Thursday, March 22, 2007

Illegal immigration = Slavery?

The other day, this article was emailed to me by the Minority Graduate Student Association (of which I'm a member by default) here at the U of C. Tell me, is the author being sarcastic? Is this a satire like Swift's "A Modest Proposal," or a high school classmate's suggestion that Nazi concentration camps were ideal fat farms? Is this author REALLY comparing illegal immigration to slavery, and the conditions in the native countries of illegal immigrants as being the same as that of slaves in the South? Did he really suggest that a comparison can be made between those who (illegally) come to this country seeking a better way of life and those who were kidnapped, stood a 2/3 chance of dying in the journey, and then were considered less than human (rather, 3/5 of a person) in this country?

From the Boston Banner
A new era of slave catchers

Ed Blackman

In the 19th century, many people who were owned as slaves in the South undertook "self-emancipation." They ran away and fled the South by whatever means possible. Some walked to freedom. Some got on commercial ships and worked their way to safe country. One brave couple - a very light-skinned woman and a dark-skinned man - took the train to freedom by pretending that she was the mistress and he was the servant. Many ended up in Boston, New Bedford, Fairhaven, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

Then the federal government allowed former owners of slaves themselves or their agents to seek out and capture their "property" that had settled in the North. People of color lived in fear of the slave catchers, of their discovery by unsympathetic citizens or of other ways in which their former owners could capture them and return them to shackles.

Some stood in their defense, but many kept silent. They had broken the law. They had fled their homeland in the South. So they were "illegal" immigrants to the North. It mattered not if they worked, went to church, raised families or contributed to the common good. It was against the law for them to seek liberty and opportunity, to break their shackles - to live like free people.

Now, in the 21st century, 144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, another people have fled both economic and political repression to come to this country to seek freedom and opportunity. The immigrants from countries south of our border have not come to break the law. They have come to seek the same opportunities for freedom. They have come to feed their families. They have come to support their families who remain in their former towns and villages.

And the new slave catchers, employees of the U.S. government, sweep down like vultures to capture those who have tried to liberate themselves. And they find them - not in the welfare offices, not begging on street corners, but working in substandard conditions for substandard wages.

It is more than ironic that in New Bedford, the dreadful sweep was undertaken in the inhumane factory of a manufacturer whose primary client was the United States government. So families were torn apart. Children - many born here and thus citizens - have lost their parents. Wives and husbands have been separated. Who knows when and how they will be reunited? And people who have been working, contributing to the safety of our soldiers in Iraq, are torn from their livelihood and their hope.

Never mind that they have been working in substandard conditions. Never mind that they have been enslaved by greedy employers. Never mind that they have chosen the limited options available to them to support their families.

Those who are arrested in the name of illegal entry to the United States and then isolated in captivity are taken before an immigration judge, without adequate counsel, and shipped somewhere to await deportation. Try to find a particular person who has been captured by the immigration authorities. Try to locate them. Try to visit them. You will likely fail.

These images of families torn apart - of children ripped from the safety of their families, of husbands separated from wives - are they that different from the now-fading images of African American slave families torn apart by the brutality of slavery?

The cries of children and mothers, of fathers and brothers are no different today. They are only uttered with a different accent.

At the same time, we read in the newspaper that some farmers are trying to get the government to loan out prisoners to harvest the fields because there are not enough migrant laborers. Change one type of slave labor for another. This is happening in the land of freedom and opportunity.

These actions of the government are shameful. We have denied our heritage. We have trampled on our ideals. We have witnessed a dreadful injustice. We have kept silent. We have failed our democracy.

Ed Blackman is the former pastor of Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury and is a member of the board of the Museum of African American History.
Please tell me that someone did not seriously attempt to compare American chattel slavery to illegal immigration. Please.

1 comment:

AG said...

My friend, ME, sent me this from BBC News:

The Legacy of Slavery by Dominic Casciani

What do we mean by the legacy of slavery? Is it something measurable - or perhaps a feeling that echoes of a terrible past can still be heard today?

The legacy of slavery is one of the hardest issues in world history upon which to find agreement.

The sheer scale of the transactions of slavery - the untold cargo of people whose names, heritage and culture were extinguished - is, like the Nazi holocaust, almost impossible to take in.

But 200 years on there are voices around the world who say we still need to address the legacy of those events.

Steve Martin, a writer and historian of black history, says our failure to do so is a sign that we still cannot agree on the very basics of what the slave trade did to the world.

Mr Martin is an expert in the history of Britain's built environment. He uses it as a springboard to debate the often unwritten contribution of minorities to the national story.

He says a simple test of our understanding of legacy is to look for physical reminders in countries which were part of the trade. Very often, they are there - but difficult to recognise.

"Take the English country house and stately home," he says. "Harewood House in Yorkshire, the home of the Lascelles family, for example. How did they make their money?

"Then there is [the Georgian] Queen Square in Bristol. You can walk through these places every day but how do you know the role that slavery played in their existence?

"The legacy of slavery in our environment is there - the rise of the gardening of Capability Brown can be associated with the wealth from slavery."

If difficult questions are going unanswered - what are they?

Ken Barnes is the president of 100 Black Men of London. It's a worldwide movement, born in the USA, which recruits successful black men to mentor the next generation.

But Mr Barnes says this work does not take place in a vacuum: the legacy of slavery is everywhere for his members - and at its heart is racism.

"Slavery was used to justify and reinforce racism and allow it to become endemic [in Europe and the Americas]," he says.

"All of a sudden you have entire peoples seen as sub-human; if someone is sub-human then the slaver is justified in what he does.

"This even affects the way black people today perceive themselves. Ask people what it is to be black. Black is associated with rap music, with being lazy and uninterested in society. These are traceable back to the racism of slavery."

This is one of the most challenging arguments of the legacy debate: how much can the racism of the past be blamed for the racism, culture or inequalities of today?

Two of the most provocative areas for legacy theory are the caricatures of black male sexual prowess and sporting achievement. The suggestion is that today's stereotypical images were born out of slave owners' preference for the most athletic specimens from among their stock.

Two centuries of these stereotypes and pseudo-science have arguably left a deep psychological scar on society - both in white perceptions of black people and the responses of some black people to that projection.

This may sound entirely theoretical but is a deeply sensitive issue. The Bell Curve was one of the most controversial American books of recent times.

Critics accused the authors of perpetuating a stereotype of black physical superiority and white intellectual dominance.

The authors said their results were scientific. The critics said a straight line ran from the theory to some of the thinking of slavery.

Ken Barnes says the effect of these generations-old stereotypes can be seen most starkly in the disproportionately poor educational results of black boys when compared with other groups.

"There is an expectation of failure for black children in schools," he says. "And it comes down to how they are historically perceived by the school system.

"Society's continuing image of black men affects the way teachers address the children. But this is a vicious circle. If you continually tell a child that it is naughty then it will act that way."

However some of the legacy arguments have their critics. Last year, an award-winning BBC drama sparked a furious row when its central character, a black teacher called Joe, asked why everything bad that had ever happened to him had involved someone who was black. In one memorable scene Joe tells people to "get over slavery".

Critics of award-winning playwright Sharon Foster (who is black) accused her of pandering to racists.

In reality, the film exposed the tensions within black community politics - and a failure to agree on how to progress on legacy issues such as slavery, racism and modern identity.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the presidential contender Barack Obama has faced a hint of this political storm. One genealogist has claimed he discovered evidence that Obama's mother, who is white, is a descendent of slave owners. For some activists at least, Obama has therefore not suffered enough as a black man to be able to speak for African Americans.

So if that is the legacy - what is the remedy?

Historian Steve Martin says the starting point is an open and frank engagement on the issues - particularly by white people.

"Slavery is very much a case of don't mention the war," he says.

"It's a total emotional trigger and for many people it can't be discussed rationally.

"Many people don't want to talk about it or would even attack someone for bringing it up. But when I focus on the built environment -that can't be walked around - it's there and it's a history that's part of them too."

"What you need to do is instil hope," says Ken Barnes.

"Empower people and look at their self-identity. The key factor for any young person is how expectations of how they will turn out are reinforced and in turn influence behaviour."