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Guest Thinkers

The Return of the Nativist

The election of Barack Obama was a watershed moment in American history. Just twenty years before it was hard to imagine that a majority of Americans would vote for a black man to become president. It was amazing to think, as The Onion joked, that a black candidate’s main problem could be that he was seen as being to elitist and out of touch with ordinary Americans. But as I have argued before, it is far too early to declare that we have become some kind of post-racial society. In fact, Obama’s election may have brought to the surface old racial tensions and helped trigger a new wave of nativism across the country.

President Obama’s race was an issue in his election, of course, both for his supporters and for his opponents. And it is hard to imagine that someone who looked like John McCain—who, ironically, actually was born overseas—would have faced the persistent rumors Obama did that he was secretly Muslim and not an American citizen. Obama seems to have felt foreign to many Americans, even if they weren’t conscious of any racism. That sense that they are now governed by someone who is not somehow one of them—combined with the floundering economy—seems to have left many Americans feeling alienated and abused, and looking for someone to blame.

Consider, most obviously, the recent Arizona law asking police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Every nation has the right to control its borders, and illegal immigration presents a real problems for border states like Arizona. There isn’t much evidence, however, that illegal immigrants have done much to take jobs away from or raise the tax burden on citizens. But immigrants—particularly those who speak different languages and look different than than the prototypical white American—make easy scapegoats. Arizona’s new law effectively puts everyone who has brown skin or who speaks Spanish under suspicion of being in the country illegally, opening up Hispanic citizens and legal immigrants to being harassed because of their skin color or ethnic background.

Consider, too, a host of new political ads targeting foreigners, non-whites, and non-English speakers. In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) has attacked her primary opponent Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter for sitting on the board of a company that off-shored jobs to India. And a group called Americans for Job Security is running a parallel ad showing Indians thanking Halter for creating jobs in Bangalore rather than in Arkansas. Meanwhile, Dan Fanelli, who hopes to challenge Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) in the fall, has tried to set himself apart from the Republican field with a series of spots arguing for racial profiling, on the grounds that terrorists are more likely to look and speak Arabic. In one, he asks viewers whether an grinning, elderly white man or a young, sullen Arab man looks more like a terrorist to them—apparently forgetting, as Steve Benen says, that both Timothy McVeigh and Joe Stack were white. And in Alabama Republican candidate for Governor Tim James is campaigning against letting people to take the driver’s license exam in other languages besides English. He argues that eliminating foreign language versions of the exam would save the state money, even though it would probably cost the state much more money than it saved in federal transportation subsidies and the driver’s license exam is certainly not one of Alabama’s pressing problems. And in a video James makes it clear that his real target is not the driver’s license policy, but foreign-language speakers themselves, saying “This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

Obama’s election surely didn’t by itself create this resentment of foreigners and non-whites. It merely exposed racial divisions that already existed. The truth is, though, that our economic and social crises are largely of our own making—and non-whites are suffering as much or more than most of us. Blaming them for our problems isn’t going to help anything.


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