Posted on August 18, 2004

Separate, Unequal Views Of Adviser To Proposition 200

E. J. Montini, Arizona Republic, Aug. 17

I wondered if maybe Virginia Abernethy had been having a bad day and said something she’d like to take back. Maybe she didn’t feel well. Maybe her car broke down. Maybe she’s a Diamondbacks fan. Who knows? Maybe I would say something a little kooky, too, if someone called me a “racist.”

So I figured that I would give her a second chance. Abernethy is chairwoman of the National Advisory Board for Protect Arizona Now, the organization pushing Proposition 200, which hopes to restrict social services and to prevent illegal voting by non-citizen immigrants.

It’s the kind of initiative that gets on the ballot because politicians have no ideas beyond smearing one another, and ordinary folks decide that they must take matters into their own hands.

Abernethy is Harvard-educated and is an emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. About a week ago a Republic reporter asked her to respond to charges that she is a racist.

Abernethy told the reporter that she most definitely was not a racist. She is, she said, a “separatist.” Then she added, “There is a difference. We’re not saying anything about supremacy, not at all. We’re saying that each ethnic group is often happier with its own kind.”

It’s own kind? Each ethnic group?

This remark promoted the Washington D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which pushes initiatives like Proposition 200, to issue a statement saying that it considers Abernethy’s views “repugnant” and “divisive.”

Or maybe it was a case of indigestion. Too much hot sauce on the blue plate special. Or allergies. Or a jammed garbage disposal. I contacted Abernethy and asked if she wanted to clarify her remarks. She did. She sent back an e-mail stating even more strongly that in matters of race and ethnicity, she is a separatist.

“I always point out that most ethnic, religious and cultural groups are happy and proud to be with their own,” she said. “For example, African-Americans in Atlanta had public demonstrations in order to get black-oriented schools. As long as I can remember, Jewish students have had access to Hillel and B’nai B’rith on many college campuses.”

True, there are ethnic clubs and schools. There’s a Chinatown in San Francisco and Little Italy in New York. And there are several big St. Patrick’s Day parades.

But near as I can tell, there is no Italians-only city in the United States. There is no Jewish-only county. There is no Mexicans-only state (although some seem to believe that such a place exists).

“I prefer not to use the designation ‘white’ and I have rarely described myself with that term,” Abernethy wrote. “White denies the diversity of my background and culture at the same time that it is vague in some respects. I am European-American.”

Me, too, I guess. Does that mean we should slice up the United States to create a European-America? An Asian-America? An African-America? And if we did, wouldn’t Mexicans have to be included in the European part with Abernethy and me, owing to the large number of them who can trace their ancestry back to Spain?

This is the problem with something like Proposition 200. It makes sense to enforce immigration laws and to protect the election process. But how we do it and with whom we do it also matters. My Italian mother often spoke of how we are judged by the company we keep. Given that, I would never say that those who support Proposition 200 are allying themselves with a racist. They’re not. She’s a separatist.

What FAIR Believes . . . One Unified American Community

Federation for American Immigration Reform, Aug. 9

FAIR firmly believes in the motto e pluribus unum — “out of many, one” — that people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds who embrace the ideals of our constitution are part of one unified American community. We also believe that America is a society based on the rule of law and that rampant illegal immigration threatens the principles for which this country stands.

A recent public opinion poll shows that 74 percent of Arizona voters support Proposition 200, which would require the state to withhold benefits from illegal immigrants if federal law bars them from receiving those benefits.

While organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the virtually unknown Center for New Community would like to tar all supporters of immigration reform with the same brush, there is a time for complete candor and sober assessment. When there is evidence someone has crossed the line, we are compelled to speak out: Views expressed by a Ms. Virginia Abernethy, a Nashville, Tennessee advisor to Kathy McKee — appointed after the signature turn in and utterly uninvolved in the signature gathering process — are repugnant, divisive and do not represent the views of the vast majority of Arizonans who support Proposition 200. These views were reported by the Arizona Republic on Saturday, August 7, 2004. We do not know why she was appointed by Ms. McKee, but FAIR and everyone FAIR represents categorically denies and repudiates Abernethy’s repulsive separatist views.

This gross error in judgment by Ms. McKee — appointing someone whose views are so marginal and discreditable — continues a long pattern of similarly inexplicable and erratic conduct by McKee, and confirms the need for both to step aside at this juncture. Beyond the actual turn in of signatures, Ms. McKee has had little to do with advancing Proposition 200 for months.

The only separatism we advocate is separating Virginia Abernethy and Kathy McKee from this effort before they do any more damage. We believe this is the prevailing view among activists and advocates in Arizona. Ms. McKee no longer has a following and no longer any substantial support. Having turned in the petitions — mostly generated by other organizations — Ms. McKee no longer has any useful role in any case.

Proposition 200 is about enforcing our immigration laws, protecting the safety and security of our nation, and lifting the enormous financial burden that mass immigration is placing on the shoulders of law-abiding taxpayers in Arizona. These are the issues to discuss in this effort — and these are issues on which there is agreement, across all ethnic groups and political blocs.