Black, white, tan.

I love this song. :]

When you think of Americans, how do you picture them? Do you think of people with an American family history a foot long, or people who still only know a few English words? Do you think of people whose ancestors worked hard to establish themselves as newcomers to this country, or people who are working to establish themselves here now? Do you see it as either/or?

Wherever you stand on illegal immigration, it never fails to amaze me how downright mean people can be to immigrants themselves. When you see a Mexican family at the grocery store, congratulations! You now know that they’re a Mexican family! When you see someone jabbering on their cell phone in Spanish, congratulations! You now know they speak Spanish! You don’t know these people, you don’t know their legal status. You don’t know anything about them. And if you choose to discriminate against them or treat them as if you’re sort of unsure of their right to be walking on this ground, congratulations! You’re either ignorant or racist or both. And let’s say you’re right. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, your suspicions are correct, and the folks you’ve run into arrived here illegally. Does that give you a right to treat them differently? I hope not! They’re still people, and this is still America.

My great-grandfather got here by lying about his age. That’s not exactly “legal immigration,” if you catch my drift. And he was by no means the only less-than-legit immigrant by way of Ellis Island. If you’ve ever read anything about historical immigration, you should know there were all kinds of tricks to get in when they meant to keep you out, and there were tons of people who perfected them. Lie about your age. Lie about your friends and family. Lie about the job you have waiting. And don’t forget, if they mark your coat with a white letter, turn it inside out and put it back on. But he was from Greece, so, you know. Somehow it’s different. Only it’s not. Remember the 1800s? Okay, stop, you know what I mean. When multiple forces combined and drove the Irish to emigrate to American in large numbers? Good. It’s good to be on the same page. All right then. The “real” Americans resented the Irish coming and filling jobs. People rioted and fought and discriminated to the moon. Employers put “No Irish Need Apply” signs in their windows. NINA was a catchphrase, and it was somehow considered “patriotic” to dislike the Irish, to fill your speech with racial slurs against them. Sure, there were problems back in their home country, but they weren’t your problem, now, were they?

Check out this exerpt from Tom de Haven’s 2005 novel It’s Superman! which is set in 1930s rural Kansas:

“Our friend Mr. Jiggs?” says Dutcher.
“Yes, sir.”
“Wanted a candy bar, did he?”
“I don’t know what he wanted,” says Clark. “It never got that far.”
“So how far
did it get?”
“He started in calling Alger names.”
Said, “You expect to find woolly-heads in Kansas City, but you got ’em
here, too?”
Said, “Why somebody in these sad times got the
gall to go and let a nigger work a job could be done by a white boy is just something that burns my ass.”
Said, “And why ain’t he wearing gloves, anyhow? Touching food.”
Dutcher passes a hand over his eyes, gets up, and stretches. “That’s what he said, huh? With no provocation?”
“He just started talking.”
“How did Alvin react?”
“Alger. And he didn’t.”
Not at all. He merely looked back over at Clark and said if there was nothing else, that’d be forty cents, please.
“You ignoring me, sonny?” said the man.
“I didn’t think you were talking to anybody in particular,” said Alger, but he was still facing Clark, saying that like he was saying it to him….
“So Alger mouthed off and Makley pushed you away to mix it up. That it?”
“Alger didn’t mouth off. He just said he didn’t think the guy was talking to anybody in particular.”
“Funny boy, huh?”
Alger swallowed, but never blinked. Addressing Clark again, he said, “Your total’s forty cents. Sir.”
“You think you’re a funny boy,
that what you think? You come on out from behind there, hear me? And you, sonny”–the man Clark had recognized as Jiggs Makley was glaring at him now–“you go on back and take his damn place. I don’t want to be waited on by no woolly-head thinks he’s a funny nigger boy. Hey. What’re you looking at?”

To think we as a country have moved past this is absurd. If it’s not blacks (and sometimes it is), it’s Mexicans. Or Arabs. Or fill in the blanks. It makes me sad to be a part of this place. I think we’re better than this, but as long as we keep marketing prejudice and racism as patriotism, we’ll never get where we need to be. America used to be proud of its melting-pot image. We used to be what other countries dreamed about. We were the land with golden streets.

We are NINA, we are segregation all over again.

Here’s a bit from my blogging friend Travis: “America has come a long way when it comes to race relations: slavery and segregation have been abolished, most employers are equal opportunity, etc. And yet in the 21st century, Dr. King’s dream has not been completely fulfilled yet. The immigration debate never fails to stir up strong emotions. I understand both sides of the issue, but what disturbs me is how too often the debate switches from just illegal immigrants to all immigrants. One of my Christian friends did a MySpace survey not too long ago, and one of the questions was, ‘What do you think about Mexicans?’ I was shocked when my friend answered, ‘Keep some of them here, but send the rest back.’ Let me remind you that the question did not ask about illegal immigrants: the question was specifically about Mexicans! First of all, not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants. Second, America was founded by immigrants (pilgrims, anyone?). Third, where in the Bible does it say anything about God favoring one race over another? ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)”

Most of us are familiar with a poem called The New Colossus. It’s engraved on the Statue of Liberty, for heavens sake. Take a minute to read it if you haven’t in a while:

The New Colossus [by Emma Lazarus]

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Look at her! Isn’t she wonderful? I got to see her once. It was amazing! Interestingly, most of the words flying around that day weren’t English. There were more Spanish-, Japanese-, German-speaking families and photographers than there were your stereotypical Americans [like us]. I didn’t know any of them; I don’t know if they were Mexican-American and Japanese-American and German-American, or if they weren’t American at all. Maybe they were visiting friends and decided to drop in on Lady Liberty before they flew home. They were all so excited, and no matter where they lived, it was pretty clear that they were proud of the Statue, proud of what it means, proud to get to pose in front of it for their Christmas card photo. Sometimes I think they value our own Statue of Liberty more than we do. Sometimes I wonder if we believe in her at all.


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