certainty of safe housing and seat belts in their vans, but not grant them access to health care. In other words: “Get to work safely, do the jobs Americans don’t want to do, and when you get hurt, go back where you came from — there’s always more like you.” This is happening at a time when unemployment is low and the economy performing OK. Imagine what will happen in a downturn. (My solution? Legalize all, tax all. Everyone wins except the bigots.)

The new poll showing almost half of Americans having a “negative” view of Islam can’t be segregated from this increase in nativism, although the ignorance of Americans, when it comes to foreigners (putting Islam, Arab and terrorism under the same Thesaurus entry, for instance), is right in line with the definition of prejudice: It’s based on groundless fear, stupidity, racism — the three elements that sank the recent Dubai ports deal. It had nothing to do with keeping America secure, just as the Bush administration’s neo-Palmer Raids on Arabs and Muslims in America have been nothing more than showy harassment to make the natives feel better. As David Cole wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Of the 80,000 Arabs and Muslim foreign nationals who were required to register after September 11, the 8,000 called in for FBI interviews, and more than 5,000 locked up in preventive detention, not one stands convicted of a terrorist crime today. In what has surely been the most aggressive national campaign of ethnic profiling since World War II, the government’s record is 0 for 93,000.”

The absurdity of Americans’ rejection of the Dubai deal is equally striking, given that, as Larry Lindsey wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week, the United Arab Emirates “provides the main base to service U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean ” and is “the largest servicer of our naval vessels anywhere in the world outside the U.S. In the case of the American Navy, the UAE not only manages the ports, but its citizens staff the concessions that provision the fleet, and UAE nationals provide the port’s security. Logically, it is tough to explain overseas how merely making a UAE company the manager of a port where the workers are still Americans and security is still provided by America is an increase in risk over what we tolerate already.”

It isn’t about logic, anymore than the war on terror is about logic. There’s an ugly convergence here, too, between national security and national pride, between self-preservation and exclusion as new excuses for racism. In other words, between the Bush doctrine — “We fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” — and America ’s 21 st century immigration doctrine: We demonize them over here so we can keep them over there. The late Khalid Abdul Muhammad must be grinning in his grave, and Emma Lazarus weeping in hers.


Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at ptristam@att.net

 

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