From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (November 26, 1986)
Title – “None dare call it racism”
The word “racism,” one of the most damning words in American politics, is seldom heard in public these days. Anyone bold enough to use it risks being labeled a “radical kook,” or worse. Consequently, many Americans seem to believe that the nation has moved “beyond racism,” that its institutions and individuals do not intentionally practice, even in subtle ways, discrimination against blacks and Latinos. New laws and endless litigation have created, at least in principle, a color-blind society.
The irony, of course, is that deleting the word racist from our active political vocabulary has made it that much more difficult for blacks and Latinos to square reality with principle. For no other word conveys such a decisive moral censure. “Prejudicial,” the most commonly used substitute, clearly lacks a similar force. In such a climate, racists are less reluctant to take the offensive and racial minorities must now prove that racism exists.
This is in marked contrast to the 1960s, when the charge of “racism,” admittedly abused at times, forced society to confront the fact that some American institutions and public policies consciously discriminated against minorities. The charge of racism galvanized Americans to take notice. It added a moral dimension to problems that compelled action.
In the ‘80s, the revival of patriotism in some quarters has taken the form of “We are all Americans and we are all the same.” Critics of government policy are sometimes called unpatriotic. Social scientists reinforce the mindset by creating euphemisms for “racism” like the “isolation of minorities.” Such an abstract concept reinforces the belief that American society is no longer tainted by traces of racism.
Actually, during the past 15 years, as the arrival of undocumented workers from Mexico has accelerated, racism towards Latinos has increased. This growing antipathy toward Latinos is in the large part the result of statistics released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The agency’s formula for estimating the numbers of “illegal aliens” who elude capture crossing into the United States – for every one who is caught, three to four make it – has contributed to the impression that we are losing control of our borders. Last year, for example, the INS reported that 1.7 million undocumented workers were arrested. Multiplying that figure by a factor of 3 or 4, per INS’ “got away” ratio, does indeed suggest a deluge. But clearly there is no way to verify these estimates. The figures, nonetheless, are dutifully reported in the media without any critical evaluation. Given this misleading scenario of Mexicans streaming across our borders, racism toward all brown-skinned people can, and does, flourish.
Regional INS director Harold Ezell has set the tone of the new racism in his attacks on the undocumented workers. When the INS “sweeps” factories looking for “illegal aliens,” it is not uncommon for its agent to detain anyone who might be of Mexican heritage and ask he or she to prove American citizenship. Ezell also has condoned the formation of paramilitary groups whose self-proclaimed duty is to carry out INS policy. They patrol the border unimpeded and justify their vigilantism in terms of stopping the “communists” and/or the drug traffickers at the border. Yet none dare call their mission racist.
The loss in legitimacy of the word “racism” as a meaningful form of protest also has loosened moral restraints on politicians who would exploit the anti-foreigner hysteria. Take Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. In his unsuccessful bid for the Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate, he played on public fears that we are being deluged with “illegal aliens.” His aid even went so far as to say that the problem was so bad that he wished he had a Smith & Wesson.
In the ‘60s, such talk would have led to charges that Antonovich and his aid were dangerously close to, if not over, the racist line. Today, no one in the media, from editorial writers to commentators, called Antonovich’s remarks racist.
The overwhelming passage of Proposition 63, the English-only initiative, underscores this trend. If anyone still doubts the real intentions of some of the measure’s supporters, he need look no farther than Sacramento, where work is under way on a number of bills to implement Prop. 63’s provision to “preserve and enhance” English. Assemblyman Frank hill, a supporter of the measure, said this week he seeks to change “the fundamental focus on bilingual education in California away from native language instruction.” At whose expense?
Gov. George Deukmejian is a good example of a politician whose policies, though not overtly racist, have the effect of “isolating Latinos.” At least four examples come to mind. One, he has weakened the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board by stacking it in favor of growers. Needless to say, their primary concerns do not include improving the living conditions of farm workers, the majority of whom are poor Latinos. Two, in pressing the downtown Los Angeles prison, he has callously disregarded the potentially harmful effects a new jail would have to the East L.A. community. Three, during the administration, Deukmejian has done everything in his power to reduce the community-college budget, with the fact that they are fast becoming mere technology schools. This has been a serious blow to Latinos, whose attendance in community-colleges is disproportionately high. And in September, the governor vetoed funding for bilingual education, stating that he wanted a review of the cost-effectiveness of the program (which would take years and in effect kill bilingual education). Unfortunately, the governor has not been as conscious with respect to the downtown prison site: He has refused to study its effectiveness or its environmental impact.
During the 1960s, it would not have been controversial to argue that some of the policies of Deukmejian and Antonovich and Ezell foster racist ends by unfairly discriminating against Latino interests. In today’s political climate, that charge is likened to the raving of a Lyndon LaRouche. Hence, nobody is listening which means that the struggle for equality which is ultimately dependent on the underdog being given his chance to share his case, is that much harder.