“We are a nation of immigrants!”
What does that phrase mean? Ask Toni Morrison:
Fresh from Ellis Island, Stavros gets a job shining shoes at Grand Central Terminal. It is the last scene of Elia Kazan’s film America, America, the story of a young Greek’s fierce determination to immigrate to America. Quickly, but as casually as an afterthought, a young black man, also a shoe shiner, enters and tries to solicit a customer. He is run off the screen — “Get out of here! We’re doing business here!” — and silently disappears.
This interloper into Stavros’ workplace is crucial in the mix of signs that make up the movie’s happy-ending immigrant story: a job, a straw hat, an infectious smile — and a scorned black. It is the act of racial contempt that transforms this charming Greek into an entitled white. Without it, Stavros’ future as an American is not at all assured.
We immigrants have “made it” in this country in two ways, by taking land from the Indians and by taking jobs from Blacks. That’s our dirty little secret.
When my Irish ancestors came here we were not “white”. My great-great grandfather had a sign he had taken that said, “We hire Blacks but no Irish need apply.” But within a generation we had become white, and in doing so we were now able to make it by taking jobs away from Blacks. And so has every group of immigrants in turn. When jobs are plentiful and workers are scarce, Blacks make inroads. Then another set of immigrants comes and takes the jobs away. We make it by climbing on their backs and jumping up above them onto the ladder to success, and we leave them on the bottom rung. Because that’s what racism is all about.
And who are those immigrants getting their slice of the American Pie by taking it from those who were holding it? Why, us, the nation of immigrants. Those immigrant groups that voted Democratic alongside of Blacks when we were both down, and who feel ever so kindly toward Blacks as we make it at their expense and as we then help other ethnic groups to make it in their turn at the expense of Blacks.
We are what, when I was a politically correct New Leftist, was called a “White Liberal”. We always hated that label, because we could never understand how all our good intentions toward Blacks could be so misunderstood. After all, some of the best Blacks were allowed to be our friends. So why did they still think we were racists? What more could they want from us besides good intentions?
We Liberals–White Liberals–have to disguise our racism. We can’t use the N-word, we can’t call them “uppity” or even “lazy and shiftless”…or can we? So how can white liberals be racist in a manner subtle enough to get away with it? By following the lead of the Neo-Con Republicans. Don’t call Black people “lazy and shiftless”, just call the people who are taking their jobs away from them “hardworking and industrious”. Don’t call Blacks “uppity” when they ask for a living wage, for medical and pension benefits, or for union representation, nope, just call the folks you are giving their jobs to “easy to work with”. Just as the obvious white racists have learned to use code language to express racism, like having their presidential candidates make the necessary pilgrimage to the southern, um, “meccas”, those right-wing Christian schools that until recently forbade blacks from dating whites in their schools, so to we white liberals have our own code language that permit us to stay smugly pious as we dump our black nannies and landscapers and agricultural workers and construction workers and all of those other “jobs that Americans just won’t do” (at least not after we fire them) to replace them with those who are lighter, and like us before them, well along the road to becoming white.
And as we muscle then aside yet again, we ask Blacks to once again “silently disappear”. And if they don’t, then we will look away as the newcomers take their place on a higher rung on the ladder to success by force.
It will be extremely enlightening to watch our supposedly Liberal Democratic politicians as they deal with the next wave of immigrants who will want power in exchange for votes. Where will their slice of the political pie come from? Will the White Liberals give up some of theirs? Or will yet another wave of immigrants take their power by climbing up on the backs of Blacks?