Homogenous xenophobia: Change we’d better believe in

Originally @ Stanford Progressive

The midterm elections are fast approaching, where all Americans get the opportunity to reevaluate what their government stands for and what they value in state and federal policy. This year’s hot topic? Taking comprehensive strides to eliminate heterogeneity from American society. That’s right, racism is back in vogue.

By now even most politically apathetic people have been exposed to various opinions and interpretations of the proposed Arizona bill SB 1070. The legislation proposes mandating that state and federal authorities check anyone they deem to be suspicious for proof of American citizenship. Suspicious characteristics, as defined by the bill itself, refer to telltale signs such as shoe brands (certain types of shoes are produced in Mexico but not the United States.)

Like so many laws, the bill will operate in practice differently than it is outlined on paper. Chances are, when the Arizona state police are on patrol, they will be paying more attention to the language a person speaks and the color of their skin than the shoes on their feet when assessing ‘suspiciousness.’

What is most surprising about all the reactions to the Arizona bill is how overlooked many similar state bills and candidates have become. Though the proposals of SB 1070 are highly controversial and well-publicized, this proposed legislation is hardly the exception to the rule for this year’s midterm elections.

Rather, the bill rides a wave of populist sentiment directed at members of our society who don’t fit the profile of the stereotypical American. It seems that an overriding priority of this year’s electorate – which politicians are adeptly tapping into – is to work on marginalizing and reducing outsiders and foreigners’ influence on our homogenous culture.

Take Alabama Gubernatorial candidate Tim James for example. Among his numerous other proposals for state policy (some of them very progressive, such as harnessing renewable energy and statewide broadband internet), he recommends that we eliminate foreign languages from state drivers’ license tests. As he states in his TV ad, “This is Alabama. We speak English here. If you wanna live here, learn it.” After all, as he notes, eliminating the other twelve languages on the test will save money for the state.

Maybe Mr. James is right, and reducing the impact of foreign cultures on Alabama will save money for the state. But how far do we cater to the needs of business and fiscal responsibility by marginalizing minorities? The problem with this kind of proposed legislation is that it doesn’t give us a brightline by which to judge the point at which it is unacceptable to use legislation to target minorities. Is segregation acceptable if it lowers taxes, raises property values, and cleans up our schools?

If Tim James seems racially insensitive, he is the paragon of political correctness when compared to Dan Fanelli, a Republican running for Congress in Florida. Fanelli’s TV ad opens with a shot of him standing in front of a small propeller plane, with an elderly white man by his side. “Doe this look like a terrorist?” he asks, “Or this,” he continues, pointing to the middle-eastern looking man the camera pans to on his left. Like James, Fanelli is quick to tell voters that he is just trying to instill ‘common sense’ in government. That is, if common sense dictates that we racially profile minorities on the basis that they are either illegal immigrants or terrorists.

Another bill has been introduced in Minnesota by Rep. Steve Drazkowski aimed at instituting racial profiling in the state to mimic the proposed Arizona law, proving that this trend is not geographically limited to one part of the United States. As Minnesota Gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer notes, the Arizona law is “wonderful.”

These midterm elections highlight for us the pitfalls of competing interests. In a period of economic recession, when budgets are limited and belts are tight, people tend to target strawmen demographics they feel may be responsible for their financial situation. In a period of prosperity, combating immigrants, homogenizing language, and limiting the influence of minorities may not be such a priority. However, people are quick to point out which demographics could be contributing to state fiscal problems when there isn’t enough money to go around.

Tim James calls his propositions ‘common sense.’ Let’s implement real common sense in this year’s midterm elections and aim our frustrations away from racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities and at the government, which has a real chance to implement progressive policy this year.


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