Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Politics of Prejudice

Last week I included several lengthy excerpts from an 1892 speech that then-Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge delivered to students at Harvard University on the topic of political independence and party allegiance. While I continue to urge you to read that particular speech in its entirety, I mention Henry Cabot Lodge now specifically for his position on immigration.

Lodge, who many would consider one of the great political thinkers of the United States Senate, of his generation or any other, was a staunch imperialist associated with the imperialist faction of the Senate that included Idaho's own William Borah (who joined Lodge in opposing President Wilson's League of Nations). Like many imperialists at the turn of the century, Lodge's imperialism was unfortunately linked to a strong position against immigration. As a member of the Immigration Restriction League, an organization founded in the northeastern U.S. as a response to European immigration, Lodge was supportive of its principles and desire to keep "undesirable immigrants" from reaching American soil. The Immigration Restriction League lobbied for a national literacy test, as a road block for immigrants, that was enacted by Congress in 1896, 1913, 1915, and 1917 (every bill with the exception of the 1917 one was vetoed). In addition to supporting a literacy test for immigrants, Lodge also played on the fears of struggling Americans in vocalizing his belief that foreign workers drove down the standard of living for Americans and uneducated immigrants drove up crime rates as well as overall national decline. Sound familiar?

Lodge and other members of the conservative and imperialist factions of the Republican Party believed these things about immigrants at the turn of the century--the 20th century. If the antics of the Tea Party, the increasingly conservative GOP, and Idaho's first district congressman are any indication, a growing number of Americans would like to return to the days of the Immigration Restriction League and the xenophobia of the early 20th century.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said he could not understand how Hispanics could be Republicans, not only did he tap into extreme criticism from the right, he sparked many an enterprising blogger's ire and quickly a dug-up story that he once supported ending birthright citizenship went viral. What Harry Reid also tapped into is the unfortunately growing transparency of the GOP's discriminatory ways.

Take a moment to consider the following events: Governor Jan Brewer's signing of SB 1070 in Arizona, Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional and the far right backlash to the ruling, the uproar over the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York City as well as the Florida pastor's publicity stunt surrounding the burning of the Quran, and the emergence of a recent talking point centered around repealing the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution to put an end to birthright citizenship. In each of these instances, it is quite obvious that the Republican Party stands firmly against equality. Is not discrimination the antithesis of equality?

Anyone should have a hard time believing that this level of prejudice has existed within an organization all along. In the case of the Republican Party, the fact that they were the proponents that pushed forward the 14th amendment originally is the best proof we have that they haven't always held such discriminatory views.

When Governor Jan Brewer signed into law legislation that would make racial profiling common place and would put immigration enforcement into the hands of state and local cops who have no business doing the job of federal agents, a firestorm ignited in this country. In an already charged political environment that has made heroes of officials like Joe Arpaio, who continues to refuse to cooperate with a federal civil rights investigation of his department, the person with the most extreme position on immigration gets the most airtime. Consider the Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino in New York state; his position regarding those on welfare, essentially that they should be taught hygiene and housed in prison dorms, has garnered more press than any single position of his primary or general election opponents. This is the case with all politicians who are taking a position on immigration right now--the crazier, the more press and unfortunately, the more die-hard fans. In trying to "out crazy" each other, those on the right are resorting to positions that alienate minorities . It is as simple as that.

Here in Idaho, a candidate who may have once held sensible positions on immigration reform is forced to say he supports Governor Otter and Idaho's alliance with the lawsuit Governor Brewer in Arizona is waging against the federal government. Why? Because he is forced to compete for the votes of an increasingly kooky party and is being attacked from the right by his supposedly Democratic opponent. Never mind the fact that if traveling through Arizona, particularly the Phoenix area, in casual clothes, candidate Labrador might be the target of discrimination himself. Why leave the state? The same bigotry that drove Walt Minnick to attack his Hispanic opponent for being an immigration attorney is what drove Arizona to pass its discriminatory immigration bill. As long as the GOP and consenting Democrats allow the immigration debate to be framed as an anti-foreigner one, minorities will continue to be discriminated against at platform committee meetings and state conventions across this country.

It's a long road back to the immigration policy hopes of President George W. Bush when the senior senator from Arizona runs campaign ads promising to "complete the danged fence" (and, even further back to this). It's a long way back to the Republican Party that once promoted the 14th amendment, especially when the party's most vocal member is promoting what amounts to the very opposite of what the Civil Rights Era accomplished. It's a long road back to the place where most liberals didn't believe conservatives to be racists (and, it'll take more than this WaPo piece to explain to us why we're wrong). Unfortunately, as long as those roads may be, with the GOP leading the way, we may be headed straight back to the days preceding World War I, the days when organizations like the Immigration Restriction League were all the rage and membership in them was completely acceptable for our highest elected officials.

While we may think that the prejudice that was pervasive in politics at the turn of the 20th century is long in our rear view mirror, we may be underestimating the zeal with which the GOP and Tea Party would like to return us to the pre-Progressive Era policies that produced the Immigration Restriction League. After all, isn't a national literacy test exactly what English First groups have been advocating for years?

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