By Sikivu Hutchinson
With the final countdown to the election the GOP and the Religious Right are desperately trying to get their compassionate conservatism on. After months of spewing white supremacist Minuteman rhetoric about dangerous illegals, Mitt Romney has come, hat in hand, to Latinos with a “kinder gentler” message. President Obama’s granting of work permits and freedom from deportation to undocumented youth upped the ante for Romney. Speaking recently before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Romney didn’t dare reiterate his infamous demand that undocumented Latinos “self-deport.” Instead, he trotted out bromides about keeping “strong families” together in a blizzard of limp pandering. Recently the New York Times reported that some evangelicals are (shockingly) advocating a softer stance toward undocumented immigrants. Like those freshly-scrubbed Mormon missionary boys who descend ritualistically onto the third world/inner city, some evangelicals are bug-eyed over the prospect of fresh meat from the “barrio.” The smartest among them have read the tea leaves and checked the collection plates. Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the evangelical population. Latino parishioners are fueling a resurgence of Pentecostalism in the U.S. and filling in the gaps of an aging white demographic in decline. Taking a hard line white supremacist stance on immigration is political suicide for the GOP and the Religious Right. As they continue to do a tortured 180 on immigration policy the Right will ratchet up classic divide and conquer narratives tied to bootstrapping and a racialized mythos of hard work. These messages ultimately pivot on an implicit contrast between immigrant Latinos and African Americans.
In her book Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison argues, “The rights of man…an organizing principle on which this nation was founded…was inevitably yoked to Africanism…the concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free…but the not-me…It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their ‘Americanness’ as an opposition to the resident black population.”
This contrast between the immigrant trajectory of seized opportunity (and earned citizenship) versus the resident black population’s essential otherness, is a subtext of the GOP’s anti-government platform. Every school age child of color has been indoctrinated into Statue of Liberty shtick declaring that somewhere back in the mists of time white people were poor backward immigrants clawing tooth and nail to make it on America’s gold-paved streets. Every child of color is supposed to know that whites who work every day achieve upward mobility against great personal odds. That’s why they don’t see white people living in their neighborhoods or going to their schools. That’s why some of my students associate white masculinity with Donald Trump caricatures of wealth and privilege. The white immigrant narrative is privileged as the most authentic version of personal ingenuity and achievement. Exposed to textbook stories of heroic white historical figures that triumphed against adversity students of color are taught to believe that all white work is hard work. Dirt poor whites whose ancestors grew up in log cabins, escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe, potato famine in Ireland, and Bubonic plague in England made America the proud beacon of democracy and free enterprise that it is today. In the late twentieth century Asian and (legal) Latino immigrants picked up the torch. The blaring message to blacks is, if “those tired, poor, huddled masses did it, why can’t you people?”
As nativist and xenophobic as the GOP’s opposition to the Dream Act is it is still mediated by the perception that immigrant workers are hardworking. Much of GOP presidential primary messaging about work—from Newt Gingrich’s racist slurs about blacks waiting for handouts, to Rick Santorum’s “I don’t want to make black people’s live better by giving them other people’s money” comment–evoked the myth of black welfare dependency and white industriousness. Thus, even though immigrants of color will always be perpetual outsiders their citizenship is viewed as being hard fought, hard won, and richly deserved. For example, golden boy Republican senator Marco Rubio has become the right’s Hispanic du jour because his autobiography seems to fit neatly into the narrative of American exceptionalism and immigrant enterprise. This narrative dovetails with Latinos’ intermediary racial status. Despite being of mixed black, Asian, Indian and European ancestry the majority of Latinos in the U.S. identify racially as white. Clearly the ambiguity of Latino racial identity was a significant factor in Middle American solidarity with George Zimmerman. Jewish Peruvian-American “white Hispanic” Zimmerman’s $200k defense fund was bankrolled by white fears of the criminal black welfare leeching other. Had Martin been “white Hispanic” and Zimmerman black not only would there have been no defense fund but Zimmerman would have been arrested, charged, and tried in due course.
A few weeks ago an Arkansas Tea Party official got knee-slapping laughs after telling the following widely publicized joke at a gathering:
A Black son asks his mother what democracy means. Her response was, “Well, son, that be when white folks work every day so us po’ folks can get all our benefits.”
“But mama, don’t the white folk get mad about that?”
“They sho do, son. They sho do. And that’s called racism.”
So while undocumented Latinos “steal” American jobs, blacks wait for handouts and white people toil for the American dream. Blacks believe living on the dole is “their” birthright; whites and bootstrapping family values minorities fester under the yoke of a welfare state that wants to kill free enterprise with taxes and enslaving regulation. The kinder gentler GOP will exploit this racist propaganda in an explicit appeal to Latino voters’ provisional model minority status. And it will be the soundtrack of 2016.