Dispelling Anti-Latino Animosity Will Take Work

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 25, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Some readers assume a few things about me, such as my stance on the divisive issue of immigration. And after making that assumption, some of them have suggested -- in less than kind terms -- that I "go back to Mexico," even if I never came from there.

The fact that people in this country are making assumptions about people like me because of our names or our looks is understandable. Most of us are wired to automatically place people in categories. But uncivil behavior or impulsive hatred is altogether different.

In a country such as Colombia, where I do come from, such intolerance has not only been pervasive but has had dire consequences, costing people their lives. That's rarely the case here. For immigrants like me -- not to mention those from countries such as Sudan, El Salvador, Guatemala or the former Yugoslavia -- this nation's ability to remain trustful, welcoming and compassionate despite a vast diversity of people and points of view defies the experiences of our homelands.

I have lived on the East Coast and in the Midwest for more than 18 years, and during that time I've come to deeply appreciate the great capacity and courage of Americans to talk about their problems and differences rather, needless to say, than shooting each other over them. But today, such conversations seem fewer and less civil than they once were.

Perhaps the reason why Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's message of reconciliation is getting some traction is because for many Americans, the divisiveness and intolerance of recent years have meant the erosion of a fundamental American value. In a speech commemorating Martin Luther King's birthday this week, Obama spoke about the urgency to close the "empathy deficit" in this country.

This effort, he said, is made more difficult by a politics that seeks to drive Americans apart: "We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don't think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs."

This not merely a rhetorical point -- for some segments of our population, things have been turning ugly. According to the FBI, there was a 3 percent increase in hate crimes nationwide between 2003 and 2006. FBI officials told me that this increase might simply reflect the number of law enforcement agencies reporting data. But it is difficult to miss the fact that in the same period, the number of Hispanics who were victims of a hate crime jumped by 34 percent.

According to Janet Murguia, "hate has found a new home." The head of the National Council of La Raza said this week that "this new strain of hate is open, ugly and demonizes all Hispanics in the emerging debate on immigration." Murguia, the first Hispanic to address the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast in Birmingham, Ala., is particularly concerned about the animosity that surfaces daily on the Internet and talk shows on radio and cable television.

She noted the case of CNN commentator Glenn Beck, who last summer featured on his radio show and his Web site a mock ad proposing a one-stop solution to the immigration and energy crises: a "giant refinery" that produces "Mexinol," a fuel made from the bodies of illegal immigrants coming here from Mexico.

Beck's "joke" was in poor taste and patently unfunny. And while it might be excused as an attempt at humor, the underlying sentiment is very similar to that expressed by others in broadcast media and on the Internet who have used the immigration crisis to justify uncivilized behavior.

It would be a mistake, however, to lay all incivility and hatred at the feet of the virulent few and then contend that if only they could be silenced, things would suddenly get better. As Stephan Thernstrom, history professor at Harvard University, put it in an interview this week, "If they all dropped dead tomorrow, it wouldn't change anything."

The return to a more congenial America won't happen overnight. "True unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes -- a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts," Obama rightly said. The intolerant talking heads of today are mere messengers of a message that may be embraced by only a few. But it is too subtly condoned by not being condemned by the many.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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