Immigration language games
ARE THE OCCASIONAL RACIAL SLURS ANOMALIES OR SLIPS?
Devon G. Peña | Seattle, WA | March 29, 2013
From a GOP point of view, what Young is guilty of is not racism but of revealing the core racist values that still guide the Republican Party and its elected representatives. That is why fellow partisans are admonishing him; it was a stupid move, politically. You can’t hate Latinos when you are trying to court them. You have to do your best to pretend to like them.
Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) has never struck me as a particularly smart politician and is prone to committing gaffes and making awkward “Oops” statements. Well, he’s done it again only this time the objects of his derisive rhetoric were not climate scientists, environmentalists, or liberal voters and politicians. The only difference this time was the target – migrant workers. And right now immigrants appear to be every politician’s favorite cause célèbre given the drubbing Latina/o voters gave to the Republican Party in the 2012 election.
Many people – including some of his own Republican Party members – are expressing “disgust” with Young’s use of the disparaging racial slur, “Wetbacks” during a radio interview yesterday (to listen use this link here to take you to HuffPost). In the interview with KRBD-FM, Young was discussing his own experience with the hiring of farm workers: “I used to own — my father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes…You know it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
Presente.org just issued a Press Release with an active link to a petition asking for Rep. Young’s resignation and a real apology. Arturo Carmona and the rest of the Presente team qualified the remark as “…one of the most dehumanizing comments we’ve heard from a public official in a while” and that “even with Senate and House Republican leaders condemning him, Rep. Don Young has simply issued a non-apology, claiming he ‘meant no disrespect.’”
I understand Presente.org’s disgust with Young’s statement, but I do not believe it ranks that high in the pantheon of politicians’ hate speech against Mexican-origin and other Latina/o workers. For example, during the 2010 midterm election – just as the anti-immigrant hysteria was reaching a crescendo – Pat Bertroche, a Tea Party Republican candidate for the Congress from the 3rddistrict of Iowa, argued that apprehended “illegal aliens” prior to being deported should have micro-chips implanted in their bodies. He offered this as a solution to re-entry and compared undocumented workers to dogs:
I think we should catch ’em, we should document ’em, make sure we know where they are and where they are going. I actually support microchipping them. I can microchip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I microchip an illegal? That’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s a lot cheaper than building a fence they can tunnel under.
That still ranks higher on my “offensive discourse meter,” along with Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s remark about how his border fence is “…going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, ‘It will kill you — Warning’” earlier adding that the sign would be written “in English and in Spanish.” See? They are sensitive to Latina/o concerns. Gosh, Cain even respects bilingualism!
I actually think that the criticism Young is getting from his own ranks seems like an opportunity for his colleagues to take cheap shots on their fellow Republican to earn fake cookie points with Latina/o voters. The Republicans must think Latina/o voters are stupid enough to believe that just because John Boehner is not as boneheaded as Young he actually favors policies that would protect and empower our working-class and indigenous communities. If the GOP partisans really cared about immigrant demands and needs they would stop blocking humane immigration reforms and give the undocumented workers and their families a quick and fair path to legalization and end all this talk of guest workers.
I agree with Presente.org that “racial slurs and dehumanizing terms are worse than disrespectful—they cause harm.” Words can hurt; they can break bones. Ideological discourse can fan hatred and encourage and/or rationalize behavior that leads some persons to commit hate crimes against members identified with the dehumanized group. As Presente.org notes: “We’ve seen this through an alarming rise in hate crimes against Latinos at the height of immigration reform debates[i] and in the policies that emerge from dehumanizing language like Rep. Young’s.”
There is a history to this type of language and Presente.org notes how the slur “wetback” led to the creation of Operation Wetback, a racist program in 1949 that rounded up and deported hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants and U.S. citizens through the targeting of specifically Mexican American barrios.[ii]
That was hardly the end of the use of this term. In his recent book, State Out of the Union, Jeff Biggers notes how in the spring of 1954 the Stanford Law Review published a controversial article entitled, “Wetbacks: Can the states act to curb illegal entry.” Biggers notes how the article “aired a sentiment about states’ rights and immigration policy that hauntingly foreshadowed the SB1070 debate.”[iii]
The Stanford Law Review article has no author so it was presumably a joint effort of the editorial board at the time. The racist language games of the article are not at all surprising, given the Jim Crow context that applied to segregation and discrimination directed against Blacks and Mexicans. The article is not just guilty of deploying racist slurs but is riddled with racialized stereotypes and serious errors of interpretation based on conclusions derived from these biases rather than social scientific evidence. For example, in a section purporting to analyze the “Impact of the Wetback on the Community” the authors commit several serious errors that I surmise should have been enough to end their law school careers for bias and inaccuracy at one of the country’s most distinguished law schools:
In areas containing a high concentration of Wetbacks, the wage paid to them largely determines the wage paid to domestic farm labor. Even in areas of lower concentration the Wetback is likely to have a depressive effect on prevailing rates of pay. His willingness to accept substandard wages provides employers with powerful leverage against local worker… These facts make it obvious that the citizen agricultural worker is likely to find it impossible to make a living in the areas of Wetback competition. Minimal rates of pay and substandard working conditions can easily be forced on the Wetback because of his fugitive status. Often, however, these things are acceptable to him for the simple reason that he has been accustomed to receive even less for his labor in his native land. The result is that the citizen agricultural worker must seek employment in areas beyond the Wetback belt. (1954:288-89)
The excerpt above comes with footnotes, which I suppose gives it the appearance of objectivity, accuracy, and documentation but further interrogation of the source for these various claims is a report prepared for a commission on migratory labor created by President Harry S. Truman and staffed with dozens of agri-businessmen and corporate growers who were terrified [sic] of the militancy demonstrated by farm workers during a cycle of struggles from the Great Depression through the Post-WW II years. They were hardly an objective lot.
This excerpt illustrates a fundamental conceptual and empirical error: The idea that undocumented workers are the cause of low wages in agriculture because they willingly accept substandard wages and working conditions thus affecting local workers. In agriculture, wages are largely set by employers with the power of the government (threatening deportation to the unyielding workers) and private groups of hired thugs behind them; it is these forces that have historically used violence to curb unionization and other organizing efforts among farm workers to keep wages low.
Let us not forget that the 1935 Wagner Act specifically excluded farm workers from the right to organize. If you don’t have the right to organize under federal law, this makes the task of unionizing and going out on strike all the more difficult. Despite this fact, the workers didoften organize and go on ‘illegal’ strikes demanding higher wages and better working and living conditions. Of course, when workers rebel, then they go from being stereotyped as passive and anti-union, in the parlance of the dictator’s language games, to suddenly becoming “restive communist agitators.” Such are the contradictions of capitalist ideology and the fact that Rep. Young had a slip of the tongue illustrates one principal point: These ideologies are still alive; hidden most of the time, but rather still pervasive given the temper of current reform proposals that would solidify the stranglehold that corporations have over farm workers in most states.
I agree with Presente.org: “Today, we see a direct link between labeling people ‘illegal’ and the creation of dragnet deportation programs that have led to a record 1.5 million deportations in the past 4 years.[iv]When public officials use racial slurs to refer to Latino immigrants without any consequence it sends a dangerous and disturbing message. That’s why we absolutely can’t let Rep. Don Young get away with this racist attack.”
However, I would take this argument further and suggest that this type of racist attitude is pervasive to the rightwing or conservative political establishment. This was not an anomaly. It was a stupid slip. Young revealed how the majority of the Republicans, and many white people, feel abut Mexicans and other Latina/os. From a GOP point of view, what Young is guilty of is not racism but of revealing the core racist values that still guide the Republican Party and its elected representatives. That is why fellow partisans are admonishing him; it was a stupid move, politically. You can’t hate Latinos when you are trying to court them. You have to do your best to pretend to like them.
But no amount of vilification, censure, or protest will make much of a difference here. Go ahead and sign the Presente.org petition; I have. Just don’t expect much change. What will change is a generational shift that is already occurring and with dynamics which lay beyond the control of the politicos. As we pace ourselves toward the coming majority minority demography of the future, the younger people of this country are embracing race and ethnic differences like never before. Rep. Young’s views are old school and date back to a generation that came of age during Jim Crow. I believe those days are numbered but the transition to a real “post-racial” society will not be easy and will be filled with bumps and rough edges as the old white racism and privilege gives way to a pluriverse of diverse peoples, who will hopefully learn to live simply and without bias so that others may simply live.
[iii] Jeff Biggers (2012) State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Show Down Over the American Dream (New York: The Nation Books), p. 131.