Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

For those needing a refresher on Asian American Studies 101, let me set the groundwork. The idea that Asians are the “model minority” is a myth. For reasons too numerous to count, this stereotype has contributed to the false and racist belief that Asian Americans, collectively, have overcome past discrimination and ‘made it’ (Tuan 2004). While some want to celebrate the over-generalized stereotype of Asian American success, popular media also portrays a sense of impending doom due to the “Asian Invasion” of the United States. Historically, this “yellow peril” portrayed Asians as a threat to the U.S. educational, economic, and labor systems (Frank, 1999, Nakanishi and Lai 2003). Politicians, media, and pundits utilize yellow peril to perpetuate a culture of fear (Glassner 1999) in order to create the perception that the imminent threat will necessarily lead to detrimental outcomes for the public. These contradicting narratives simultaneously racialize Asians as both foreign threat and proof that adherence to meritocracy makes the effects of discrimination temporary. The catch is that even though the ideal of meritocracy is central to US construction of success, that when non-whites –and in this case Asians, achieve success they are still viewed as threats to the power paradigm that promotes white exceptionalism.

This past week, sports enthusiasts were introduced to Asian American basketball phenomena, Jeremy Lin. The hoopster from Harvard was thrown into the national spotlight when the 4th string point guard reinvigorated a beleaguered New York Knicks team that was falling apart due to injuries and a series of off court tragedies and problems. “Linsantity” brings to the forefront both the economic potential of the Asian American market (See Espn’s Report on Lin’s Impact) but also, the not so subtle racism and prejudice Asian American athletes face in collegiate and professional sports. While his accomplishments on the court this past week have been nothing short of spectacular, one must ask –why all the hype? If Jeremy were white or black, would the accomplishments be treated with such extreme fanfare? In fact, just yesterday, Floyd Mayweather provided his own opinion on this –arguing that African Americans do this everyday and that Lin’s viewed as special because he’s Asian American. My answer is a bit more nuanced. I think Mayweather has a legitimate point when saying that a lot of the hype is because Lin is Asian American. I think we’re lying if we don’t admit this fact. But the sad but harsh truth is that Jeremy Lin’s rise to stardom this week points to the ongoing racism Asian American’s face. Underlying all the hype is the fundamental prejudice, held by the public, which says Asian Americans can’t play. When trying to rationalize why Lin’s performing so well –the sports commentators calling games repeatedly talk about what a ‘smart’ player Lin is –referencing both court decisions and his economics degree from Harvard. It’s not to say that he isn’t smart –but that this narrative is the only one proposed for this week’s success. Equally disturbing are the “debates” asking if “J-Lin is Legit?” The debate, in and of itself, would be unproblematic if it was simply about his skills –because it’s essentially a wait and see situation. Give Lin the opportunity to play and see how he performs. The problem stems from the unspoken implied question. If J-Lin is in fact ‘legit’ how does this change our understandings of the racial politics of sports in the United States that encodes meanings on racialized bodies? What does it mean if race is the reason that, Jeremy Lin, as Kenny Smith from ESPN said, was overlooked because it was a “severe misjudgment of talent?” If media coverage of ‘Linsanity’ is correct, then you will see an Asian invasion of the NBA because of the ‘marketability’ of Lin to the Asian international and domestic markets. What I find interesting is the fact that the NBA values this ‘infusion’ of Asian interest as part of market growth, while sports media struggles to comprehend the possibility of Asian American success in sports. Not surprisingly, however, is that the wedge politics of race that often comes along with challenges to the status quo. The new yellow peril, in the form of Jeremy Lin, focuses on the possibility that now that we might be willing to acknowledge the racism Asian American sports stars face, is that it necessarily means potential threats to blackness and whiteness in sports. As exemplified by the Mayweather critique, is that the focus on Lin inevitably means racism against African Americans. Or, if we pay attention to the undercurrent of sports commentators –if we have more ‘smart’ players entering the leagues, what does it mean to the white power structure?

Juxtapose the media hype surrounding Jeremy Lin with the recent ad run by Pete Hoekstra, a candidate running to represent Michigan in the Senate during the Superbowl. For those of you who have not seen the controversial ad , it depicts an Asian woman with a supposed Chinese accent in ‘traditional’ attire riding through a rice paddy. The audience is warned of the specter of socialism, and the impending economic takeover of the US economy by China if we didn’t focus on government spending. This advertisement plays into claims of Obama and his supporters’ promotion of ‘socialism’ and the rise of China as a global force. These racist depictions recycle yellow peril fear mongering present in World War II advertising (Hamamoto, 1994). Both the construction of race and ethnicity, and the racist depiction of Chinese culture evokes the a culture of fear based on economic nationalism. Not unlike what Dana Frank, discusses in Buy American (2000) audiences are expected to fear the loss of American exceptionalism due to the potential increased success of China in economic markets. These fears are made palatable through generally uninformed analysis that fails to look at the history of foreign economic policies related to Free Trade, lack of diplomacy, and the ways in which the financial industry remained largely unregulated by both Republican and Democratic legislatures and administrations. Instead of looking internally, the media –and in this case Hoekstra scapegoats the foreign other –making China the enemy and by association his Democratic opponent that he contends, is to blame for the current state of the economy. The sad fact is that Hoekstra’s campaign is racist, unimaginative, and nothing new. This case of yellow peril is just part of a larger campaign promoting hate and economic nationalism.

Yellow Peril Version 2.0 (or maybe it’s version 3.0 or 4.0 I’ve lost count) works to reinscribe the idea that anything Asian is the other –whether it’s related to sports or the economy. Acquainting ourselves with the historical discourse on Asian American experiences in the United States allows us to understand that the racial politics embedded in the coverage of Jeremy Lin, or in overtly racist ads likes Hoekstra serve to reinforce powerful and demeaning stereotypes of Asian Americans. Don’t get me wrong –these cases are vastly different, but the potential for expanding and promoting stereotypes is very present and extremely dangerous. The real question is whether or not we’re willing to see past the hype, and begin to educate ourselves about Asian American history. Because as Walt Kelly once noted, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Some self-reflexivity and perspective is needed in order to truly understand that we don’t need to create a new yellow peril –instead we need to study and examine the racist beliefs and socialization that constructed a reality where the athletic success of Jeremy Lin is not considered within the realm of possibility.

That said, when asked by friends if I’ve subscribed to the “Linsanity” –my answer’s simple. ABSOLUTELY. Because guess what –Asian Men CAN jump.

References

Frank, D. (2000.) Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism. Beacon Press

Glassner, B. (2010) The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More. 2nd Edition. Basic Books Press.

Hamamoto, D. (1994.) Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation. University of Minnesota Press.

Okihiro, G. (1994.) Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. University of Washington Press

Tuan, M. (1999.) Forever Foreigners or onorary Whites: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. Rutgers University Press

This blog installment is written by Guest Blogger: Dr. Nicole Guidotti Hernandez, Associate Professor of American Studies  from the University of Texas, Austin.  Enjoy!!

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I just began teaching Juliana Barr’s book Peace Came in the Form of a Woman in my Feminist Borderlands History course at UT Austin. The book brilliantly details the gendered nature of diplomatic relations between the Spanish and Texas Indigenous tribes such as the Comanche, Caddo and Kiowa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It details how Native women became the arbiters of peace and negotiation processes during this epoch in Spanish America. My students had a hard time dislodging the idea of diplomacy from the empire. In other words, they couldn’t imagine that Indian nations had sophisticated systems of decorum and processes  that involved women where the Spanish had to obey to survive and pass through the region. At one point in my lecture I asked, “When Obama gets off a plane, people don’t get up in his face and say ‘what’s up homie?’ ” As the students chuckled I continued, “no, we see that there is a particular set of cultural rules that one must follow in addressing heads of state today, just like with Indigenous communities who controlled Texas before the Spanish and American presences became dominant in the nineteenth century.” It was as if I were psychic, because, literally, while I was delivering my lecture, someone did get up in Obama’s face.

On January 25th, Jan Brewer, governor of Arizona did something unheard of. She literally and aggressively waved her finger in President Obama’s face as if chastising a school aged child for behaving badly. While there are several angles one could pursue in interpreting this event, I want to talk about it in terms of race, gender, and immigration.

It still makes me laugh that Brewer and Arizona Republicans want to incarcerate all immigrants and essentially run all brown and black people out of the state, calling for stricter immigration policy at the federal level even though more and more people are dying crossing the border, being intercepted in Arizona and being deported at record rates. Nonetheless, as a Latina feminist, I can’t say that I’m thrilled with Obama’s immigration policy, especially given the increase in deportations under his tenure as President. But as a former resident of Arizona, I can assure that my frustration with Obama is nothing compared to the ire that I feel for Brewer and her posse of neocon henchmen (or is it the other way around?) who in a matter of two years have outlawed Ethnic Studies in Arizona high schools because they are supposedly biased and promote overthrow of the US government, banned books because they incite racial separatism, and passed one of the most stringent anti-immigrant laws in all of the United States.

On to the finger pointing… Some might use gendered stereotypes to narrate Brewer as a pathological, out of control, raving white woman, who insulted the President. Brewer has characterized her finger waving as a normal and moral response, for “she’s always been expressive with her hands and didn’t mean any disrespect.”[i] Enter the politics of race and gender. Would Brewer have waved her finger involuntarily had she been talking with another white woman or a white man who was the President? Or is it that Brewer subconsciously, as many Americans do, see Black men as worthy of disrespect because of their race and gender, irrelevant of the decorum of diplomacy mandated by the power structure? My guess is that this might not have played out the same way had the conditions of race and gender been different. If Brewer were a man, would the media have pathologized her behavior similarly? I doubt it.

While Obama laughingly told Diane Sawyer “I’m usually accused of not being intense enough, right,” his flat affect signaled something also about the politics of race, gender and diplomacy that demand he be anything other than too relaxed.[ii] His job and credibility depend upon this. So while the flat response to Brewer’s finger shows that Obama, like the Comanche in Texas in the eighteenth century have a sophisticated sense of diplomacy in the face of an immigration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, what we see in that involuntary finger pointing is that bullying has arrived as a normalized practice, however “involuntary,” even by women.

This post is the introduction to a paper I delivered as part of a series of talks culminating an immersion trip to Italy sponsored by the USD Francis Harpst  Center for Catholic Thought & Culture.  Today, in honor of the legacy of the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr did during his lifetime, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and why I believe we all must commit ourselves to continuing the work of Dr. King.

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“ We are not only living in a time of cataclysmic change; we live in an era in which human rights is the central world issue”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963, 94)

    On October 23, 1963, amidst a year-long campaign advocating for President John F. Kennedy to issue a second “Emancipation Proclamation” that enforced civil rights and voting rights via executive order (ibid 87), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an address to the members of District 65 Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to commemorate their 30th anniversary. His speech highlighted the idea that the disempowered could fight economic and political power structures to achieve victory by engaging in a social movement so powerful that it enabled workers to “wrest some tokens of dignity from unwilling hands” (1963, 90).   The struggle for dignity, according to King, was an experience shared by unionists and African Americans and served as common ground that made the groups, allies in a broader struggle that linked labor rights to economic justice.  King acknowledged however, that numerous obstacles and barriers including racism within unions and society at large impeded social change. While unions were winning battles,  King warned that  even as those in power made concessions to unions, they would ‘give to us with one hand and snatch back with the other, every gain we make” (ibid). Achieving social justice meant acknowledging, “that mankind through the ages has been in a ceaseless struggle to give dignity and meaning to human life” (ibid).   Dr. King’s words and social analysis are equally important today as they were almost fifty years ago. The struggle for economic and racial justice remains at the forefront of political mobilization and action. Workers, particularly in the public sector, find themselves fighting their state governments for benefits, collective bargaining rights, and retirement. The civil sector, in an era of globalization, was once considered a safe haven for middle class jobs and lifestyles, now find their livelihoods in jeopardy.  Recent legislation enacted in Wisconsin and Ohio, and proposed changes in twenty-four other states, most notably Indiana, directly attack the collective bargaining rights of unionized public employees.  Additionally, there is anti-immigration legislation similar to Arizona’s SB1070, proposed in 24 states. These initiatives bring to the forefront the struggles facing both immigrant and non-immigrant workers across the country.  Funded and backed by a broad array of socially conservative politicians and think tanks, as well as corporate libertarians like the Koch brothers[1], these new initiatives attack the stability of government sector jobs and stealthily disguise moves toward privatization in the public sector including the prison, medical, and finance systems that need lower wages and non-union shops for corporations to profit.[2]The fight for economic justice and the recognition of the contributions of all workers regardless of race, gender, and citizenship is needed just as much now as it was when Dr. King addressed District 65.  More insidious, however, is the vitriolic public discourse that fails to disguise the hate, racism, xenophobia and anger directed at immigrants and the working class –both of who are integral to sustaining the US economy.  For example, Sheriff Joseph Arpaio announced that Maricopa county plans to launch ‘Operation Desert Sky.’ a program “staffed by citizen vigilantes and deputies from human smuggling and drug enforcement units” that will deploy 30 pilots into the air with M-16’s to hunt border crossers.   While these examples are extreme, they push us to question the motives behind, and the public response to these initiatives. Why do individuals feel threatened by workers receiving living wage, pensions, and benefits? Why are people threatened by providing immigrants access to decent, albeit low paying, jobs? Why do politicians and members of the citizenry at large feel compelled to turn to misinformation, lies, or worse –violence as a “solution” to perceived immigration or worker problems?  These attacks on worker and immigrant rights confront us with difficult dilemmas about the divisive way in which politics intersect with identity, difference, and privilege.  As educators focusing on social justice and equality, we must grapple with the complex reality that the challenges and changes we want our students to see depends on a reconfiguration of the social, ethical, and moral infrastructure that frames how work, organized labor, and immigration are viewed by students and society. _______ In the full version of this paper written in conjunction with a Catholic Social Teaching (CST) Immersion seminar sponsored by the Francis Harpst Center for CatholicThought and Culture, I discuss the potential for utilizing the CST principles of Dignity of Work and the Preferential Option for the Poor and sociological research on  stratification and privilege to help teach the importance of advocating for workers and immigrants in the modern era.


[1] Hamburger, Hennessey, and Banerjee. (2011). “Koch Brothers Now at the Heart of GOP Power” in February 6, 2011 Los Angeles Times.
[2] Handley, J. (2011).  “Divesting from Private Prisons” in July 16, 2011 , In These Times. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11623/divesting_from_private_prisons

Over the past few days, I found myself wondering about the “New Class Warfare,” Troy Davis, the “Diversity Bake Sale” at UC Berkley, and a recent invitation I received to participate in a “No Che Day” sponsored by the Young Americans for Freedom and the College Republicans.  Although at a personal level, I find myself angered and at times offended by the type of vitriol, racism, and xenophobia being spewed in relationship to minorities, what concerns me more is the lack of open and informed discussion about race, immigration, the death penalty, and class –particularly with college aged adults.  Teaching moments present themselves all the time, but amidst the concern of creating a media maelstrom, we sweep these important discussions under the rug.  Bigotry remains unchallenged when we can use these moments to create real dialogue.  I was  really moved when I saw this picture in the SF Examiner, because it reminded me that we need to make “isms” visible.

UC Us Now (click link to see full picture)

As much as I disagree with some of the perspectives being advocated for by some of the aforementioned groups, I firmly believe that free speech is important.  I believe that the cornerstone of democracy is the ability to share your views without fear of persecution.  It’s at these moments at the crossroads that I believe it is most important to have real, difficult, uncomfortable, and even angry discussions in hopes of learning and finding new truths.  Yet, it is these very discussions we shy away (or perhaps it’s run away) from.  At these moments, we can actually share empirical facts and confront and challenge the fallacies that fuel so many of these movements.  Just as importantly, I think it is important to ask people why they feel the way they feel.

For example, I am really proud that faculty in the Theology and Religious Study Department at USD signed a public statement challenging the death penalty .  I believe that our community would be enriched if we heard why they felt making this public statement was important.   These statements are not easy to make, but they are important to be heard.

So what really makes me mad as a Professor that teaches about immigration and race relations is not that racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of any kind exists. What makes me mad is the unwillingness to talk openly and honestly, regardless of one’s political persuasion, about finding common ground without promoting and growing bigotry and hate.

Today’s theme: Never forget. I hear this and somehow wonder if we truly remember…

Like many of you, I remember exactly where I was 10 years ago when the planes hit the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon, and the crash in the fields of Pennsylvania. I remember sitting in front of my tiny TV in my studio apartment in LA watching the news coverage and the endless replay of the towers crashing down to the ground. I remember receiving a call from my father, a SFPD police officer at the time –telling me that if anything happened in LA I should travel east and out of the city. I remember the eerie silence that fell over LA and walking on the USC campus wondering what we should do and if we’d ever be the same. I remember regretting being so far away from my family. I remember praying that my friends living in New York and DC were safe.
Today, I find myself thinking about what we’ve forgotten as we’ve moved forward from that fateful day.

Do we remember the immigrants –documented and undocumented that lost their lives that day(1). From day one, many of their names eluded the lists of the missing. Do we remember the 27 foreign nationals who died in the towers that day –making this an international day of mourning? Do we remember the fact that 21% (568) of the people confirmed dead that day were immigrants?

While we commemorate the lives of those lost this day 10 years ago, what goes unspoken has been the long term effects of prolonged exposure to the toxins at both sites. Multiple studies have shown that the surviving 9/11 first-responders have higher incidents of cancer and overall health illnesses than is normal. Yet it wasn’t until January that President Obama signed a bill into law that helped provide financial help for the medical needs of 9/11 recovery workers. For almost ten years, these individuals racked up huge debts and had their medical needs unanswered .(2)

I also think about the lives that were changed through no fault of their own. While we’ve written about the children of 9/11,who will never know their parents, we’ve forgotten to talk about victims of the increased hate violence all over the country. Racial profiling, hate speech, religious intolerance became acceptable in the most heinous of ways. In recent writings, we see what the post-9/11 realities look like for Arab and Muslim youth (See Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America). These issues aren’t localized. In her recent article, Monster (3), for the New Yorker, Zadie Smith writes about implications across the world in London. She says, “

For some, the basic political insights of adolescence arrived with an extra jolt: your people over here were hurting your people over there; your home was attacking your home. Then came the cataclysm. The end of the world for nearly three thousand innocent people. The beginning of a different sort of world for the rest of us. From the epicenter in Manhattan, shock waves rippled across Europe. In North West London, a small but significant change: the stereotype of the Muslim boy was transformed. From quiet, sexless, studious child—sitting in the back of class and destined for an engineering degree—to Public Enemy No. 1”

It seems that part of what we need to remember is that we’ve been a country built on advocating for change and fairness for all workers. In one of the many inspiring stories that came out of 9/11 –we’ve seen the former workers of Windows of the World ban together to create both a training center for immigrant restaurant workers and for workplace standards. What started in New York is now present in 5 other cities. In the face of great tragedy, they created positive change.(4) The story of Mrs. Bingham(5) –who in the aftermath of her son’ heroic actions became a tremendous supporter and advocate in the LGBT community. Working tirelessly to support the causes that were important to her son’s heart. Working in his memory has made the world a better place.

Part of what I struggle with today –is not just with the memory of the horrible act of terrorism that took over 2,996 deaths that day, but the immense amount of death we’ve witnessed. To date there have been 6,028 deaths of US Military in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also estimate that Iraqi civilian death tolls range between 102,000 and 112,000. What scares me most is that we are living in a time where war and national vitriol seemingly take precedence over building community and finding spaces and places of healing.

So today, I remember, by actively thinking about the forgotten, the unnamed, and the work we must do to both address their needs and to act in communion with the world they might want to see. I think it’s time we take positive action to provide for those who’s lives we’ve forgotten despite their service, then and now, to our country. Today, I say a prayer that we can become a country that values life, works for peace, and creates an inclusive community.

(1)http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/17/us/after-attacks-hidden-victims-those-towers-margin-elude-list-missing.html

(2) http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/sep2011/2011-09-09-03.html

(3) http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/09/12/110912ta_talk_smith

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/09/windows-on-the-world-fair-treatment-of-workers_n_951026.html

(5) http://news.yahoo.com/unexpected-legacy-left-by-hero-of-flight-93.html

“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” Albert Einstein

 

This Labor Day, as you fire up the grill and lament the end of summer, I want to challenge each of you to reflect and remember the history of organized labor that this holiday is supposed to commemorate. 129 years ago, the Central Labor Council of New York organized and celebrated its first Labor Day, which was designed to celebrate the social and economic contributions and successes of American Workers.[i] Despite a past that’s riddled with racism, xenophobia, and sexism –the Labor Movement –both past and present are the reason we have Child Labor Laws, an 8-hour day, overtime pay, health benefits, workplace safety standards, and weekends.  These laws did not magically appear, they were the rewards of hard fought battles that men and women paid for with blood, sweat, tears, and in many cases their lives.  We are the beneficiaries of many unionists’ sacrifices.

As a professor that teaches about work, organized labor, and immigration, I remind my students that the history of the United States is synonymous with the history of organized labor. How we understand race, masculinity, and citizenship is deeply entrenched in how we understand both worker identity, and what it means to be an “American” worker.  David Roediger (1999) reminds us in The Wages of Whiteness that the rise of organized labor coincided with a desire to promote white supremacy and free white labor. Historically, it’s important to understand, that it was during the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, we saw the expansion of what groups were considered “white’ and that it coincided with a desire to consolidate power and privilege for white male workers.  Not surprisingly the expansion of whiteness coincided with the growth of racial and ethnic minority worker populations migrating to the United States to provide cheap labor and competition for white workers.[ii] This history is the legacy that organized labor has had to overcome in order to form and create a group that both represents and stands for the “American” worker.

The history of the labor movement in the United States is also a testament to the importance of coalition and collaboration.  The history of the Civil Rights Movements demonstrates the power of the combined efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement.  History provides us with “heroes” and more importantly inspiration for understanding that change and transformation is possible in all social institutions.  A. Phillip Randolph –a fierce organizer and Civil Rights advocate, challenged union bosses and the American government to eliminate discrimination, particularly in workplaces and industry, and give every worker equal rights and fair wages.  He believed that, “Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.[iii]”  His life’s work is a testament to the importance of making sure all voices, particularly those that are most often silenced, are heard.  Randolph was central in pushing a Civil Rights agenda –starting with his work with the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters, and continuing with his steadfast work in organizing epic protests, such as the March on Washington, and finally in pushing the AFL-CIO to address issues of segregation and discrimination in its ranks.

We can look at the history of the United Farm Workers of America to understand the importance of cross ethnic collaboration and mobilization.  Although Cesar Chavez is often depicted as the driving force behind the growth of this union –it is important to note that the true history is more complex. Filipino workers were equally important to this movement and instrumental in UFW’s greatest successes.  After all, it was Larry Itiliong who originally initiated the Delano Grape Strike. It was Philip Vera Cruz’s ability to organize Filipino workers that helped drive the success of the union. When reading his autobiography, we begin to understand the struggles he faced as a leader, but what remained true –even after he broke ranks with the UFW when it supported the Marcos’ dictatorship was his fundamental belief in workers. He says, “The success of any positive changes in this country depends on the strength of the workers and the organizations that hold the workers together are the unions…. Nothing will really change in this country without the total support of the working class” (154).

Today, who we define as an “American” worker is much more global in nature.  Over the past fifteen years many unions have come to realize that in order to garner success, their organizing strategies must not be bound by borders and nation-states. An examination of any industry in the United States shows that workers are more diverse and includes immigrants and citizens, women and men, young and old. As recent studies have shown, union decline accounts for most of the rise in wage inequality[iv].  Yet, despite the fact there is seemingly greater need for unions than ever before, this year we’ve witnessed some of the most vicious attacks on collective bargaining.  Wisconsin, Ohio, and 25 other states have proposed drastic revisions on collective bargaining rights, particularly for public workers. Unionized public workers, who represent the final bastion of the middle class in the United States have become the scapegoat for the economic downturn the entire nation is embroiled in.  Media and pundits seemingly ignore the fact that big business is funding these campaigns and by all accounts profiting from their efforts. Is it particularly surprising that corporations have bounced back and recorded profits even as American workers are taking home less? (see table at end of blog.)[v] .  The attack on workers is not solely related to the middle class, however.  Recent anti-immigration legislation that is proposed or initiated in 26 different states across the country has created a narrative that paints immigrants as lazy and undeserving. Media utilize sound bytes that make immigrants the scapegoats for the economic downturn because “they’re taking American jobs.”  While factually untrue, these reports create rampant xenophobia and obscure the historical and empirical facts that clearly show that the nation’s economy depends on the labor of immigrants.  As seen in the aftermath of the Georgia and Alabama anti-immigration laws –in the absence of immigrants, their agricultural are faltering. So what does this say about how workers are viewed and treated?  The current message seems to be, “We want your labor, but only if we can exploit you for it.”  The idea that workers have the right to a living wage, benefits, and a fear from discrimination and persecution has seemingly fallen to the wayside.  The battle that unions and worker organizations are embroiled in across the country is not simply about maintaining middle class standing, it’s about promoting a more ethical form of capitalism in light of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It is about ensuring access to resources for workers and their families so that they can have a quality education, access to health care, and the ability to retire.

For me, Labor Day is about honoring the history of organized labor in this country.  With all its faults and problems, it serves as a model for how social institutions can change. Instead of passively believing that eventually something will happen, labor organizers have shown us time and time again, that if you account for the needs of communities and workers, change is the outcome of privileging the many above the few.  Charles Darrow once said, “With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men (and women) that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men (and women) than any other association.”

So this Labor Day, I encourage you to support workers. All actions, big or small, matter.  Tell the managers at Ralphs, Albertson’s, or Von’s that if they fail to sign an equitable contract with UFCW you won’t be shopping there any more.  Sign petitions supporting collective bargaining in your state. Boycott the Hyatt until they sign their union contract. If nothing else, take a moment and remember all that we’ve gained from the sacrifices of the workers who came before us.

Union Yes!  Si Se Puede.

 

Source: Jared Bernstein, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities


[ii] Numerous scholars discuss this including (but not limited to): Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2000) in “”Unequal freedom: how race and gender shaped American citizenship and labor;” Vicki Ruiz (1987) “Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950;”  Chris Friday (1995) “Organizing Asian-American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942”

[iii] A Phillip Randolph Institute: http://www.apri.org/ht/d/sp/i/251/pid/251

[iv] Western, B. & Rosenfeld, J (2011). “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality” in American Sociological Review. Volume 76, Number 4, pgs 513-537.

Since reading Jose Antonio Vargas’ article “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in the June 22nd magazine section of the New York Times[i], I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of bravery, sacrifice, and integrity.  I’ve also reflected on how we define what it means to be a citizen and American.  For those who missed this article and its subsequent aftermath –Mr. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist,  “outs” himself as an undocumented immigrant who was sent to live in the United States 18 years ago –when he was just a child. It wasn’t until he was sixteen that he realized was undocumented.  Educated in the United States, and a productive tax-paying individual –Mr. Vargas’s journalistic writing has contributed much to how readers across the country see and understand the social world, so much so that he received a Pulitzer Prize.  While he’s received a litany of critiques and attacks for his NY Magazine story (see Atlantic Wire Article ) that question his integrity,  why he’s ‘coming out’ now, and  the very work they valued before they knew —these same critiques fail to acknowledge that Mr. Vargas is just one of millions of immigrants caught in a system that doesn’t allow them to  come out of the shadows. If we’re truthful about our history, we must acknowledge that we live in a counry that since its founding, has depended on immigrants for its economic viability and prosperity.

Vargas is an example of the millions of children who did not make the decision to migrate to the United States.   Through no fault of their own, they are forced to live in the shadows, hoping and praying that US laws will change and provide them with a pathway to legalization and citizenship.  As the late Tam Tran chronicled in her Short film, Lost & Found: Story of a DREAM Act Student , these individuals sacrifice so much in order to earn their education, and simply create an opportunities for themselves and their families. The Dream Act  is only one legislative initiative that provides a pathway to legalization for these individuals –whereby through participation in military or education they can earn a green card.   While many are incensed by Mr. Vargas’ admission –they do not want to acknowledge we have no legal systems or initiatives in place that provide a pathway amnesty and legalization . What Mr. Vargas’ personal history should demonstrate to all of us is that if given the opportunity these youth can speak new truths, make new contributions, and change the world in positive ways.

So here we are, celebrating the 4th of July, and lost amidst the hoopla of Independence Day festivities, which now includes fireworks, county fairs, parades, baseball, and all other things ‘American’ is what we are commemorating –the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  In the face of tyranny and oppression, the founding fathers declared their independence from their colonizers –Great Britain. These men, all undocumented immigrants themselves, invaded and stole this land from the Indigenous populations living here for Great Britain.  However, in the face of being disenfranchised and oppressed by the tyranny of the throne, the founding fathers declared their independence. In the declaration they say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This simple passage so important, but so often forgotten, because if we had to stay true to these ideals –we’d have to show greater amounts of humanity towards people we want to ignore.

History shows us that in order to actually live up to those principles of liberty and equality groups have fought for this country to live up to this principle.  In a speech delivered on July 5th 1853, Frederick Douglas asserted that,

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. [ii]

In this speech, Frederick Douglas calls out the hypocrisy of a nation that celebrates freedom while simultaneously oppressing blacks and enslaving them.  While formal slavery has been abolished, that does not mean the system that motivated the need for cheap labor to increase corporate profit has disappeared.  Our country simultaneously criminalizes undocumented immigrants despite the fact that we are economically dependent on immigrant labor to function. All we need to do is look at the consequences of the recent Georgia anti-immigration law that left farms in that state with a labor shortage.[iii] We want food, clothes, and electronics –faster, cheaper, and available at the snap of our finger, but fail to acknowledge that in order for that to happen we depend on immigrant labor.  The press constantly perpetuates a belief that immigrants are ‘taking American jobs’ which ignores the fact that most undocumented immigrants work in jobs American’s don’t want.

As pundits debate Mr.Vargas’ article, some using him as an example for abusing “the system” and others saying his lies constitute a breach of journalistic ethics, maybe we should consider a few other questions and ideas.  When looking at the breadth and depth of Mr Vargas’ work, maybe we should consider that his experiences provided a unique lens through which we can understand the social world. Let’s be real –as much as journalists try to uphold this ideal that they’re objective –they’re not.  What they choose to write, how they write, and the words they use as they select the ‘angle’ for their story are completely subjective. Jose Antonio Vargas’ work was enhanced by his life experiences not diminished. In his work, he did not fabricate facts, make up stories, or create news stories while working for various news agencies –he reported the events of the day.  Finally, we need to ask, are there systems in place that allow individuals to truly disclose who they are –whether that’s based on gender, race, sexuality, or citizenship?

Maybe what detractors of Mr. Vargas need to really focus on is why they’re so threatened and uncomfortable about a man who’s finally allowing himself to live his truth regardless of the consequences.

Mr. Vargas, on this Independence day, I want to tell you that I admire your strength and bravery. I think you define what it means to be American.