According to a recent survey, more Americans can name the characters from The Simpsons, than can recall the rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, while roughly one in five Americans could name the Simpsons characters, only one-tenth of one percent could name all five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Only one in four could name more than one of the protected rights therein, and more people could name the three American Idol judges than could name three First Amendment rights. Even freedom of religion–one of the better known freedoms guaranteed at the outset of the Bill of Rights–was only recognized by twenty-four percent: just slightly higher than the percentage who could name Homer, Bart, and the rest of the gang. Even more embarrassing, one in five actually believed that the "right to own a pet" was part of the First Amendment (1).
In and of itself, this survey may not be of much interest, seeing as how it is just one more in a litany of such studies, demonstrating the woeful ignorance of the American public on all kinds of important matters: science, geography, you name it, and the odds are we’ll get it wrong. After all, in a society that values its people more as consumers of products than as civic-minded citizens, the fact that the masses have been kept in a state of suspended intellectual animation is hardly surprising.
But what makes this kind of thing truly fascinating is to consider it within the context of the currently raging debates over immigration. After all, from the anti-immigrant camp one regularly hears yelps and screams about how Mexicans, in particular (and especially undocumented migrants) refuse to learn "our ways," or assimilate to "our culture." We are bombarded with hateful vitriol about their contempt for USAmerican culture, and the English language, and warned that if immigration continues at current levels, the culture of our nation will be forever changed.
To which one can only ask–given how intellectually bankrupt that culture is at present–so the hell what? If being a good American means having a deep appreciation for the institutions of the United States (and assuming that one recognizes the Constitution as such an institution, over and above Nick at Nite, Nancy Grace or MTV) then it’s pretty clear that those currently residing here fail the test of good citizenship. How many times do we have to watch Jay Leno go out on the streets of New York and ask "real Americans" to identify the Attorney General, or Secretary of Defense (which of course, they routinely cannot do) before we stop all the silliness about how outsiders are bringing the country down? And speaking of the Attorney General–a legal Latino in the parlance of the times–despite being a citizen in good standing with the right, one might wonder just how committed he is to the Constitution, given his own past musings on the legality of torture, wiretaps and electronic monitoring of others.
Are these the persons to whom undocumented migrants are being compared unfavorably? Are these the persons to whom we would rather entrust our nation’s future, just because they were born here? Are you kidding me? These are folks for whom the test administered to persons seeking to become citizens legally, through the naturalization process, would prove too difficult. Most of us couldn’t answer half the questions put to persons seeking to join us, yet we deign to critique others as not being sufficiently committed to Americanism, whatever that means?
Well, if Americanism means not being able to identify members of the highest court in your land, or know how many amendments to the Constitution there are, let alone what they say, or know who becomes President in the event of the death of both the President and Vice-President, then perhaps we need less Americanism, and more of whatever might replace it. If being an American means knowing who won each season of Survivor, or who the host of Fear Factor is, but not knowing what the Federal Reserve Board does, then we should do away with Americanism, and quickly.
If being an American means a greater likelihood of recognizing Britney Spears, than being able to point out Great Britain on a map, or being more likely to know what sex acts Paris Hilton engaged in on her home video, than being able to name the most famous museum in Paris, France, then we might as well blow up this God-forsaken place now and start over from scratch, because we are in serious trouble.
Hell, an influx of immigrants could only improve the extent to which the U.S. public knew U.S. history, since those elsewhere almost always seem to know more about it than we do. Surely, they would be smarter (or at least less gullible) than the eighty-five percent of American soldiers who apparently still believe they are in Iraq to "avenge Saddam Hussein’s role in the 9/11 attacks"(2). And surely they could be of no worse character than the deceptive and duplicitous "Real Amurkans" who sent those soldiers there, under false pretenses, in the first place.
In fact, when it comes to character and behavioral tendencies, Mexicans often look quite a bit better than the rest of us. According to numerous studies, immigrants from Mexico and other points South, actually have lower crime rates than their U.S.-born counterparts, and are more likely to abuse illegal narcotics the longer they stay in the United States–which is to say the more they become like us (3). If anything then, it is "Americanism" that is the problem.
And as for "learning to speak English," who are we to lecture others? In a nation where citizens have made a comedic superstar out of a hayseed like Larry the Cable Guy–whose tag line, "Git ‘er done," suggests a fan base in desperate need of going back and finishing high school–demanding that others learn to speak the mother tongue seems a bit silly. In a land where the President regularly mangles simple sentences in ways that would make a third grade grammar teacher palpitate, can we really do worse by having several million Mexicans join us?
Hell, "real Amurkans" don’t even know what it means to be a member of their little club in the first place. So consider a recent survey, conducted by researchers at Purdue University, in which fifty-four percent said that one needed to be a Christian in order to be a real American (with four in ten believing this strongly), and nearly eighty percent said that military service is what makes one "truly American": a requirement that would exclude most males, and virtually all women in the country (4). With such an ignorant conception of national citizenship, why should anyone listen to the views of such persons when it comes to who should, and should not be able to enter the nation and gain membership on equal terms with others?
To make the point even clearer, my great-grandfather was one of those who came to this country "legally," though the fine upstanding "real Amurkans" of his time certainly didn’t make it easy. In fact, at first, they turned him away and sent him home. Just so happens, the ship he was on entered New York harbor in 1901, shortly after President McKinley had been assassinated. Unluckily for him, McKinley’s killer was the son of Eastern European immigrants, and being a ship filled with Russians, officials decided those aboard were undesirables and should be made–at least for the moment–illegal. After being forced back to Russia, it would take him nine more years before he would be able to save the money to make the journey again.
That "real Amurkans" felt they knew best who should and shouldn’t be allowed into the U.S.–and that he didn’t qualify, irrespective of his personal character, about which they could have known nothing at the time–tells me all I need to know about this bunch: those who insist that they and they alone are the best arbiters of who should be allowed into their country. Their judgment in this regard has always been lousy. It was lousy when they turned that boat around 105 years ago; it was lousy when they passed Asian exclusion laws that remained in effect for roughly eighty years, and it is lousy today. These "real Amurkans" are among the most dangerous and deluded persons on the planet, and persons whose beliefs about damned near anything should be questioned as a matter of course: the kind of people whose judgment is so notoriously shitty, that if one of them tells you the sun is shining, you’d do well to glance upward just to make sure.
And yes, I know, these real Amurkans, however uninformed they may be about the culture they seek to "defend" from others, will insist they are only asking for adherence to the rule of law: one institution that they insist must be respected above all others. It’s not that they dislike Mexicans. Goodness no! It’s just that so many of them are coming illegally, and we are a law-abiding people who believe in playing by the rules.
Somewhere, the spirit of an Arapaho mother is laughing its ghostly ass off at that one, joined in her chorus of amusement by tens of millions more: Narragansett, Pequot, Lakota, you name it–all pissing themselves at the irony right about now.
There is, as the saying has long held, honor among thieves, be they bank robbers, one supposes, or those who steal whole continents. Like the descendants of those who confiscated North America, and who now, without any sense of misgiving or just plain old fashioned embarrassment, think nothing of saying how their ancestors came here legally, and that this is what makes them different, and one assumes, better, than those who come now from Mexico without adequate papers.
Of course, those who insist their ancestors came to America legally ignore a crucial point: namely, if one was of European descent, there were no real limitations on immigrating to the U.S. blocking your way. In other words, all white folks could come legally, and, in keeping with the terms of the Naturalization Act of 1790, become citizens within one year of entry, making the need for illegal subterfuge remote. To say that one’s great-great whatever followed the law, when in truth there was no law to follow (or to break) is more than a bit disingenuous.
To be honest, the entire argument about the illegality of many migrants coming across the border is equally absurd. After all, forty percent of those in the country illegally didn’t come that way, but rather, entered in full accordance with the nation’s laws, and simply overstayed work or educational visas. The Minutemen and others in the anti-immigration movement who claim their only concern is for those breaking the law, pay almost no attention to this group, for reasons that can only be ones of convenience (in other words, the border is a more visible target for garnering publicity), or racism, since large numbers of visa violators are European or Canadian, and frankly, aren’t seen as a threat to the so-called "American way of life," the way brown skinned, non-English speaking folks are.
That racism motivates much of the backlash should be obvious. Certainly no one can truly believe that the Minutemen would be camped out on the Canadian border if the bulk of illegal immigration were coming from the North, or that undocumented migrants from Nova Scotia would be met with the kind of hostility being meted out to those from Oaxaca?
If it were only illegality that bothered the anti crowd, they could just advocate for a streamlining of the process by which one can become a U.S. citizen in the first place. That, after all, would most certainly reduce the flow of "illegals" entering the country, by definition. But they will never advocate for such a thing, as they don’t want Mexicans and others from the global south entering the U.S., whether by the letter of the law or not.
The law isn’t the point, and everyone knows it. After all, just because something is illegal, doesn’t mean it should be. Likewise, just because something is given cover of law, doesn’t automatically indicate its legitimacy. Laws reflect the wishes of any society’s ruling elite, at a given time, since they are the ones who make them. To that extent, laws are neither just nor unjust, in and of themselves. The law has, over time, enshrined slavery, theft of indigenous land, segregation, male-only voting and property owning, internment of Japanese Americans, and–since we’re on the subject–immigration restrictions based on race and nationality, predicated on the biases of the dominant group. That certain among those migrating to the United States break the law in order to do so is a matter of irrelevance, morally speaking, unless one starts with the absurd proposition that laws are by definition legitimate, simply because they exist.
To complain about the illegality of many current migrants is to beg the ultimate question: namely, what makes someone illegal? Is it something essential to them as human beings, or does it have more to do with the decisions made by policy makers in the nation to which they migrate? To ask the question is to answer it, and yet to hear the nativists tell it, those who come to the U.S. "illegally" are by definition of bad character, precisely because of their decision to break the law: the law, in this case, of a country whose laws (until they get here) they are not bound to follow in the first place.
Others will insist that their opposition to an influx of low-wage, semi and low-skilled labor is purely economic. In other words, it’s nothing personal, but to have such a flood of folks enter the nation will drag down the wage base of all working people, especially those in the lower tier of the labor force. But while it is true that "illegals" likely do bid down labor costs, at least in some industries, this is hardly their fault, and it surely can’t be remedied by immigration crackdowns, After all, so long as trade agreements allow and even encourage companies to flee to other nations to take advantage of low wage labor, the mere existence of such persons on the planet, as breathing, working humans, will bid down the costs of labor. The answer, of course, is to regulate wages globally and ensure the right of all working people, in whatever nation, to organize collectively within labor unions, protected in this right by international law. Only by doing so can the comparative advantage gained by the super-exploitation of workers be eliminated, or significantly undermined.
To the extent "real Amurkans" would prefer to limit the entry of low-wage workers into "our" nation, than to limit high profit companies from fleeing to theirs, we reveal our racial and ethnic chauvinism, and make it hard to accept that all the upset over immigration is merely about concern over declining wages and job opportunities.
After all, the only reason Mexicans are willing to work for such low wages is that we have supported and helped to maintain a global economic system predicated on the lowest possible wages per unit of productivity–in other words, because we have sanctified as if it were holy, the notion of free market capitalism. If, having done so, we come to realize that the fruits of this tree are considerably less tasty than we imagined, and were led to believe by the supporters of such a system, it hardly makes sense to blame those who pick the fruit. Rather, the blame lies with those who planted the trees and who profit from their cultivation.
Bottom line, so long as capital is free to cross borders in search of the highest return on investment, and goods are free to cross borders in search of the highest price, to chain labor to its country of origin is to inherently tilt the economic game in favor of the haves and to the detriment of workers everywhere. It is not workers who hurt other workers, in this regard, but capital that does so. Restricting the prerogatives of capital and capitalists is the only way to boost the well being of workers in the long run.
But few if any of the voices in the anti-immigrant movement are saying anything about that. They are so busy pushing their white nationalist vision of the U.S. that they can’t be bothered to examine the ways in which it is corporate citizens who are damaging the well being of America: folks who share their skin color and legal status, if not their bank account size. Unless and until working people in the U.S. come to see workers of color in the global South as their brothers and sisters in a common struggle for economic justice and human dignity–and the owners of capital as their implacable economic enemies–nothing will change, or at least, not for the better.
In other words, until and unless "real Amurkans" start reflecting on the rich white folks who are truly to blame for their immiseration and insecurity, and stop scapegoating poor brown folks for the same, the pockets of white, black and brown alike will continue to be picked by a hand that, though "invisible," is all too real.
TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He lived in New Orleans from 1986-1996. He can be reached at: email@example.com
1. "Few Americans Know First Amendment, Poll Shows," Church and State, 59:4, April, 2006: 3.
2. Zogby International, 2/28/06 (http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1075)
3. Marilyn Elias, "Sports means sex for boys, not girls," USA Today. August 26, 1998: 1D; William A. Vega, et.al., "Lifetime Prevalence of DSM-III Psychiatric Disorders Among Urban and Rural Mexican Americans in California," Archives of General Psychiatry, 1998, Volume 55: 771-78.
4. Diverse Staff Reports, "Study: Ninety-Four percent say U.S. Citizenship Defines Being an American," Diverse Online, May 8, 2006.