To recap: we have established that presidential rhetoric is powerful and can influence the public. We have established that it has a powerful role in shaping how the media choose to cover certain issues and in what way. And we have established that the current president has a unique propensity for using divisive language to trigger and amplify white grievance politics.
This means the way the president has approached the topic of immigration is inherently fraught — it is a highly emotional topic that often works at a subliminal level of visceral reactions, and is rarely connected to real-world data and facts. Yet, as Adam Serwer puts it, whether America can continue as a multi-racial democracy is an existential question, not just for us, but globally. But it isn’t lost; after all, he notes:
A plurality of Americans in 2016 and 2018 voted against defining American citizenship in racial terms, something that has perhaps never happened before in the history of the United States. There was no anti-racist majority at the dawn of Reconstruction, during the heyday of immigration restriction, or in the twilight of the civil-rights movement. The voters of this coalition may yet defeat Trumpism.
There’s a lot that individual, normal people can do to oppose racism expressed as anti-immigration coming from the top.
Decide to act
Delegitimizing immigrants through hate speech and abusive policies must be unacceptable in a civil society. Citizens cannot exist equally if the government is using its vast power to single out non-white groups for censure and mistreatment. Karl Popper famously called it the paradox of tolerance: “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society much be intolerant of intolerance.” This means choosing to be intolerant of intolerance on an individual, and behaving accordingly.
Think of it as an immune response: endless studies have demonstrated conclusively that immigration is good for societies. This isn’t some fuzzy argument about cultural mixing, either: economists published peer-reviewed research in March, 2019, that showed conclusively that immigrants are good for the economy. Even within the United States, the counties that had more immigration between 1850 and 1920 had higher income, less poverty, less unemployment, higher rates of urbanization, and more education than counties with less immigration.
And think of the public outcry to the first Muslim travel ban, and to the first round of family separation at the southern border: deciding to act works. Public outcry works.
There is an art to speaking truth to someone who is unwilling to hear it. When someone uses racist language, identify it in plain language.
Astonishingly, this has been a challenge for many political journalists for a variety of reasons behind the scope of this essay. Indeed, as we noted earlier, the simple act of covering how the president talks about immigration can itself do damage by amplifying racist ideas and reframing the discussion in a way that downplays the humanity of the people under discussion.
Margaret Sullivan has one idea: a “truth sandwich,” whereby a false or racist claim is contextualized before and after with facts that demonstrate its falsity or abusiveness.
This is not a carte blanche to be a jerk while speaking plainly (though that sometimes might be warranted). Rather, think through how to use plain language to cut through the weasel words and justification someone might be using to defend the indefensible: What do you mean by that? Do you realize why it’s hurtful? Do you care?
Sometimes a person might not care that they’re being hurtful. If so, it is important to talk plainly about that, too: jerks need to be identified as jerks.
Do Not Fear Confrontation
In 2017, Richard Spencer, a white nationalist notorious for leading a ballroom in Nazi salutes while yelling “Heil Trump” during the election and leading tiki-torch wielding white people shouting “Jews will not replace us” at the Charlottesville Nazi rally, was working out at a gym in Alexandria, Virginia. He did this not only because most people don’t know who he is, but because he counts on being able to “pass” into polite society when he really has no business being there.
A professor at Georgetown confronted Spencer; loudly condemning his white supremacist views and demanding he leave the gym. The gym agreed and barred him from working out there.
Some other examples of confronting the people who promote inhumane treatment of non-white people:
- During the height of the child separation policy, then-DHS Kristen Nielsen decided to eat at a Mexican restaurant in Washington DC (the optics of which went unremarked upon in the coverage). A network of activists spotted her and confronted her, publicly, yelling “shame” until she left.
- In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confronted by another group of protesters, part of a series of public confrontations over his conduct as Majority Leader.
- Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Donald Trump widely viewed as the architect of his racist immigration policy, was cursed at by a bartender as he picked up takeout sushi.
- Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the White House spokesperson, was confronted at a restaurant for making the staff uncomfortable by her very presence and was politely asked to leave.
These incidents did not on their own change the terms of the immigration debate. What they did was demonstrate that holding odious views and enacting them as policy is unacceptable in polite society.
There is a trap in this approach, which is the dreaded cries of “civility.” This is where the above point about speaking plainly, becomes important. Civility does not include letting teenagers vomit to death from the flu in a crowded cell because CBP guards deny him medical treatment. Civility does not include ripping infants away from their parents and causing permanent emotional trauma as a “deterrent” to claiming asylum. It isn’t civil to pack people so tightly in freezing cells with nothing more than a shared sleeping pad and aluminum blanket that they can’t even lie down.
Civility is a two-way street. Don’t let the abusers hide behind it.
Understand — And Communicate — The Fuller Picture
When the president talks about immigration it isn’t just about immigration. As one example, his administration intentionally broke the immigration courts to create a backlog of cases, to crowd detention facilities. He manufactured a humanitarian crisis to create urgency and demand a resolution on his terms.
Trump’s primary financier and patron. Robert Mercer, is an investor in the private security companies that operate these camps — their investments in these companies have paid off an exorbitant rates since they began filling up with migrant children.
It’s also not about crime of the economy. People aren’t coming here to hurt the country. The reason people are flooding to the borders is part of a regional cluster of challenges, from violence to institutional failures to the long legacy of disastrous U.S. policies toward Latin America. But these immigrants commit far less crime than native citizens; and cities that welcome large numbers of immigrants are more economically successful than those that don’t.
Consider the president saying he wants to increase immigration from Norway and to decrease it from countries he called “shitholes.” The clear implication is that white europeans are “good,” while non-white people from outside Europe are “bad” (there are sometimes allowances made for people of Asian heritage, based on damaging stereotypes about math scores). The type of “acceptable” non-white immigrant changes over time (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is only the first example of restricting immigration explicitly on race; others include mass opposition to Italians, Irish, and Southern Europeans more generally.
The bigger picture here isn’t that racial exclusions are okay; but rather that they’re not. In the 21st century restricting immigration based on Catholicism sounds bizarre and vaguely illegal; yet the administration convinced the Supreme Court under dubious reasoning to allow an explicit ban on the basis of having an Islamic majority. The targets change over time, but the central belief system of white supremacy remains the same.
So what to do?
There is no one thing that a person can do to combat the white supremacy being expressed as immigration policy at the White House. Deciding to act, using plain language, embracing confrontation when necessary, and communicating the bigger picture about these policies and words will not end the problem overnight.
Aldous Huxley, in the introduction to Brave New World, said “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.” He was drawing on a long line of similar statements stretching back to the early 19th century, but his including of “common humanity” is what strikes me as being especially germane. Immigration is often deliberated outside the bounds of what we would consider to be a question of liberties — immigration courts operate under a separate system of laws and rights than do normal courts.
This is a long term challenge, and it can only be addressed with a view toward the long term.
Considering the basic humanity of the people in question, therefore, brings the discussion beyond a legalistic parsing of regulations toward a fundamental question of fairness, dignity, and justice. Arriving at a border without documentation is not an excuse for abusive, dehumanizing treatment, and no one advocating such a thing should be allowed to do so without challenge.
So, knowing how this rhetoric can propagate and infect the public discourse like a meme, and how to fight back against that rhetoric, is a vital first step toward reversing the abuses happening in our name.