Is "race" a factor in the current debate over immigration? That was the question host Gloria Penner posed to her three panelists on KPBS-FM's Editors Roundtable program last Friday.
Good question. And our guess is that roughly half the American public would answer "yes," and the other half would answer "no." On the show, San Diego Voice and Viewpoint publisher John Warren seemed to think race is a factor. San Diego Metropolitan editor Tim McClain gave sort of a wishy-washy answer, saying that although racism often accompanies immigration debates, race is not a factor at the issue's "core," and adding that the reaction in this country would be the same if the influx was coming from Europe.
But it was good ol' Bob Kittle's response that intrigued us. Kittle, the editorial page editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, said flat-out that race is most certainly not a factor, using the claim that legal Latino residents dislike illegal immigration just as much as the rest of us. OK. Point taken. But then he went on to recite the following:
"What is occurring here, I think-and not enough attention has been given to it-is this growing concern among a lot of Americans about losing our culture. It's an unspoken thing in many cases, but when Latino immigrants have come in in such large numbers, as they have in the last 20 years, and where Spanish has become more prevalent in many places, people feel a loss of their culture, because language is the core of our culture. When protesters wave the Mexican flag, it strikes a visceral chord with many Americans because they feel a loss of their culture. You know, when the protestors say, 'I didn't cross the border; the border crossed me'-meaning a reference to the war of 1846 to 1848-it strikes a sense of fear, I think, an underlying fear that our country, our culture, our heritage is being threatened by this immigration."
Well, we would posit that perhaps Kittle is suffering from a severe case of denialitis. If fearing that a group of foreign immigrants who look and sound different from us will destroy our "culture" isn't racism, we don't know what is.
Look, arguing that immigration is mostly an economic issue, or a simple law-and-order issue, would be valid, and, in that case, race would not necessarily be a factor. But Kittle didn't say that. We agree with his assessment that many Americans fear the cultural consequences of the arrival of millions upon millions of Latino immigrants, but how can he say with a straight face that race has nothing to do with that fear?
Kittle appears to be a member of that group of people who think racism has been pushed into the margins of American society. This group is in denial. No, racism doesn't take the same form as it did up until the 1960s. Sure, we've made great strides toward racial enlightenment. But we're not there yet. Today's racism is quieter-many people don't even know it's in them-and it seeps out in comments like Kittle's.
For the moment, we're going to assume he's simply observing a broader societal attitude, and that he himself doesn't necessarily fear the loss of the American "culture." We'd like to ask the people he's referring to: What is American culture, and how would these immigrants destroy it?
A cynic might say the predominant American culture is an unholy stew of consumerism, materialism and instant-gratificationism. One who looks on the brighter side of life might say our culture is a wonderful mix of other cultures-European, Asian, African and Latin American-infused with an appreciation of concepts like freedom and equality. If you buy into the former, immigrants can't destroy that; they get swallowed whole by it. If you like the latter definition, immigrants don't ruin it; they help create it and are assimilated into it. One could even argue that there is no distinct American culture to lose. So, what are we really afraid of? Another language being spoken here? Is that really it?
Kittle is right: It's a matter of numbers. For the most part, people can deal with limited, managed, legal immigration (as if that were possible) because they probably believe a trickle of people can be assimilated without throwing off the cultural equilibrium. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics will comprise 15.5 percent of the total population in 2010, and that number will swell to 24.4 percent by 2050-while the percentage of white people will drop from 69.4 to 50.1. Some of us celebrate that diversification, but it scares the crap out of others among us. Why? Prejudice-which can be defined simply as fear of that which is different.
Let's just admit that it is an issue. Then we can have a more open, more honest discussion.