Monday, May 03, 2010

Racism 2010

Many have condemned Arizona’s new immigration law for betraying America’s deeply held values of justice and compassion. The law is so draconian because it empowers police officers acting as border patrol agents to commit racial profiling. While the primary purpose of Arizona’s law is to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants, it is obvious that it will only be enforced against brown and other coloured folks, mostly Mexicans and other Latinos who have used Arizona as their gateway to the United States.

TV talk show host David Letterman had joked that a number of Dutch people visiting the Grand Canyon were already afraid they might be targeted under the new law. Of course, this will never happen. There isn’t any Arizonan alive who gives a damn about the legal status of Dutch, Swedes, Brits, Germans or white people, basically. They only care and carp about their neighbours south of the border.

U.S. President Obama has joined those who have criticized the Arizona law by saying that it threatened “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

In the meantime, America’s toughest law enforcer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona, has already been making rounds praising the new law which he says will give his men more authority to detain illegal immigrants. You would recall Arpaio, not of Mexican descent, became world-famous on the web for requiring prison inmates to wear pink underwear.

I was recently talking with an Italian woman from Milan who is on a working visa in Toronto, and this surge of anti-immigrant hysteria, not only in Arizona but also elsewhere, came up as a topic of our conversation. She said Arizona’s law is not new. As an Italian she had experienced being stopped by the police who demanded her identification document which Italians are supposed to carry with them. This was also true on subways and public places in France and other countries in Europe. It wasn’t by happenstance that European countries allow their cops to be overzealous sometimes in demanding documents from people they suspect as terrorists – but as an aftermath of 9/11 and the fear that terrorism has instilled in our minds.

Yet the Arizona immigration law and the upswing in opposition to immigrants in the developed world today had nothing to do with the trepidation against terrorism. Multiculturalism, for example, is being blamed in Canada by some quarters for divisions and strife between ethnic groups that they claimed prevent these people from integrating in mainstream Canada. Liberal Member of Parliament Ujjal Dosanjh has blamed multiculturalism-supporters for allowing an extremist faction of Sikhs to grow and nurture old grudges they brought from their homelands, making them difficult to assimilate into the Canadian mainstream.

What is mainstream Canada in the first place but a forced acceptance of the belief that Canada’s dominant cultural fabric is woven by English and French traditions and values and that the rest of society’s pining for their cultural heritage is only of secondary importance, although they are allowed to celebrate their values, their religion and their past.

Canada’s immigration law and proposed innovations in its screening of refugees and foreign workers are not to be envied at all. By and large, these initiatives are designed to stem the tide of newcomers who potentially bring to Canada a different set of cultural traditions and beliefs, and partly to placate the critical mass of naysayers who believe that immigrants and refugees are imposing a heavy strain on the country’s social and health services.

Recently, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was captured on open microphone slamming a voter he’d just been trying to win over. Forgetting that he’d left a television microphone pinned to his chest, Brown called the voter a “bigoted woman” for needling him on immigration. The woman voter, a supporter of Brown’s Labour Party, was complaining that immigrants from eastern Europe are taking jobs at a time when Britain’s unemployment level is rising. What she didn’t realize is the fact that although more than 1 million of these immigrants have moved to Britain since the European Union expanded its membership, many have left during the bruising recession. British pundits are already saying comments such as this one by Brown would cost him the election.

President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, however, is stoking the national debate about a controversial legislation forbidding wearing of Islamic veils that cover the face on grounds that they don’t respect French values or women’s dignity. While such law might not pass constitutional muster, in France or in the European Union, Sarkozy whose popularity has sank in the polls needed this political opportunity to boost his image and his conservative party which was trashed during the March regional elections.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has found himself in similar waters. His government has proposed a bill to ban women donning the niqab or face veil for purposes of identification, communication and access to government services. Charest said, “This is about stressing the values that unite us... An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality of men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state.”

Isn’t that self-contradictory? Quebec would abide by the equality of its subjects and the religious neutrality of the state, yet it would not allow a woman to wear a veil because of her religious belief. Or is it because the law targets and prohibits Islamic women from wearing their niqabs and professing their faith?

“Show me your face” or “show me your papers” is a degenerate act. To do such a thing is like recycling the evils of the past that we have fought and defeated. We have enshrined our new freedoms and rights in our constitutions and ratified them through international agreements. Underlying all these freedoms and rights is the respect for the dignity of the human being. We cannot tell our immigrants what to worship or whom to pray, or what to eat and how to eat. We take our immigrants as they are, with all their traditions and values from their cultures, including their eccentricities like wearing a niqab or a ceremonial kirpan.

The Arizona law allowing police officers to demand anyone to show his or her identity documents conjures ghosts from the past. If you were a black man in the South during the Reconstruction and unable to show proof of your employment on demand to the police, you could be arrested and spend time in jail, or eventually be sold to a farming or mining operation. During those times, the violation was known as vagrancy. Since only black people were subjected to this “show me your papers” demand, it was like being delivered into a new form of slavery. In Arizona, it’s now the law to arrest people, citizen or not, simply for appearing Hispanic.

The state has always been complicit in exploiting inequality. This type of inequality has its roots in slavery. The history of U.S. immigration is littered with a litany of policies aimed in creating unequal status for different groups of people, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Land Act, anti-miscegenation laws, Public Law 78 and the Bracero Program. Canada likewise has its share of offensive laws, such as the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, the War Measures Act that gave the federal government the power to intern all persons of Japanese racial origin during the second World War, the Indian Act which created the Canadian Indian residential school system, and the current Live-in Caregiver Program.

The Arizona immigration law, anti-niqab legislations, and other similar immigration initiatives are all designed to create an unequal status based on race and national origin. Despite their alleged good intentions, such laws also engender xenophobia and nativistic fear of immigrants.

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