During the GOP national convention earlier this year, This American Life reporter Zoe Chase interviewed a young delegate named Bobby from St. Cloud, Minnesota — a town with a sizable Somali immigrant population. Bobby described how St. Cloud’s white residents were concerned about the issue of “immigrant assimilation.” In this week’s TAL episode, Zoe proceeded to air audio from a tension-packed town hall in St. Cloud from 2015. The room was crowded, filled with whites, as well as Somalis.
A white man at the town hall meeting voiced his concerns: “Nobody asked us if we in St. Cloud want those Somalis. And we understand that social groups, like the Lutheran Social Service and the Catholic charities, they’re dumping them in areas like St. Cloud. OK. So the question is, how many more are coming? We didn’t ask for these people.”
A Somali man later replied: “I hear all the time the word ‘assimilation’. You know, I feel myself assimilated…If you guys have any questions, anything to talk about, come to us. We’ll answer all your questions. We will address your fears, but I don’t think there’s nothing we have to fear in America.”
Now perhaps the concerns of the white St. Cloud residents are entirely legitimate; indeed they may very well be. Culture is a remarkably powerful, unifying social force, and cultural clashes can prove —well, disruptive and difficult to manage. Successful cultural assimilation is undoubtedly a very difficult thing to achieve. Yet concerns about culture, no matter how legitimate, are often very misconstrued as concerns about race — and no wonder. Whether we like it or not, race is often an aspect of culture.
White people principally populate St. Cloud. And these white residents were quick to clarify that their concerns about assimilation were allegedly “not about race”, but about money. And this may very well be the case. Nevertheless — a bit more qualification on the exact nature of these fiscal challenges might have proved useful. Zoe Chase was quick to emphasize how the white St. Cloud residents failed to pinpoint the precise nature of these fiscal concerns, stating only that the Somalis were a “drain” on the St. Cloud economy — on their schools, their neighborhoods.
I find all of this rather troubling. America remains a nation literally built on the backs of immigrant groups — all of whom, whether black, white, Catholic, Irish, Latino or Jewish, have historically faced prejudice. Any unfounded rejection of one immigrant group by another immigrant group strikes me not only as hypocritical, but ignorant. Immigrants help the American economy; in fact, the average net fiscal return for immigrants with college degrees is $198,000.
Yet the value of a human life goes far beyond its economic utility. Jesus entreats his disciples to love the “least of these.” Is this not one of the tenets of the Pro-Life movement, a movement largely advanced by social conservatives, many of whom are all too quick to denounce the worth of the immigrant? Perhaps the nationalist rhetoric of white, angry, allegedly conservative politicians, who make promises too tall to pay for, has blinded us — or, worse yet, only proved indicative of previously hidden prejudices. Yes, the politician’s promise of renewed national identity may be enticing, but when the degradation of immigrants characterizes this national identity — an identity originally defined by immigrants — isn’t it time to rethink something?
While it’s disconcerting, to say the least, that social conservatives are failing to discuss the ugliness of anti-immigration sentiment, it’s horrifying that we ourselves are beginning to entertain it. Unsurprisingly, racism often accompanies anti-immigration sentiments. There are few things more distasteful than racism, either blunt or subtle, emerging from the mouth of a Catholic who has received the Body of Christ.
Just the other day I overheard a fellow Catholic inviting a friend to attend what he called the “taco Mass” on account of its convenient time. A close Latina friend recently told me about her experience in the cafeteria of a Catholic college — a college that prides itself on its religious identity — where a young man suggested she go sit at the “Mexican table”. He pointed to a table populated by several students of non-white ethnicity. None of them actually happened to be Mexican. Another Latina friend of mine was attending a soccer game earlier this semester. When she asked a group of nearby fans, all of whom happened to be Catholic, for the score of the game, the group was quick to inform her that the losing team was losing because it was comprised of Mexicans. “They said Mexicans were short — that they couldn’t run fast enough to score.”
I am certainly not trying to generally label Catholics, social conservatives, St. Cloud residents, or any other group for that matter, as either racist or anti-immigration — absolutely not. Yet while the plague of racism receives plenty of attention in liberal ideological circles, it remains widely undiscussed in social conservative circles. And this befuddles me. Unborn children do not solely make up the “least of these”, and undiscussed evils do not suddenly either disappear or become OK on account of the fact that they remain undiscussed.
I believe social conservatism as a whole has a fair amount of soul-searching to do when it comes to acknowledging issues of race and immigration. Yet if social conservatism continues to morph into an ideological stomping ground for white nationalists, then count me out. I would sooner become a democrat than a hypocrite.