I’ve heard the term “race war” used a lot in the past couple of years, and it’s usually from the same group of people. First, “war” does not mean what people seem to think it means. A war is a terrible, violent, deadly thing. Most people in America are safe from war, and fairly safe from violence.
The theoretical prospect of an American race war in 2015 usually centers on black people and white people. The debate largely ignores the rest of the U.S. population, and it also ignores the fact that the large majority (America is currently 63% white) has little to fear from the 13% of the population that is black. While black people in America have provided a critical structural and cultural foundation for the United States, by the numbers, black people have never even been a quarter of the population.
Presidential hopeful Donald Trump recently released a plan to address immigration in the U.S., and he has explicitly called out one group of people – Mexicans. He is calling for a wall to be built, on Mexico’s dime. He claims that immigrants in the United States are taking jobs away from Americans, and preventing economic growth.
Donald Trump is either very smart, or very lucky. I tend to think the former over the latter because I generally want to believe luck doesn’t build an empire as vast as his, but to be honest I wouldn’t know. However, I’ve questioned that assumption with the release of this immigration plan for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is that there is no way the Mexican government, or any government for that matter, would pay to build a wall to keep people in. Trump has to know this. The American people (I hope) know this. Why are we even toying with such an illegitimate idea? I have a suspicion…
That suspicion goes like this: our rhetoric, the way we talk about immigrants, has allowed far too many Americans to put people who come to this country illegally into a subhuman category. That isn’t anything new for this country, we’ve dehumanized many groups in the name of acquiring land, obtaining free labor, and keeping people safe. The thing about dehumanizing humans is it removes the perpetrators from reality, and the reality of our system of immigration is that we eat the food immigrants grow, live in the houses they build, and thrive in the economy that rests on their backs.
Donald Trump must know this. He understands the economic system we’ve set up for ourselves, so I refuse to believe he does not understand the harsh reality of the American agriculture industry, for example. Maybe he truly doesn’t know that some farmers have tried hiring local, if you will, only to find that the people who work hard and efficiently enough to get the work done are often immigrants.
Donald hasn’t said where the money will come from to hire the army of workers it will require to replace the infrastructure we’ve built on the backs of immigrants. If immigrants are taking American jobs, does that mean Trump plans to replace exploitative immigrant labor with American workers who are all paid at least minimum wage? That in and of itself would require a dramatic restructuring of multiple industries from agriculture to construction, and it could mean an end to the super-discounted mega grocery stores Americans have grown accustomed to (I’m looking at you, Wal-Mart). I’m definitely not advocating against restructuring. In fact, if Trump is advocating for that it’s a conversation I would very much like for the country to have. Somehow I doubt that is his intention.
The people Trump’s plan speaks to either want things both ways, or they are genuinely ignorant about how much we rely on immigrants in our daily lives. I suspect it is the latter. Just like when Americans had slaves, or when many middle class families had maids, the idea for certain classes of people living in America has been that they should not be seen or heard. We’ve successfully sequestered entire populations into a life of exploitation, manual labor, and dehumanization while benefiting directly from their hard work.
The language we use to describe immigrants allows this, and it must stop. Humans are not aliens. When a person crosses a dry river or desert into another country they do not lose their right of person-hood, and the philosophy (not always the action) of the United States supports that assertion. People are people, and Americans do not have the right, via rhetoric or law, to take that away. We do have a right to discuss the economic and structural concerns around immigration, but we do not have the right to strip people of their humanity. That is why California is removing the word “alien” from official language in its labor code. It is derogatory, it is unnecessary, and it is not helpful to the progress of a productive conversation.
I reject the language of Donald Trump’s plan as race baiting, just as I reject the use of the terms “thug” and “ghetto” in mainstream society as more of the same. I’m sure Trump would not agree that he is race-baiting, and that the American people have better judgment than to take his rhetoric that way. To that I would point to Dylann Roof, or Timothy McVeigh, or Jim Crow laws, or the Indian Removal Act, or the 3/5ths Compromise. Rhetoric often allows racist actions to exist under the guise of law, and when I listen to Trump’s immigration proposal it feels uncomfortably familiar.
Something else to consider is that Nazi Germany often used similar language about job theft and hyper-nationalism as propaganda against the Jews. That turned out to be deadly, and much of the rhetoric, like Trump’s, was not founded in reality. People rarely accept Holocaust comparisons because it is hard for us to believe humans can be so evil, but in my view the greater outrage would be to pretend that humans can’t and won’t make the same mistakes again.
In 30 years, “minorities” will be the majority in the United States, and the stand-alone Latino population will be 25%. Most of those people will not be immigrants, but many or most will have ties to someone who is. If Dylann Roof viewed (wrongly) the people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston as all part of the monolithic group that “rapes our women and takes over the country,” why take the chance that others like him might hear the rhetoric of the job-sucking immigrant and lash out in a similar way? In fact, it appears that may have already happened.The President of the United States is many things, but arguably his most important role is to lead the American people in action and language. Creating division is not the mark of a good president, and considering the shifting demographics of the U.S., this version of race-baiting is simply bad strategy.
Rhetoric matters, and it also happens to be one of the sharpest tools in the shed.