News and views from the award-winning author of the Class H Trilogy: AMERICA LIBRE, HOUSE DIVIDED and PANCHO LAND
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Is CNN’s Lou Dobbs playing with fire?
I’m sure Lou Dobbs imagines himself a patriot. He seems compelled to defend the U.S. from “illegal” immigrants, an enemy that threatens his vision of America. Yet Dobbs’ near-daily harangues against Hispanic immigrants are stoking a smoldering fire that may one day consume the nation in a very real conflict.
One of Dobbs’ recurring themes is the so-called “reconquista.” According to this conspiracy theory which brands all Hispanics as a threat, the Mexican government has been plotting for decades to take back the U.S. Southwest through a massive wave of migration. How Mexico, accused by Dobbs of being “a failed state,” can sustain this generations-long strategy through a succession of one-term presidents is never quite explained. Still, these irrational accusations create fear of Hispanics among uninformed mainstream Americans – and stir resentment among most Latinos.
Thanks to demagogues like Dobbs, for many in the U.S. today “Hispanic” and “immigrant” have become interchangeable terms. The extent of this fallacy was made clear when several media sources identified Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a “Hispanic immigrant” when first nominated as a Supreme Court Justice. For the record, Sotomayor was born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican parents. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens — not immigrants.
This intertwining of “Hispanic” with “immigrant” combined with the assumption that most Hispanic immigrants are also “illegal” has already led to bloodshed. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports Latinos have become the number one victims of hate crimes. Young men presumed to be Hispanic have been brutally attacked by strangers in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. How much the hate-mongering by Dobbs has motivated these attacks is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to imagine his hate speech had no effect.
Were random attacks the only consequence of the venom spewed by Dobbs, the nation would not be at risk. After all, bigotry towards newly-arrived immigrants is an unfortunate U.S. tradition. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin railed against a group of newcomers who refused to learn English, shunned local customs and bred faster than the natives: the newly-arrived German settlers of Pennsylvania. During the 1800s, the Know-Nothings vehemently resisted immigration with punitive legislation – and outright violence on many occasions. Italians, Irish, Jews and Eastern Europeans were all victims of their wrath.
Although more sophisticated and media savvy than their predecessors, today’s immigrant bashing groups like FAIR, ALIPAC and Numbers USA are echoes of the Know-Nothings. But these “legitimate” groups provide the kindling for those truly eager to start a national conflagration. The KKK, Aryan Nations and other extremist groups make no secret of their willingness for an ethnic conflict. In the words of one right-wing activist I personally interviewed: “There WILL be civil war in this country and THEN all will finally discover what true patriotic Americans are REALLY like.”
At the same time, Hispanic immigration does indeed pose some unique challenges. As Dobbs acknowledges, no other immigrant group in the nation’s history could ever lay ancestral claim to U.S. soil. What’s more, separatist factions exist within some Latino communities and academic circles, although they are a scant minority (about the same percentage as the KKK represents among mainstream Americans). Could the influence of these extremists grow? Each hate crime against a Latino increases the odds.
There is another volatile element in this explosive mix: demographics. Even if U.S. borders were sealed tomorrow and not a single undocumented immigrant entered the nation, nearly one in five people in the U.S. will still be classified as Hispanic by 2025. In less than a generation, we can expect a “bebé boom” of young Latinos entering the job market. Will our economy find work for them? Or will we have an unstable mass of restless, idle, and alienated youth?
In the eyes of the extremists, the battle lines are already drawn. The manifesto of La Voz de Aztlan says: “We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.” The KKK boasts of an increase in membership thanks to illegal immigration. Armed vigilantes already patrol our borders. How long before our war of words drives a fringe group into open conflict? The example of the Oklahoma City bombing is a chilling reminder. And if the unthinkable happens, will Latinos respond in kind? Ironically, Lou Dobbs' “reconquista” diatribe could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dobbs’ has a right to be heard—even though it approaches yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. However, people of conscience must speak out against his bigoted calumnies. We cannot allow this nation to be divided by the hate and fear being pimped for ratings by Lou Dobbs and other “journalists” of his kind. The stakes are simply too high.