Sally Kohn, CNN, July 4, 2014
During the civil rights era, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was asked by a supporter why he was fixated on the politics of race. Wallace replied, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*ggers, and they stomped the floor.”
Today, opponents of immigration reform attack undocumented immigrants as “illegal immigrants.” Even worse, like anti-immigration extremists, some prominent elected officials use the term “illegals.” Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, said, “I urge all Mainers to tell your city councilors and selectmen to stop handing out your money to illegals.”
Not the same thing? Of course it is.
Once upon a time, the n-word and f-word were utterly acceptable terminology in undermining not only the basic rights but basic humanity of black people and gay people. That those terms seem radically inappropriate and out of step with mainstream culture now is only because social movements and legal and political changes have shifted the landscape. But make no mistake about it, words matter, not only in reflecting certain dehumanizing attitudes toward historically marginalized groups but in actively perpetuating and rationalizing that dehumanization.
Is it not possible to oppose immigrant rights without resorting to attacking immigrants as human beings? The intensity of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is stunning. Even if you don’t support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, can’t you find some compassion for them as human beings who live on the same planet?
After all, whether you think our immigration laws are properly functioning or not, the forces of economic hardship and violence that push people to leave their home countries and the promise of a better future in America that pulls people here are the same forces that pushed and pulled on many of our ancestors.
The organization Race Forward has a campaign to get media organizations to “Drop The I-Word” in their reporting about immigration. So far, the campaign has succeeded in getting the Associated Press, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and many other outlets to stop using the word. But the pressure continues on The New York Times, The Washington Post and radio and television outlets. And the campaign around media usage is just one step toward influencing and ultimately ending the use of the word “illegal” by everyone in America.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Today, most people find the n-word and the f-word incredibly offensive. Let’s hope that most if not all people will feel the same way about the words “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” in the not too distant future.