Politics & Media
May 10, 2010, 05:52AM

Hate Thy Neighbor: Americans Turn on Each Other, Not Institutions

If mass demonstrations and violence erupt in the United States soon, it’ll be over immigration, not economics.

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Arasmus Photo

Last week, in a discussion with a longtime friend about the protests and scattered violence in teetering Greece, he wondered if Americans might take to streets should a similar situation arise here. It’s possible, I suppose, but when this country was experiencing mass financial panic some 18 months ago, with banks and Wall Street firms closing, employers shedding jobs by the hundreds of thousands and the stock market resembling an out-of-kilter casino, there were no huge rallies in cities, just fear and eventually anger. Sure, the crooked Bernie Madoff became the symbol of everything gone wrong—and the butt of media comedians and pundits—and there was little sympathy for the fallen employees of Bear, Stearns and Lehman Bros. (most of whom had nothing to do with the collapse), but I can’t remember rocks and bottles thrown in Manhattan’s financial district.

More than a generation ago, when meteorologists warned of a long, hot summer, there were inevitable predictions of riots, both political and racial, and although they never materialized, it wasn’t much of a stretch considering the civil unrest in the 1960s nearly every year, whether it was Watts, Detroit, Newark or Washington, D.C. In Baltimore, which was especially hard hit by indescribable chaos after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, there still are monuments to that period of upheaval and “white flight” to the suburbs. Boarded-up rowhouses are common, an ugly reminder that it’s still a de facto segregated city. Maryland’s and Baltimore’s elected officials are thrilled to throw tax breaks and other incentives at developers who want to continue the expansion of the anonymous Inner Harbor area, but would rather ignore the blight that still mars even the city’s two main thoroughfares, Charles and St. Paul Sts.

Yet the insurrections of that rocky period of American history are distant memories today, the stuff of Baby Boomer war stories, which either bore their children and grandchildren or inspire the innocent and plausible expressions of, “I wish I was around in the 60s; everything’s so dull today.” I doubt if a college student were thrust back into the thick of SDS culture, Moonies on every urban corner and the over-mythologized “Summer of Love,” he or she would find it so charming. No cell phones, ATMs, computers, social networking and modern medical procedures would put a damper on the scattered excitement; still it’s a natural reaction. When I was that age the idea of working as a foreign correspondent for a daily newspaper in the 1940s held similar allure.

In any case, if the push-a-peanut-with-your-nose economic recovery in the United States falters badly into a double-dip recession (and thanks for nothing, Greece, Portugal and Spain), it’s not likely to foment violent demonstrations. However—and I’m not given to alarmism—what’s happening in Arizona in the wake of the incendiary and outrageously restrictive immigration “reform” bill that was recently passed in that state, with overwhelming public support, could mushroom into the sort of violence we’re seeing in Greece today, and in the suburbs of Paris a few years ago. What’s worse is that publicity-hungry politicians in states such as Florida, California, Texas, Ohio, Missouri, South Carolina, Colorado, Michigan and Georgia are also pushing for similar legislation, feeding on a wave of xenophobia that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the early 20th century.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision what could touch off a riot in one of those states. Say there’s a car accident involving an Hispanic (legal or illegal, it’s irrelevant) and a Caucasian; at first, angry words are exchanged, and then a crowd gathers, fights break out between groups of immigrants and “real” Americans, and a full-bore melee ensues. As every political analyst and journalist reminds readers nearly every day, there’s an “anger” directed at the government today, but despite the war of words and modest Tea Party rallies, there have been scant incidents of actual violence.

No, in the United States, citizens are more likely to erupt over hatred of other people—sometimes their neighbors—rather than institutions such as Congress or a Fortune 500 company. The bigotry, resentment and sheer ignorance that’s been on display, so far fairly peacefully in Arizona—and stoked by Nativist politicians—is going to get far worse before it reaches an impasse. That’s why although President Obama expresses, like President Bush before him, a desire for legitimate and non-punitive immigration reform, it’s unlikely he’ll push it too far in an election year, for any Democrat in a competitive district who speaks up for immigrants is a certain loser in November.

The Los Angeles Times’ Time Rutten laid out the consequences of inaction by President Obama succinctly on May 5, saying, “Comprehensive immigration reform is the Obama administration’s unavoidable responsibility, and the president and those around him should be judged harshly if they fail to take it up now.” I agree with Rutten—particularly when he says that the spread of misguided anti-immigration laws would lead to severe economic distress in California and the Southwest, as well as destroying immigrant families, most of who came to this country to work and pursue what was once called the “American Dream.”

Support for targeted immigrants in Arizona came from an unlikely group last week: Major League Baseball players. Not only did the Major League Players Association come out against the Arizona legislation, but several athletes did as well. Adrian Gonzales, the San Diego Padres superstar, said he wouldn’t play (if selected) in next year’s All-Star game in Phoenix if the “discriminating law” is on the books (Phoenix's basketball squad, the Suns, has unequivocally denounced the bill). Additionally, although he knows it’s quixotic, he also called for a boycott next year of spring training camps in Arizona.

The New York Mets’ Rod Barajas, speaking to a New York Times reporter, was even more heated: “You would like to hope there is no stereotyping going on, but it’s hard to see that there would not be. If they happen to pull over someone who looks like they’re of Latin descent, even if they are a U.S. citizen [like Barajas] that is the first question that is going to be asked. But if a blond-haired, blue-eyed Canadian gets pulled over, do you think they are going to ask for their papers? No.”

Baseball players aren’t known for political activism—during the decades of civil rights struggles, few black players were willing to rock the boat, with a few notable exceptions such as Curt Flood—but with so many Hispanics on MLB rosters, perhaps that could change. Imagine this: a delegation led by the likes of Gonzales, Johan Santana, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Mariano Rivera, Orlando Cabrera, Kendry Morales, Miguel Tejada, Robinson Cano and others, testifying before Congress on the issue, highlighting the fact that although they’re wealthy, they’re speaking on behalf of fellow countrymen, most who can’t afford to even see them play. Adding several white stars to the scrum—say Joe Mauer, Tim Lincecum, Todd Helton, Kevin Youkilis and David Wright—would make an even bigger statement. (The politicians would drop everything for such an event: they’re also fans who want to rub shoulders with athletic greats.)

It might backfire in certain cities, since the crowds at stadiums are, by and large, predominantly white, but as a declaration of plain decency and morality, these men, who have truly realized the “American Dream,” could hold their heads high.

  • I agree that immigration is the most likely issue to act as a spark for violence. However, I think the bad economy is the dry tinder that allows the spark to catch. I never seem to hear as much anti-immigrant talk in a good economy as I do in a bad one. My first five years in texas, the only serious border talk I heard was on Walker, Texas Ranger. Today, it is on the news on a nightly basis.

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  • Russ, Your piece underscores the time-proven adage, "Two wrongs don't make a right." The Arizona law will undoubtedly bring about numerous incidents of racial profiling and worse of American citizens of Hispanic heritage. This is morally reprehensible and unacceptable even though I can comprehend the origin of the state law: Arizona's frustration with the President and Congress ducking the gnarly issue of an omnibus immigration law. NOW is the time for Obama to use his grandiloquence and professorial skills to educate and convince the public why and exactly how a comprehensive immigration policy and law is in the country's best interest. Hint: Look at American history for the positive that immigration has wrought. Obama should do the right thing here and not overly weigh the politics. Just do it; be a leader.

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  • To be honest this whole immigration debacle in Arizona really surprised me. I can't believe so much of our country is so fucking stupid and ignorant to this day. It's just absolutely disgusting, the racism and xenophobia on display. if Obama has any balls at all (and if he wants my vote in 2012), then he'll take care of this nasty blemish in the next year.

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