Thursday, January 14, 2010

Simple Truths: Immigration, Arizona, and Racism

Truth #2. Racism will probably exist forever.

Why did Arizona decide to target Mexican illegal immigrants while Californians set up sanctuary cities for them? They're just 750 miles apart, but they have two completely different attitudes. Why?

Human beings will always look for patterns to create a set of assumptions. We rely on this set of assumptions to get through our daily lives. In California, most residents see illegal immigrants working in restaurants and in other blue-collar positions. While some illegal immigrants in California commit crimes, the majority of them have come to California to work and make money. In short, the average California sees illegal immigrants in positions that appear non-threatening, i.e., food prep, hotel staff, gardeners, etc. In my experience here in San Jose, California, I've had positive experiences with most of the illegal immigrants I've come across.

So why do Arizonans have such a different mentality when it comes to illegal immigration? I'm speculating, but most Arizonans have probably had negative experiences with illegal immigrants. Based on various anecdotes, it appears drug dealers and gangs tend to send poor, unconnected illegal immigrants to Arizona, while many illegal immigrants who come to California already have family here and can avoid the drug/gang scene. As a result, Arizonans associate illegal immigration with criminality, while Californians associate illegal immigration with cheaper services. This difference in opinion has little to do with racism, and everything to do with different groups of people digesting different sets of patterns. In Arizona, illegal immigrants equal crime; in California, illegal immigrants equal cheaper services and people striving for the American Dream.

Human beings use patterns to form opinions, and residents of the two states are exposed to different patterns, causing them to form different opinions. We'd all like to think we are independent, but our brains know better. Each piece of information affects us, and over time, if we can create patterns, we will do so. For this reason, racism will always exist, and the way to minimize it is for the media not to display consistently negative images of any particular group, and for us to be careful not to expose ourselves to biased information. Easier said than done, of course.

For example, Europe, mindful of its history of oppressing and massacring minorities--which includes but is not limited to the Holocaust--has laws against hate speech and/or inciting racial/religious language. After years of producing anti-Jewish cartoons and anti-Semitic propaganda, Germany now bans Nazi symbols. The French government has even prosecuted famed starlet Bardot for her anti-Muslim comments. And while it is true that the BBC and other European media outlets are much less baiting than most American media, Europe's enlightened post-WWII policies have not reduced racism--if anything, racism is even more keen. In fact, I would argue that the average minority in America is much safer than the average minority in Europe in 2010. How is that possible when Europeans have done so much more to address problems of racism? The answer may be quite simple.

When Europeans decided to censor themselves, they gave instant authenticity to a small but vocal group of racists. By failing to address the causes of racism head-on--and relying on anti-hate laws--European policies succeeded in bringing formerly marginalized groups into the mainstream. Some Europeans recently elected Nazis to government positions. (I am not exaggerating--Nazi political parties still exist, and Europeans elected some of their members to office. See HERE for more, or just look up the British National Party.) In contrast, anti-minority Americans have no qualms about expressing their hatred, and plenty of places to do it. On a recent story featuring a Muslim female employee seeking a religious accommodation at Disney for her head-scarf, check out the following comments (August 23, 2010 Yahoo article titled "Hostess won't wear Disney's head scarf alternative"):

"I'm so tired of these people. Its a takeover one incident at a time. Make no mistake, that's the plan. For now its tolerate, later America will lose control over these people. Look at Europe. Shoot, look at the Middle East. Islam was relegated to a tiny portion of Saudi Arabia before their conquests. Why are we letting these people in the country? Do we need this crap?" [Note: American Muslims probably constitute just 3 to 4% of America's total population and just 3 to 4% of the European Union's total population.]

"No one is required to kow-tow to the mooslimes in any shape, form or degree! If they want to be a part of the REST of the world, then, they need to learn to play by OUR rules, not vice versa! We should NOT be making accomodations to ANY religion!" [Note: American law requires businesses of a certain size to accommodate religious beliefs when doing so does not constitute an undue hardship on the business.]

"islam IS NOT a religion. It is a Theocracy, and hence does not fall under the Freedom of Religion. PERIOD." [Note: the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is not a theocracy.]

"This is yet another attempt from muslim extremests to attack our freedoms and divide our culture. They have done it very effectively in Europe, and now the want to take over our country with muslim laws." [Note: once again, the duty of religious accommodation is based on American laws.]

"Disney nor New York should bow down to these idiots, this is America not an Islam Country, its a christian based country.. if she does not want to comply then fire her and end of story. Im not Racist either im just saying rules are rules." [Note: see letter from George Washington disavowing the idea that the United States is exclusively a Christian country.]

"send her home and give her a pork clop [sic] to munch on on her way."

There are over 4,500 comments, almost all of them expressing similar sentiments, but you get the picture. You won't see similar comments on BBC, etc. So why do I think minorities in America are safer, on average, than in Europe? Because at least here, racist movements usually lack broad legitimacy. No one is censoring racists, so they cannot complain about being marginalized, and our willingness to give them a microphone prevents them from gaining European-style martyr status. Also, to the extent some Americans are spending their time writing hateful comments online, that's less time they can spend creating an American Nazi Party.

So where does that leave us? Nowhere good, unfortunately. In both continents, we see thousands, if not millions of people unable to articulate the laws of their own country. I blame our failing education system for our current cultural stratification. Kids, teenagers, and college students go through years of schooling and manage to learn almost nothing about the Constitution or basic economics. What do we expect? And education alone won't be a panacea--as an attorney practicing law in Santa Clara County, my experience has shown me that legal knowledge won't necessarily help mitigate racism, Islamophobia, incorrect assumptions, or hatred. (Even so, I continue to believe most problems are caused by failures in communication and transparency.)

At the end of the day, the only real solution to racism is kids and teenagers hanging out together. (Youth sports leagues are a fantastic place to start.) Unfortunately, true diversity doesn't exist in most places, making it impossible for diverse groups of children and teenagers to spend time together in friendly, collaborative environments. And don't count on true diversity happening anytime soon. Americans and Europeans are getting more and more segregated. In short, racism will probably always exist, and all we can do is be mindful of our brain's habit of forming patterns and recognize when we've formed patterns based on a small or biased selection of data.

Repeat after me: "There are almost 7 billion people on this planet. In someone's entire lifetime, his or her general opinions about any group of people will be based on perhaps 0.5 to 6% of the total population of any particular group. No reasonable person would believe that having personal knowledge about 0.5 to 6% of something qualifies him/her to form a reliable opinion, because the size of the data relative to the group is too small." Logically, the previous statement is absolutely true. It's too bad our brains aren't designed to run on logic, which is why racism will probably always exist.

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