By Marisa J. Demeo (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
In the months leading up to the WCAR, the media in the United States covered stories regarding two issues that would be considered controversial topics at the conference — reparations to remedy the wrongs caused by slavery and whether certain countries would be successful in characterizing Zionism as a form of racism. Relations between African-Americans and whites have always dominated discussions about race in this country because of our country’s history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. As to the second topic, the US has a significant Jewish population and a special relationship with Israel so issues related to Israel, and Zionism have taken on a special importance for the US government.
Because of the US’s powerful role in the United Nations, issues that would be important or controversial for the US also would become inevitably dominant issues at the World Conference. The US government early began threatening to pull out of the conference over these two issues. The US government eventually followed through with its threat to pull out, primarily due to the issues related to discussions that were taking place at the conference characterizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. While it was important for the US to be a player on both of the issues of controversy, the US government’s position and role resulted in neglecting many other issues that are important to discussions about race, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
I returned from South Africa on September 10. On September 11, 19 terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one in a field in Pennsylvania, once passengers prevented them from causing more destruction. Because the US has been focused necessarily on finding the persons connected to the terrorists and fighting terrorism, there has been little time to reflect on the World Conference and what happened there as it relates to our own struggles in the US to fight racism and xenophobia. The terrorist attacks of September 11 do not remove the need to deal with these issues; they actually make it even more important to face them.
Upon reflection, the context of the World Conference may not have been the best place to explore the discrimination faced by Latinos in the US. The issues related to racism and racial discrimination at the world level focused on the issues of how people of African descent and indigenous peoples are treated, and to a lesser extent how persons of Asian descent are treated. Many Latinos in the US were indigenous peoples in their native countries before either they immigrated to the US or before the US took possession of the land where they were living. Many other Latinos are of African-descent, European-descent, Asian-descent or often some combination of being indigenous and one or more of the other racial groups. Despite this varied racial heritage within the Latino community, Latinos are perceived by many in the US as a distinct racial group, which was not discussed at all at the World Conference. As a result, the discussion on race that occurred at the conference only partially addressed the type of racism felt by Latinos in the US.
The issues related to xenophobia at the World Conference focused on how governments and societies in one country treat migrants coming from another country. While this discussion impacts a significant percentage of the Latino community, many Latinos in the US are not migrants, so this discussion only partially addressed the issues facing Latinos in the US.
When the US government and others in the US discriminate against Latinos, it is some combination of racism and xenophobia. It stems not just from being perceived perpetually as foreign or “not American,” it is this perception in combination with treating those who look racially different – i.e., darker – as inferior or suspect. It is this combination that has made it much harder for persons who are of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent, for example, to integrate to the same level as other ethnic groups, such as Germans or the Irish.
Many people in the US have viewed the terrorist attacks of September 11 as bringing the country together, but, in fact, some might argue it has united some in the US against others. Because the 19 terrorists were from Arab countries and were noncitizens, much of the hostility and restrictions that have been directed and placed on individuals residing in the US have been directed at persons who are or who are perceived to be from Arab countries, as well as anyone who is not a citizen. Some strategies that have cast the net too wide are restricting the civil rights and civil liberties not only of Arabs, but of many others who are perceived to be Arab, as well as all noncitizens.
By way of example, recently Congress passed an airline security bill. It certainly was important to increase our airline security in light of the events of September 11, but one of the provisions casts the net too far. Before Congress passed the bill, there were two versions. The House passed The Secure Transportation for America Act (H.R. 3510), which would have required all airport baggage screeners to be US citizens. The Senate passed The Aviation Security Act (S. 1477), which would have required all airport baggage screeners to be US citizens for a minimum of five years. These provisions passed quickly and with little dissent, because it was considered acceptable to consider anyone who is not a citizen as suspect. Members of Congress found this belief acceptable even though the noncitizens who currently work as baggage screeners are here legally, are legally authorized to work and have been serving in their positions for many years without incident. In the end, Congress realized it should not distinguish between persons who have been citizens for less than five years and those who have been citizens for more than five years, but it kept the distinction between citizens and noncitizens.
Members of the US National Guard are stationed in some US airports in military fatigues with machine guns. Legal permanent residents are required by law to register for the military draft. Many noncitizens serve voluntarily in the National Guard as well as other branches of the military. The military trusts noncitizens to guard our airports as well as to fight and die, if necessary, in our war against terrorism, but Congress and the President do not trust them to screen a bag at an airport. The policy of preventing all noncitizens from holding jobs as baggage screeners is not based on a rational basis and on facts, but rather out of xenophobia and scapegoating. This policy will cause Latino and other noncitizens to be fired from their jobs, and prevent others who could perform the job from being considered in the future.
A discussion of the confluence of racism and xenophobia was needed in the context of the World Conference in order to address the discrimination faced by Latinos in the US. Such a discussion is still needed in our country to address the issues facing 35 million Latinos who reside in the US and another 3.8 million who reside in Puerto Rico. The discussion could also shed light on which strategies we, as a nation, are adopting in our war on terrorism that are necessary to fight terrorism and which ones are driven more by the intersection of racism and xenophobia.
Marisa J. Demeo (MDemeo@maldef.org) formerly worked as an attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and currently serves as the Regional Counsel in charge of national public policy for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a national Latino civil rights organization.