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Balkanization of California: demagogy, not just economy.

Political opponents worldwide are working hard to inspire resentment, hatred, and violence based on nominal ethnic and racial differences. From media accounts, one would conclude that such conflicts were natural or even inevitable with, out the demagogic factor. The war in the former Yugoslavia has been presented as a resurgence of ethnic hatred, not as the result of political opportunism. But there would be no atrocities without the opportunists' effort to enhance their political power. In Bosnia, people who have lived side by side for generations without strife, intermarrying, would not have become maniacs overnight unless they had been incited. By turning their followers' attention against other identifiable groups and scapegoating them for economic problems--problems all people, regardless of ethnicity, have in common--the demagogues have again sowed the seeds of hatred.

If we look closer to home, perhaps we can shed fight not only on conflicts in far-away places but also in our own nation.

Are there political opportunists seeking to incite ethnic resentment in the United States? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, and they are at the highest levels of government in both major political parties. In California, the state where I live, high, ranking political opportunists have targeted nonwhite immigrants as scapegoats for the state's grave economic problems. Governor Pete Wilson and U.S. Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are the most notable, but state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown and Represenative Anthony Beilenson (Democrat-Ventura) cannot be excluded. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum and two former Immigration and Naturalization Service chiefs have already proposed anti-immigrant ballot initiatives. Indeed, the seeds of the demagogues have already brought forth early fruit--a harbinger of a harvest to come similar to the one already being reaped in Bosnia.

It was Beilenson who first made political hay out of immigrant bashing. As a result of redistricting, Beilenson abruptly found himself with a constituency of conservative white suburban voters. Facing a tough political fight in this new district, Beilenson proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship to' the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens. The amendment process takes about 12 years and requires massive support nationwide; therefore, Beilenson's proposal was hardly a solution to any immediate problem. However, reelected to another two-year term, he had gotten what he wanted from his anti-immigrant posturing: right-wing credentials for a formerly moderate Democrat.

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum provides another interesting portrait in opportunism. Following redistricting in his last election, Schabarum found himself with a heavily Latino district, and so this conservative politician came out as a Latino: "Yo soy Latino," Schabarum proclaimed. That hasty demagogic twist failed to secure him re, election. Now, however, Schabarum has taken the opposite tack--behind anti-immigrant ballot initiatives--showing that political opportunists trim their sails rather shamelessly.

Although not a defining issue in the 1992 elections, now apparently no candidate in California will be able to avoid the migration question, however irrelevant it is to the actual problems to be confronted in office. The sudden interest in immigration at this time, like resentment between different ethnic groups, is not "natural" and cannot be simply explained by "the economy." Clearly, it is the politicians, in response to economic problems, who have chosen to turn the public's attention toward the alleged burden of immigration.

However, the media must also share the blame for this anti-immigrant demagoguery. Although the media may claim to be "just reporting," its angle of coverage has obscured the facts and intensified the emotion-charged debate. True, the coverage has provided discrete facts by which, through careful analysis, accurate conclusions can be reached. But the overall impression the majority of the public is left with (as supported by polls, the continued, more extreme posturing of politicians, and the ongoing slant of the reporting) is that immigration is a major problem now, when it was not a big deal a few years ago. Thus, obviously, either the media has failed to adequately inform and disabuse the public of misconceptions initiated by politicians, or else immigration really has become much worse a problem than it was. But, of course, immigration is no more a factor now than it was two years ago, except in the political debate.

Again, it is insufficient to claim that the poor economic situation accounts for this sudden increase in immigrant-bashing, because it does not reasonably follow that, when the economy is bad, people automatically blame immigrants. Our leaders may point the finger in that direction, and the media may report on it, but it is not a spontaneous conclusion reached by the public on its own, without the demagoguery.

But the fact that we even have to make this clear--that an economic downturn does not lead automatically to ethnic tension--should show how muddled the media discussion of these matters has become. From the reporting, especially the results of polls it might seem that immigration was on everyone's mind all along. However, neither immigration nor ethnic strife are on most people's minds until they are put there by politicians and the media. Most people are too busy trying to make a living and run a household--individually or in families--to worry about immigration or superficial ethnic differences beyond perhaps an occasional joke.

Similarly, you would believe that resentment and intense, even violent conflict among different ethnic groups were a constant state of affairs. But most of the time in the United States, violence is committed within an ethnic group, not against members of other groups. Although that is partially because people tend to live in families and communities of more or less the same ethnic background, it also indicates that violence arises for reasons other than race most of the time. It is hardly a leap of faith to conclude that even violence that may seem prima facie to be the result of racial conflict is also, in fact, due to other causes.

Likewise, anti-immigration feelings are more accurately attributed to personal concerns unrelated to immigration, rather than to the actual impact immigrants have on nonimmigrant citizens' lives. For example, if we look again at how alleged problems related to immigration have been discussed in the media, we can see several prevailing assumptions behind the reporting. While often claiming these matters are complicated, the media's prevailing message is simple and impressionistic: immigrant's take jobs and services away from native-born citizens. Apparently, we are to believe there is a pie with only so many slices, and immigrants--whether here legally or illegally--take pieces that ought to go to native-born citizens. Whether it's jobs or health care, the issues are presented as a matter of scarcity and we, the people, as units of consumption or need. You need to see a doctor or get a job? Get in line behind the immigrants, the Asians, the blacks, the Latinos, the women.

It should be made clear that this scarcity/competition paradigm does not accurately describe what is happening with the economy. Let's consider competition for jobs. On the one hand, when workers are laid off as a result of "down-sizing" or corporate mergers, those jobs are not filled by other people. Thus, immigrants do not put nonimmigrants out of work in that context. Moreover, when a person tries to find work and the jobs are filled--whether by foreigners, women, or white American men--it makes little sense to blame the persons who were hired, especially since those workers are not responsible for hiring decisions; the boss or company is responsible, not its employees.

However, blaming the people who have jobs is not merely a sign of envy or shortsightedness. The desire to blame others also arises out of actual worries about being able to make a living in a society where survival depends primarily on employment. Especially in urban America, where a job equals subsistence, fears of the unemployed are visceral and real. The visible urban homeless are ubiquitous reminders of what can happen as a result of long-term unemployment. In this setting, it is not difficult to understand how all but the most financially secure become uneasy when unemployment is on the rise and the business press tells workers of all levels, from middle management to unskilled labor, that their job security is gone, the global economy is here--your job is now constantly in question. In that context, we can see how readily people's uneasiness can be turned to xenophobia by politicians seeking to deflect criticism or to avoid coming up with plans that challenge the status quo. In these times especially, the media has a public obligation to clarify the issues.

It must be pointed out that even the term immigrant is misleading, since immigrants can also be citizens or long-term residents of California, and a native-born citizen can technically be a nonresident of this state. Rather than helping amibitous politicians point the finger at immigrants, the media should point out that, the more politicians successfully scapegoat immigrants, the less inclined they are to develop concrete proposals on how to help working people. We must also keep in mind that media coverage which seeks to foment controversy in the very style of the demagogues can lead to violence that tears us apart rather than to solutions for our common problems.

Keshav Kamath is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, California.
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Title Annotation:Up Front
Author:Makath, Keshav
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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