Friday, November 04, 2005

Ray Nagin on race

When I heard Ray Nagin on NPR the other day, I was interested to hear what he had to say about the city's reconstruction efforts, the future of the population, and so on. When Michele Norris, the NPR reporter, asked him about the issue of Latino and Mexican immigrant workers, and especially about comments he had made about New Orleans not becoming "overrun with Mexican workers," I thought, "Uh oh. How long before some liberal commentator takes him to task over this?"

Well, someone may have beat him to it, but the first one I've seen has been Jason Zengerle on The Plank, The New Republic's new blog (registration may be required). He manages to demonstrate that the issue is almost impossible to talk about without getting in trouble, but not that Ray Nagin has any bias against Latino or Mexican workers in particular.

The simple fact is that, throughout the modern South, Latino immigrants are the go-to gophers for contractors looking for a cheap and pliable workforce. For a project like the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, which consists of thousands of subprojects and may require relocation of human
resources, the attraction of using an inherently baseless labor force would probably be highly attractive to a contractor.

Local leaders like Nagin would be remiss not to try to push to secure at least some of these jobs for his own citizens, especially given the sad economic status of many of them prior to the onslaught of the storm. But to push for this, though, he does have to talk about the situation. And it's nearly impossible to discuss the situation without talking about Mexicans or Latinos in general. Of course, it's possible to go too far, demonizing immigrant laborers and blaming them for problems completely unrelated to their prescence, as Clay Risen discusses. But merely
mentioning them shouldn't be grounds for castigation, either. Otherwise the debate becomes pathetic shadow boxing between liberals striving desperately to find the appropriately inoffensive term for whatever victimized group they're trying to defend, spending more time covering their own backside from their supposed allies than from rabid conservatives and nativists whose talking points veer from outrage and invective to lies and fantastic prognostications of doom.

This debate is really similar to the issue that's riven the Sierra Club for a few years now. Basically, the Sierra Club is, of course, a quite liberal organization. And it's taken as read in liberal circles that Thou shalt not speak ill of people of color. That includes immigrants. There's a sizeable contingent of people who feel that it's difficult to talk about the environment, though, without talking about the population of the country. The official policy of the Sierra Club, passed in 1996 and re-affirmed in 1999, is that "The Sierra Club, its entities, and those speaking in its name will take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States. The Club remains committed to environmental rights and protections for all within our borders, without discrimination based on immigration status."

It's quite possible, others would argue, that a commitment to environmental right and protections for all within our borders does not require discrimination based on immigration status (i.e. once you're here, you're here), but that in no way precludes discussions about what we should do about the levels of immigration allowed, how illegal or unregulated immigration should be dealt with, and so on. But when people tried to bring the issue back before the Sierra Club, there was no debate. Instead it was instant polarization, much to the delight of right-wing foes of the environmental movement.

Are there some people pushing this movement that are racists? Are there some within the anti-immigration (or at least immigration-suspicious) movement within the Sierra Club who are just agents provocateurs delighting in the strife and internal divisions caused by the debate? Sure. But of course progressives, environmentalists, leftists, and liberals only help these people by so eagerly and rabidly responding to the provocations.

I'm just saying cool out on Ray, is all.

There's apparently a listener response to Michele Norris's NPR piece here. I can't listen to this right now due to firewall issues, but I'll check it out later.

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