The NYT Demonstrates How Not to Talk About Immigration

A colorblind, white-as-default, fact-phobic approach typifies the many shortcomings of our dialogue around race, values and immigration.

By Channing Kennedy May 19, 2010

In the wake of last week’s polls around public opinion on Arizona’s SB 1070 law mandating racial profiling, two new published pieces merit your attention. The first is the new polling data from SEIU and NCLR, which addresses many of the questions raised by Pew’s un-raced monolingual landline poll of national attitudes toward the law. This new data tells us, among other things, that 81 percent of Latino voters oppose SB 1070; that half of Latino voters will now think twice before calling the cops to their home if they’re the victim of a crime; and that everyone’s waiting for real policy proposals, from Democrats or Republicans. I cannot encourage you enough to dig into these charts. The second piece you should read, if it hasn’t already been forwarded to you, is in Monday’s New York Times, "A Generation Gap Over Immigration." It concludes, somewhat awkwardly, that it’s an age thing; since Baby Boomers grew up in a world with fewer immigrants, they’re unable to cope, unlike kids these days, who had Sesame Street. This article comes three days after the new SEIU/NCLR data, but seems unaware of it. This is an important read — because its colorblind, white-as-default, fact-phobic approach typifies the many shortcomings of our dialogue around race, values, and immigration policy. And it’s in the New York Times. For starters, the article muddies its thesis and conclusions by failing to talk about the race of its ‘American’ statistics or interview subjects. Are we meant to read ‘people’ as ‘white natural-born citizens’ in context? Fears about immigration are printed as facts. A couple of concerned citizens, one an immigrant herself, recite the old chestnuts about immigrants as dangerous criminals who drain public resources. These people are wrong — immigration grows the economy, and it doesn’t bring crime — but I’m yet to read an mainstream publication article titled "SOME OLD PEOPLE WRONG." For that matter, why not spend a sentence on the effects of NAFTA, and on immigration policy’s merging with criminal law in the last twenty years, if you’re going to let someone regurgitate an email forward about how immigrants these days are "different"? As with so many issues, conservative-mindset ideas are presented as facts, and facts aren’t presented. Meanwhile, young people like immigrants because they work hard and like The Parent Trap. Kids ages 18-35 these days, with their skateboards and their absence of data-backed policy initiatives! This is worse than the garden-variety equal time fallacy, in which "The Earth is flat" and "The Earth is round" are both validated. This is "The Earth is flat" against "People should just deal with the fact that the Earth is flat." As far as the media is concerned, the truth about immigration isn’t worth the space to print it. There’s also a garbled, specious claim that (white) people didn’t live in cities, where the immigrants are, until recently. Presumably, these white people were living in Real America, not New York City. Sound familiar? All of this is not to say that people of color aren’t mentioned. They are.

Ms. Patrick, 22, said the gap reflected what each group saw as normal. In her view, current immigration levels — legal and illegal — represent “the natural course of history.” As children, after all, her generation watched “Sesame Street” with Hispanic characters, many of them sat in classrooms that were a virtual United Nations, and now they marry across ethnic lines in record numbers. Their children are even adopting mixed monikers like “Mexipino,” (Mexican and Filipino) and “Blaxican” (black and Mexican). That “multiculti” (short for multicultural) United States is not without challenges. Aparna Malladi, 31, a graduate student at Florida International University originally from India, said that when she first entered laboratories in Miami, it took a while for her to learn the customs. “I didn’t know that when I enter a room, I have to greet everyone and say goodbye when I leave,” Ms. Malladi said. “People thought I was being rude.” Still, in interviews across the nation, young people emphasized the benefits of immigrants.

So, Ms. Patrick, who’s 22 years old, and who may or may not be white, is fine with ‘illegal’ immigration, and the trials of her statistically inferred mixed-race child (who disconcertingly refers to himself or herself as ‘Mexipino’) are illustrated by an Indian grad student not knowing to say goodbye upon leaving a room. And despite this grad student’s rudeness, young people are OK with immigrants. Truly, this is the Sandra Lee Kwanzaa cake of person-of-color profiles. And finally, research from the Brookings Institution is referenced, showing that cities across the American Southwest have a lower percentage of white kids vs. kids of color than they do of white old people vs. old people of color. It’s not broken down by race or neighborhood or immigration status; it’s just white and non-white. Your guess about what this chart could show, devoid of context, is as good as mine. People of color don’t often retire in the Southwest? It’s hard for old white people to make old non-white friends? Hey, maybe that last one is an issue. In terms of differences in attitude toward immigration, it seems more useful to discuss it in terms of exposure and personal experience — to say that non-Latino people who know Latinos, or who have seen Latinos somewhere other than on cable news, are less likely to be afraid of them. And as America’s demographics change, and as its cities and suburbs desegregate, it becomes harder to scare voters with racialized terms like "illegal immigration." What the article gets right is that the policy dialogue — and, point in fact, the media dialogue — is for and by the old, white, sheltered people. And it’s not enough to wait for them to die; the economic and legislative disparities that segregate our communities and foster racial resentment are still in effect. And there’s no guarantee that the current anti-immigration wave will just break and dissipate on its own, or that young people will magically get informed about the issues. The principles that guide our work toward humane policies are gut-level. But the policy work itself is very complicated, and it’s easy to get told lies about. The "age" angle, the "culture war" angle, is cute, because it moves the conversation away from race and away from accountability. That’s only good for people who don’t have to think about race. Immigration is a race issue. Talking about it in any other way is a waste of time. And everyone who says otherwise needs to be pushed back on. Winning the fight for a just immigration policy may involve engaging with old people. It will definitely involve engaging with old media, and new media. And it won’t happen at all until we put control of the story back in the hands of its main characters.