dehumanization







 

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Here is another excellent video discussion by Ron Whitlock at Valley Newsline.

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Late last week, one of my students told me about the “mojaditos” being arrested in her neighborhood, still wet from the Rio Grande.  She is a popular girl, is on the dance team, and earns straight A’s.  She is writing an essay for the Princeton University Martin Luther King Essay Contest about Martin Luther King and immigration, and her use of the word “mojaditos,” sounding in my ears, created an ambivalent emotion. 

In Spanish, Mojado means wet.  Like the dehumanizing use of the English adjective “illegal” as a noun, mojado, when used as a noun, means “wet-back.”  Mojado is the word Antonio tells me he hears spit from the angry lips of Border Patrol officers.  This is the word I hear a few students use to ridicule their classmates who, fresh from Mexico, speak so little English.  Like the words joto and stupid, mojado is one of the many ways that my adolescent students, trapped in an age desperate for acceptance, exclude each other.

Mojadito, however, is a different kind of word.  The suffix –ito means little, and often is used with fondness.  While living in Monterrey, my darling Mari would affectionately call me her guerito (little white boy).  Pobrecito is a fond way of saying, “my poor little baby.”  Mojadito, while derived from a racial slur, was being used by my student in a tender way.   Her language and even her thoughts were confined by racial segregation, but at least her emotions were freely empathetic. 

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Before being thrown into Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King made the hard decision to break a city law in order to be imprisoned.   He wrote about that decision in the chapter “A New Day in Birmingham”:

 

“I intended to be one of the first to set the example of civil disobedience.  Ten days after the demonstrations began, between four and five hundred people had gone to jail; some had been released on bail, but about three hundred remained.  Now that the job of unifying the Negro community had been accomplished, my time had come.  We decided that Good Friday, because of its symbolic significance, would be the day that Ralph Abernathy and I would present our bodies as personal witnesses to this crusade.

“Soon after we announced our intention to lead a demonstration on April 12 and submit to arrest, we received a message so distressing that it threatened to ruin the movement.  Late Thursday night, the bondsman who had been furnishing bail for the demonstrators notified us that he would be unable to continue.  The city had notified him that his financial assets were insufficient.  Obviously, this was another move on the part of the city to hurt our cause.

“It was a serious blow.  We had used up all the money we had on hand for cash bonds.  There were our people in jail, for whom we had a moral responsibility.  Fifty more were to go in with Ralph and me.  This would be the largest single group to be arrested to date.  Without bail facilities, how could we guarantee their eventual release?

“Good Friday morning, early, I sat in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel discussing this crisis with twenty-four key people.  As we talked, a sense of doom began to pervade the room.  I looked about me and sat that, for the first time, our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness.  No one knew what to say, for no one knew what to do.  Finally someone spoke up and, as he spoke, I could see that he was giving voice to what was on everyone’s mind.

“‘Martin,’ he said, ‘this means you can’t go to jail.  We need money.  We need a lot of money.  We need it now.  You are the only one who has the contacts to get it.  If you go to jail, we are lost.  The battle of Birmingham is lost.’

“I sat there, conscious of twenty-four pairs of eyes.  I thought about the people in jail.  I thought about the Birmingham Negroes already lining the streets of the city, waiting to see me put into practice what I had so passionately preached.  How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community?  What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?

“Then my mind began to race in the opposite direction.  Suppose I went to jail?  What would happen to the three hundred?  Where would the money come from to assure their release?  What would happen to our campaign?  Who would be willing to follow us into jail, not knowing when or whether he would ever walk out once more into the Birmingham sunshine?

“I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room.  There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself.  I was alone in that crowded room.

“I walked to another room in the back of the suite, and stood in the center of the floor.  I think I was standing also at the center of all that my life had brought me to be.  I thought of the twenty-four people, waiting in the next room.  I thought of the three hundred, waiting in prison.  I thought of the Birmingham Negro community, waiting.  Then my mind leaped beyond the Gaston Motel, past the city jail, past city lines and state lines, and I thought of twenty million black people who dreamed that someday they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their way to the Promised Land of integration and freedom.  There was no more room for doubt.

“I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail.

“‘I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from.  But I have to make a faith act.’”

  *          *          *  

Today I received a news alert with the question, “Who will be the immigration movement’s Martin Luther King?”  I really think hundreds of people have asked themselves this exact question in the past two years.  I don’t have an answer, but the passage I just quoted highlights, for me, the qualities as well as the quandary.  Princeton University is asking a very similar question to middle and high school students right now. They essentially ask the question, “What would Martin Luther King say if he were to attend an immigration rally today?”  (http://www.princeton.edu/mlk/essay).

When Dr. King faced himself in an instant of introspection instigated by the loneliness of leadership, he realized that his life led him to the decision he was making.  And he realized that he could make no other decision than to trust in God, in his sense of history and morality, and choose to act in faith. 

What made this decision so difficult for Dr. King was the fact that no bail could be provided for the three hundred in jail and that unless he stayed out of jail and tried to secure funding, they would likely remain in jail for a significant period of time.  This is perfectly applicable to our situation with unjust immigration restrictions because arrested immigrants are not given bail.  Not only that, but they aren’t often given jail sentences; they are most often deported. 

Undoubtedly, the act of turning oneself in to an ICE agent as an unauthorized immigrant in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience requires a greater courage and a greater conviction than even the greatest generation of Americans—the civil rights activists struggling nonviolently against segregation—faced.  Will my thirteen-year-old student, newly empathetic for the mojaditos, find the kind of courage that Dr. King found?  Will any of my students?  Will their lives lead them to a similarly defining moment where they even have the tools to ask the questions Dr. King did? 

While writing this, I see, for the first time, the potential for the level of heroism of my friend, Marlene Flowers, in my students.  She was about the same age as my 8th graders when she was first arrested for violating a city bus segregation statute.  I met Marlene as an energetic grandmother with a résumé that included fifty-four such arrests.  Her powerful presence makes it difficult to imagine that first arrest.  Even harder for me is to imagine her before that first arrest, before the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience first germinated in her brain and resonated in her soul.  But I now wonder if she looked a little unsure, excitable, and even scared, like so many of my students.  Resolving to civilly disobey an unjust law is certainly distinct from changing the way we feel about some other law-breaker, but moving our hearts from mojado to mojadito might mean a heart agape enough to eventually find morality and courage and charity (agapé) enough to bring about a new era of human rights in the United States.  Today my hope is that it represents a new day in Brownsville, for at least that one student.

 

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     The United States of America needs more than a wall. The proposed border fence, whose environmental impact will be studied this month in Brownsville, TX, is mere “tokenism,” and negative tokenism at that. Admittedly, the wall will only slow illegal immigration, not end it, so it is little more than a token of politician’s desire for immigration reform without any direct action. Martin Luther King, Jr., writes that tokenism is, “an end in itself. It’s purpose is not to begin a process, but instead to end the process of protest and pressure.” All dialogue has been silenced regarding whether or not we actually want to keep illegal immigrants out of this country, and our politicians have been mute about the 12 million extralegal immigrants already working and living productive lives in our country.

 

 

     Our country of immigrants needs more than a wall, and it certainly deserves more than useless discourse about mass deportation. Deportation is a costly, ineffective, and dehumanizing way to provide “token” immigration reform. Currently, we have thousands of adults and children awaiting deportation in our centers around the U.S. The mass deportation discussed in the Senate and the House would cost almost the entire annual budget of Homeland Security, some $40 billion dollars annually over a span of five years, and all for something which has unclear warrant and efficacy.

 

 

     Deportation, then, is a costly and ineffective form of dealing with extralegal immigrants. Most tragic, though, is the dehumanization deportation inevitably brings. Illegal immigrants can be deported at any time, with scant means of legal recourse. Families are routinely separated,the length of internment often indefinite, and the prosecution subtle and secretive. It must be the aim of any nonviolent movement for immigrant rights, then, to target deportation and bring these individuals out of the shadows. We must imbue immigrants, both legal and extralegal, with a sense of “somebodiness,” the same self-realization Dr. King discussed was integral to the African-American civil rights movement.

 

 

     Approximately 36 million immigrants live within our nation’s assumed borders, divided nearly equally between naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants. Independently of each other, each of these sub-populations is a hefty constituency in these United States and can directly influence immigrant policy through determined nonviolence. Taken together, though, this enormous population which is constantly growing could and must shape our nation’s immigration policies. Immigrants on both side of the current law must join together in claiming their somebodiness as well as their human rights. Both the woman who has passed her Visa clearance and the teenage man who has been denied must join together in affirming that our current immigration quota system is broken and retrogressive. Both the high-school student with birthright citizenship and his father unable to pass his citizenship test must blend their voices in protest of a system which would keep families separate. The African, the European, the Asian, the Mexican – all immigrants past and present must unite in a nonviolent resistance to this stagnation of American immigration reform. This is a problem which must be addressed, which must be dealt with morally and politically and socially. Together we must demand fair immigration policies and accessible means to citizenship for all.

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At the end of perhaps the greatest sermon in history, Jesus of Nazareth said,

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

The difference, Jesus says, is in the doing. 2000 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

America has been something of a divided personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of these principles.

Dr. King pointed out that we have a problem with the doing. Notice, too, that he didn’t say we had a problem practicing equality; he said we had a problem practicing democracy.

The word democracy is Greek and means ‘rule by the people.’ According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, the first question of democracy is “who are to count as ‘the people?’” That question is at the heart of the most fundamental problem of U.S. history. It also brings us back to the problem of actually doing what it is that we say we believe. It gets back to Dr. King’s question of whether we will do what we say we will do.

Thomas Jefferson justified our disloyalty to, and war with, England with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. King pointed out that the Declaration of Independence “doesn’t say ‘some men,’ it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men,’ it says ‘all men.’”

It has always been amazing to me that throughout the struggle for abolition/emancipation in the 1860s, and 100 years later during the civil rights movement, African Americans did not make arguments that the language of the founding was too narrow or too exclusive. Rather, they often quoted that language because they recognized that it wasn’t the language that was insufficient. It is not the language which fails us; it is our inability to believe in, and act upon, the claims made in that language. In other words, our failure as a nation isn’t that we need a new mandate, it is that we have not lived up to the mandate we started with.

This is very poignant to me because Jefferson himself had neither the capacity nor the courage to believe his own words. He relied on the institution of slavery personally and although other duties kept him from the Constitutional Convention, there is little doubt that he would have been willing to ignore his own Declaration of human equality—and dehumanize African American enslaved persons to the legal status of three-fifths of a person, and devoid of human rights—in order to form a union between the thirteen colonies.

This reminds me of Jesus and Caiaphas, the high priest. In the Gospel According to Saint John, Caiaphas and his council said,

If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.

In this passage, Caiaphas does not mean to be prophesying about the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but rather of the expedience of killing this popular and dangerous man in order to keep peace.

When I think of Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, I have to relate it to Caiaphas. Dr. King, like St. John, was able to see the wisdom in the words of people who didn’t have a full understanding of what they themselves were saying.

It is with that perspective that I relate Jefferson and King to immigration. When are we, as a nation, actually going to believe that all humans are equal? When will accept that “there are no gradations in the image of God,” and that “all men are equal in intrinsic worth.”? When will we see that creating the classification illegal immigrant “substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”? This isn’t only evident when people use the adjective “illegal” as a noun (thus stripping the humanity of the individual away, leaving only the legal status). It is seen when we—a country who claims that rights are not given to citizens because of their relationship with the state, but rather to persons because of human kind’s relationship with our Creator—acknowledge the rights of some, but not of others. This is the epitome of dehumanization. My personal humanity refuses to allow me to treat my fellow humans as a function of their legal status simply because “this nation” has yet to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

It is this basic belief, this basic sense of justice and fairness, this basic sense of humanity–and our distance from those ideas–that forces me to entertain the ideas of civil disobedience. If this is not a law that morality requires me to break (aiding a so-called illegal immigrant), there never was such a thing.

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