Monday, August 18, 2008

Language of violence

"Words can reduce a person to an object
Something more easy to hate than an animate entity
Completely disposable, no problem to obliterate."
--The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

I've been mulling this post for weeks.

There are some around here who think immigration will be the great civil rights struggle for years to come. The Nation magazine has referred to the treatment of Latinos in Georgia as "Juan Crow".

Sadly, when times are tense in civil rights struggles, people die. Think four little girls in a Birmingham church. Think students registering people to vote in the deep South. Think Matthew Shepherd.

And, now, think Luis Ramirez.

Last month Luis Ramirez, an immigrant from Mexico, was beaten to death on a street in Shenandoah, PA. Witnesses claim that his attackers- allegedly a group of local teens- yelled racial slurs during the attack.

Ramirez is probably not the first immigrant to be attacked since the immigration debate heated up three years ago. He probably won't be the last. But his death hits close to home because it happened so close to home.

And it happened so close to Hazleton, which is just twenty miles away.

We all believe in free speech. Any dope can say any dopey thing he or she wants.

And we also know that words have power. Let there be no doubt that the rhetoric of the immigration debate played a role in the death of Luis Ramirez. Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, CNN's Lou Dobbs, cheese steak king Joey Vento, and others made racism cool again. Racism is once again socially acceptable.

Syndicated columnist and Bloomsburg U journalism professor Walter Brasch recognizes this:
Unindicted co-conspirators are millions of Americans and the far-right mass media.

It’s common for people in a nation that is in a Recession to complain. They’re frustrated with their lives, with bad working conditions, dead end jobs, and low incomes. They’re frustrated by skyrocketing prices, obscene corporate profits, and do-nothing legislators. The problem isn’t “us,” they believe, but “them.” Others. Outsiders who “invaded” America

A century ago in the coal region, good ole boy Americans complained about the Irish and Poles who took “our” jobs in the mines. For decades, Whites kept Blacks out of almost all but the most menial jobs, and then lynched those who they found to be too “uppity.” During the 1920s and 1930s, the masses of Germans, trying to rationalize their own economic distress, decided the problem was the Jews—and Americans went along with that ethnic racism. We blame Asians. Africans. Muslims. Anyone who’s different.

In today’s America, it’s the “Illegals,” the code-name for undocumented Mexicans.

(Full disclosure: Brasch is a member of the board of ACLU-PA's Central Susquehanna chapter.)

Barletta, for his part, fails to see the power of his words.
Barletta said he does not believe his campaign against illegal immigration in any way created an atmosphere that encouraged the killing of Luis Ramirez.

Illegals. Illegal aliens. Criminals. Invaders. Hordes. Mexcrement, as one visitor to SF said during the Hazleton trial. These are words used to de-humanize other human beings. And once they are dehumanized, it becomes much easier to dispose of them.

The Anti-Defamation League recognized this in its report Immigrants Targeted: Extremist Rhetoric Moves into the Mainstream, which was released last fall.
"The Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis were not the only ones who saw an opportunity in the national debate over immigration to sow the seeds of racism as a means to derail immigration reform," said (ADL national director Abraham H.) Foxman. "While reasonable people can disagree about border control and the appropriate parameters for immigration reform, the debate has been tainted by the virulent anti-immigrant message employed by a handful of groups. The real victims in this are Hispanic-Americans and other immigrants who are being unfairly targeted, demeaned and stereotyped."

Death is the silence in this language of violence.

(For more on the fallout in Shenandoah from the death of Luis Ramirez, check out this report from WITF-FM, the NPR affiliate in Harrisburg.)

Andy in Harrisburg

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