Karume James is a community organizer based in South Los Angeles, California. He helps to develop community leadership and organize people across generations and ethnic backgrounds through his work as communities rising director at the Community Coalition. He says, “Racism is everybody’s problem, and until we work together to eliminate racial oppression in the U.S., poor people and people of color, regardless of status, will continue to be subjected to the constant burden of racism in all its forms,” James says. “A way to work towards this is challenging discriminatory language that is used to define people.” We are proud to count on Karume James as an ally and friend.
For the “I Am…” storytelling project, people from all walks of life relate experiences, demand respect and reject criminalizing language about immigrants. Stories are gathered in collaboration with allies and campaign partners.
I Am an Ally, Activist and Friend
I live in Los Angeles and as a black male, my cultural/ethnic community is as diverse and complex as the city itself. As a college graduate and young professional, my social community is unique and eclectic with deep values, fierce passion and committed to a vision of the world that treats everyone with respect, dignity and virtue.
My family arrived in the U.S. in the 1800’s from West Africa, as part of the the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From Arkansas and Texas, our family migrated to California where I was born. My family’s history represents the painful stain of injustice in the U.S. as generations of my family members lived without the rights of citizenship. Today, I am proud to work as an organizer to fight for the rights of ALL people that have been denied access to the pursuit of their dreams.
These days people are denied their dreams by the concept that they can be “illegals.” That slur denies people due process and other fundamental human rights. My first encounter with the i-word was from my own family when I was a child. I was raised in a single-parent household, in a community that was racially diverse with black, Latino and white families. My earliest memory of hearing the word made me really uncomfortable, but I couldn’t say why—I just knew that there was something very wrong with how it was said and whom it targeted. I didn’t have the words to challenge such a derogatory term as a child, but I recognized that I never wanted to look at another human being that way.
Now my experience with the immigration system has been shaped through the eyes of friends and colleagues that have had to navigate through the intricacies of a massive bureaucracy. In my first job out of college, I worked with a friend who spent part of his childhood in his home country of Guatemala and then migrated to Los Angeles with his parents when he was still in elementary school. Despite having a Master’s degree from UCLA, and living for over 20 years in the U.S., he had received permanent resident status only recently, due to the length of the citizenship process. His story, like the countless others I have heard over the years, shows me that it’s the disastrous immigration system that criminalizes working people and creates nearly impossible barriers for people to live and work in U.S. society.
Opposing perceptions of immigrants is based in hundreds of years of racial oppression in the United States. Racism is everybody’s problem and until we work together to eliminate racial oppression in the U.S., poor people and people of color, regardless of status, will continue to be subjected to the constant burden of racism in all its forms. A way to work towards this is challenging discriminatory language that is used to define people.
Looking back to my childhood, I recognize that people who use the slur “illegal” are individuals who have been affected by the same system of racial oppression that creates the conditions for the term in the first place. Some people who call immigrants “illegals” today, may have learned that from their parents’ fears of the “other.” Their parents or grandparents may have either called other people the n-word or at some point, they may have been on the receiving end of that horrible slur, which also helped justify laws and actions that dehumanized, demonized and criminalized black people in this country. Opposing perceptions of immigrants is based in hundreds of years of racial oppression that has paralleled (and led) the development of the United States. Although the targeted immigrant group has changed several times in the last 150 years (poor Irish in the 1840s, Chinese railroad workers in the 1880s, Japanese in the 1940s, Latinos today), the nature of the oppression is still the same. The system of racial oppression identifies groups of people that migrate to the U.S. as artificial enemies that the most powerful members of U.S. society can use as targets to splinter the least powerful, and to prevent them from organizing together to eliminate racism from this country.
Racial slurs are not all exactly the same, and peoples’ histories are not either. But what this type of powerful language has in common, no matter who it’s applied to, is that it stokes fear and hatred in people to inspire and excuse dangerous rules and behaviors. The i-word criminalizes working people instead of moving us toward creative solutions to complex challenges. It also reinforces barriers between communities and dehumanizes everyone in the process. The slur “illegal” strikes in the face of respect, dignity, fairness, justice, equality and humanity. We want to be our values, not destroy them.
I Am an ally, an activist and a friend to my sisters and brothers. Will you stand with me to move our country and our future forward? Will you Drop the I-Word?