Nativism, Circa 2009

First of all—apologies. By my count, it’s been a month since my last post. In fact, my truancy has been so great this blog actually existed under a different name the last time I contributed.

Fortunately for the reader, Jon is relentless and vicious animal when it comes to blogging. He’s like an Andrew Sullivan/cheetah hybrid—with expert crossbow abilities.

Anyway, the growing controversy over Judge Sotomayor’s impending confirmation hearings has certainly unveiled some of the GOP’s more unsavory talking points—the minority racist card, the affirmative action card and even the gossipy he said she said card. However, it has also reignited, to my mind, one of the single greatest hypocrisies in American politics: individuals of decidedly non-WASP origins trying their hand at anti-immigrant nativism.

Without question, Bill O’Reilly remains the most common perpetrator. In 2007, he voiced his discontent with a Senate bill liberalizing immigration law by remarking that “[immigrants] under the guise of being compassionate, want to flood the country with foreign nationals…unlimited, to change the complexion…of America.” During the same tirade, O’Reilly observed, with admittedly some accuracy, that “America is run primarily by white, Christian men.”

Nonetheless, I wonder if Mr. O’Reilly is aware that, barely more than a century ago, public figures like Millard Fillmore and Ulysses S. Grant dismissed Irish immigrants as “foreign nationals” seeking to “change the complexion of America.” I wonder if Mr. O’Reilly is aware that, barely more than a century ago, entire political parties existed to ensure that white, Protestant men remained in power. I also wonder if Mr. O’Reilly is aware that Irish Catholics like himself have consistently been pariahs in the history of American society, attracting the ire of establishment WASP’s who disdained the nefarious “papism” these immigrants were supposedly unleashing upon America.

Enter Tom Tancredo. An Italian-American whose grandparents emigrated to the United States during the late nineteenth century, the former Congressman from Colorado has been a tireless advocate for deportation, forced cultural assimilation and stamping out Spanish in the public sphere. Well this week the diligently prejudiced Tancredo made the following statement regarding Judge Sotomayor’s affiliation with La Raza, a prominent civil rights and advocacy organization:

If you belong to an organization called La Raza, in this case, which is, from my point of view anyway, nothing more than a Latino — it’s a counterpart — a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses. If you belong to something like that in a way that’s going to convince me and a lot of other people that it’s got nothing to do with race. Even though the logo of La Raza is ‘All for the race. Nothing for the rest.’ What does that tell you?

Well, Congressman, for starters it tells me that you either a) lack any knowledge of your own peoples’ history in the United States or b) possess an unmatched power for duplicity. In 1888, when politicians discussed the “nuisance” of immigrants remaining unassimilated, they were talking about your grandparents. In the 1940’s, when public campaigns urged Americans to avoid the “Enemies’ Language,” they were talking about your grandparents’ language. What does that  tell you?

However, American history instructs us that such nativism is, ultimately, in vain—O’Reilly and Tancedo’s best efforts notwithstanding. In America, a country founded by collections of disparate émigrés, anti-immigration inevitably falters under the pressure of constantly changing realities; demographics for one: by 2050, “those who describe themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian and Native American will increase in proportion from about a third now to 54%.” More intangibly, Hispanics have increasingly woven themselves into American culture—serving in Congress, the Senate and as (a maniacally right wing) Attorney General. As Sotomayor’s nomination demonstrates, that trend will only continue.

With that in mind, I imagine it will be just as impermissible to openly mock Hispanic judges in 2050 as it would be to call Tom Tancredo a dirty wop guido in 2009. In fact, if we adhere to the existing historic model, Hispanic Congressmen will eventually follow the proud WASP tradition—earning the right to hypocritically warn Americans about the massive influx of Icelandic Lutherans streaming into America’s ports, bringing their “alien brand of Christianity,” “unorthodox music” and a “Scandinavian KKK without the hoods or the nooses.”


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