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Commentary: Immigration and racially tinged arguments

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2010 - Suggestion for those defending the new Arizona law: If you want to counter claims that your opinion is racially motivated, don’t use racially tinged language to further your argument. It strengthens the case against the law when supporters make such contradictions. And in the spirit of dialog, I think that cleaning up such discrepancies would help us have a broader conversation about immigration at this pivotal time in history.

For example, I was reading an article about the Phoenix Suns’ decision to protest the bill and show solidarity on Cinco de Mayo by by playing with “Los Suns” on their game jerseys.  One of the comments on the team’s discussion board was a clear example of racially charged language detracting from the stated position. It started off as a levelheaded critique of the team getting involved in local politics given that it is made up of heavily compensated outsiders. However, the following dig, originally included in the comment, has now been taken out due to “inappropriate content”:

“By the way Mr. Sarver; you should really issue free tickets to all the illegal aliens who wants to attend the play-off games, you will have the arena pretty full in no time, ah but not revenue, except from burritos and nachos!”

So, is it simply that he supports the new law and is angry the Suns disagree, or does he have some anger toward Mexicans marked by the smart comment regarding concessions? The argument was solid and cogent until the stereotypes began flying. It makes me then wonder if the position expressed originated from a racially prejudice standpoint rather than only being punctuated by it.

Bottom line: If this person simply wanted to express his displeasure with the team taking a position, and furthermore a position he disagreed with, that could have been done without the disparaging remarks.

Fox News had a recent guest , Ed Kowalski, who made the false claim that illegal immigrants kill more than 2,100 Americans each year. He then singled out President Barack Obama and Rev. Al Sharpton as misguided for opposing the bill.

First things first, the number isincorrect and questionably extrapolated. In addition, research suggests that crime rates in Arizona have been falling and that states with the higher immigration levels have lower crime rates. It is simply inaccurate to correlate the number of undocumented individuals with crime rates.

Second, the two major figures used to represent misguided American leaders were men of color. President Obama is a given, but there are a slew of people that would come to mind as outspoken against the new law before Rev. Sharpton. I assert that these examples were used to invoke racial distancing. I interpret this choice as a ploy to make it about race (i.e. “those” people of color who are illegal criminals and those who sympathize with them vs. us White Americans who represent the mythical “norm”) when it is about so much more than that. These tactics, whether consciously employed or not, weaken the argument for the Arizona law.

For my view, the conflation of negative racial sentiments and anti-immigration arguments is not being imposed upon those supporting Arizona’s new law. It appears to be self-proclaimed, oftentimes unconsciously rather than blatantly. That reality makes it hard to hear, let alone, follow the argument, because it is often riddled with racially charged undertones.

To be clear, it is not the mere mention of race that makes it so. It is the frame within which race is addressed explicitly or implicitly that denigrates, stereotypes and flattens people. Furthermore, I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to leap from acknowledging racialized speak to assertions of racism. There is a great deal in between.

I believe immigration reform should be a thoughtful process engaging varied opinions; however, when supporters of this line of legislation are also contributing to racial mistrust, I tend to turn away rather than lean in to consider the perspective.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.