Hey there, white people. Have you been following the news? There are a lot of things happening in this country, and many of them have to do with black and brown people. I can already hear the backlash—Why do you have to make this about race, though?Coincidentally, I’m sure black and brown people ask themselves the same thing.
Today, though, I want to talk to you about undocumented immigrants, mainly because our president is obsessed with them. Perhaps he has a night journal where he writes down all sorts of horrid little ideas to make their lives just a bit more grueling before he goes to bed. Or maybe he hosts afternoon brainstorming sessions with his Goon Squad (hey, Steve Miller). He might think about them over his morning McMuffin. I can’t pretend to know.
What I do know is that he is verifiably, wholly obsessed. I also think I know why—he’s obsessed with undocumented immigrants because he knows he can use them to get to you, white people.
Hence this open letter. You’ve probably seen news stories replete with photos of brown children being ripped away from brown parents with tears streaming down their faces, or shots of President Trump signing an executive order that permanently imprisons these parents and children as a not-solution to the problem he created. You know what I’ve seen? I’ve seen your comments beneath these photos: I would never bring my kid with me to the border if I knew there was a chance we could get separated. This is sad, but if the parents didn’t break the law they wouldn’t be in this situation. If they want to stay together, they should stay in their home countries and fix their own problems. And my personal favorite, WHAT ABOUT ILLEGAL DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?
White privilege is a funny thing. Now, wait a minute. I know you hate that term. White privilege? I’m working three jobs to pay my rent, that’s how privileged I am!I hear you. Maybe we can brand it as something else? I’ll get back to you. The point is that you, somehow, can make these crushing statements and go vote at the polls and affect people’s entire lives while (here’s the key), the entire time, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.
You, with your supposedly operational democracy and a police force that most likely won’t dissolve your son into acid or rape your daughter, don’t really understand the phrase “between a rock and a hard place” to the extent that Central American and Mexican (and Black) parents do. You see these parents at the border being torn from or imprisoned alongside their toddlers, and (can you believe it?) you somehow manage to convince yourself that brown people love their kids less than you do.That’s some high-level gaslighting right there.
Since it apparently needs to be said, I’ll say it: Brown people love their kids, too. They love them a lot. Doing what these parents do—leaving behind family, friends, and communities, sheltering their children along a deadly, dehumanizing journey—is an ultimate love story. It drips with love. It explodes with it.
Here’s the question: What does it mean to criminally prosecute migrants who come here to whittle a way out of crushing poverty and jaw-dropping violence? Here’s the answer: It says a lot more about us, white people, than it does about them. You know our dirty secret, don’t you? White people adore undocumented labor. We thrive off of it. We love paying 60 cents for a Gala apple, and we love rock-bottom prices during happy hour at our favorite local food joints. We very much enjoy the cheap hands that care for our lawns, clean our houses, and raise our children. So what if these same hands pour billions of dollars (a net of $10 billion in 2010) into our government to save a social security net that they can’t access? All the better.
That, in Migration 101, is called a pull factor. We pull bodies of color here to do work for blushingly low pay because that’s the way it’s always been (except, of course, during slavery, when there was no pay at all). With our unemployment rate sitting at a trim 3.9%, these people form a permanent under-underclass that supports everything and everyone. You know when farmers and restaurant owners and factory foremen tell us that their industries would collapse without undocumented labor? That’s because they would.
What about push factors, then, the other half of Migration 101? Glad you asked. Latin America, a complex region with some of the highest measures of income inequality in the world, has a myriad of push factors to choose from—and do you know the rub? We, white people, have been involved in almost all of them.
For example, drug violence in Latin America gets a lot of airtime, and it’s easy to see why. Since December 2006, 120,000 Mexicans have died as a result of violence connected to narcotrafficking, and an additional 27,000 people have been declared missing. El Salvador suffers from a homicide rate nearly triple that of Mexico. Guatemala and Honduras endure similar levels of violence that really rock the brain if one thinks about them too long, but fortunately, white people rarely do. If we did, we’d have to consider the demand that fuels drug violence, and guess what? It doesn’t come from Latin America.
Drugs are as American as apple pie and Black Friday. We’re living through a full-blown opioid crisis, but we’ve been building up a ravenous drug market for decades and decades. Who has to pay for that drug market with their lives? Addicts, yes, and also brown people—brown people born and raised in our supply territory. Of course, we manage to erase these brown people by lumping them into the fiendish categorization of drug traffickers, as if families who suffer drug violence only exist if they’re white. Brown people trying to escape drug violence? Impossible, we say, because all brown people carry that violence out.
Of course, American support for cruelty against brown people extends beyond buying drugs. I know you don’t want to hear about how our government set Latin America aflame by supporting dictatorships throughout the entire 20thcentury. No one likes talking about kidnapped and murdered people, am I right? We’d rather just focus on Castro as the sole proprietor of Latin American unfreedom, which is fine. We won’t talk about the Platt Amendment of 1901, or the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1922, or the 1973 Chilean coup, or Operation PBFORTUNE. Ever heard of the Banana Wars? Thought not, and why should you have? They’re an ugly business.
Instead, let’s talk about poverty. NAFTA is really great because we get cheap cars while Mexican people get jobs and foreign investment, or so the story goes. Here’s the thing, though: trade is made up of two parts, capital and labor, and when only capital can cross borders, free trade isn’t really free. Immigration law forces human beings to participate in restricted markets instead of allowing them to move to whichever one serves their interests best, while money can hopscotch like there’s no tomorrow.
Basically, this means that Walmart can roll into Mexican towns and set up massive corporate farms that drive little farmers out of business, but when said little farmers want to move to the United States to take advantage of higher wages, they can’t—a border stands in their way. They need to stay in a collapsed rural economy and work for collapsed rural wages. You can see how the problem self-perpetuates, right? It’s no coincidence that the Mexican peso tanked in 1994 at the end of NAFTA’s first year, or that illegal immigration to the United States nearly doubled between 1994 and 2000. Who built that? We did, or at least a part of it.
So drug violence, political instability, and poverty are three big pushes that combine with the pull of plentiful jobs to bring brown people to the United States. This is nothing new, and it’s not what’s coming to a head right now. In fact, illegal border crossings are way down—from 1.8 million apprehensions in 2005 to under 304,000 in 2017. Why are people all hot and bothered about immigration in 2018, then?
Like I said, white people, it’s about us. Trump’s unabashed baiting of the white psyche with the specter of the undocumented immigrant is making us see ourselves, and we’re freaking out. That’s because being white is a pathological condition best summed up as this: we know, but we don’t want to know we know.
You, white person, might not know that the CIA launched Operation PBFORTUNE in 1952 with the explicit goal of overthrowing the Guatemalan government after land reform threatened the interests of the gargantuan United Fruit Company, or that the subsequent Guatemalan military dictatorship carried out a nearly forty-year genocide campaign against the country’s indigenous population for which the U.S. supplied money, weapons, and training. You might not remember exactly how the Mexican peso collapsed, and you may be a little fuzzy on why Mexican President Felipe Calderón began Mexico’s disastrous war on drugs in 2006. Perhaps you don’t recall the average wage for an undocumented immigrant or understand how that wage relates to the money you save annually on cheap goods and services. You might not know how many dollars undocumented people paid into your social security check last year.
But you probably do have a general sense that we benefit from other people’s misfortunates, and indeed, that it has always been this way. This isn’t white guilt, it’s just pure fact, and if you feel guilty, that’s beside the point. I’m uninterested in your guilt except to say this: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I’m talking about fire.
Whiteness is such a delicate dance, isn’t it? It involves all of these acts of raw power to maintain and maximize that power, but it also involves making those acts invisible. We don’t want to see them, because if we did, how could we say that we are better than everyone else? That we’re an aspiration to live up to? This is exactly why we disguise our powerplays in ethnocentric discourses of divine favor and birthright. That way, you see, we didn’t take anything from anyone else—theyare trying to take something from us. If only brown people could be as rationalas us, as hardworkingas us, as morally centeredas us, if only they loved their own kids as much as we do and fixed their own problems like we know how to, they would have what we have.
It’s such a comforting delusion. It allows us to push and pull a brown body along a deadly journey to a deadly border, reap the benefits of that body’s dislocation and its work, and then spit on parents with the label “ILLEGAL” as they try to forge an alternative for their kids. The law, we like to say, is the law. Our ancestors migrated legally—after massacring an entire indigenous population, of course, and under wildly different immigration laws that admitted any white person who could pretend to have some money and didn’t appear to be a prostitute. Our complicity is thus hidden beneath a mask of innocence that we ourselves build, which is why, in the words of James Baldwin, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Brown people aren’t criminals, and neither are they victims. Refugees and asylees and migrants and illegal immigrants are all categorizations of daring people of color who build lives for themselves despite it all, despite the fact that we skim off both the top andthe bottom of their efforts even as we condemn them. It’s time to reiterate: These categorizations say a lot more about you and me, white people, than they do about them.
That’s why Trump can use them to get to us so easily. That’s why everyone is losing their minds. The ugly process of manufacturing whiteness is supposed to be invisible, and it’s not quite so invisible anymore.
Have you noticed how people of color aren’t surprised about, well, any of this? The secret of whiteness is not a secret to anyone who isn’t white. It’s time to confront the crime of our innocence—it’s time to free ourselves from the tyranny of whiteness.
Let them in. Let them in not as the permanent under-underside that holds up the invention of whiteness, but on terms of human decency and human health and human benefit. Not for people of color’s sake, white people, but for ours. Delusion is a symptom of unwellness in this patient as much as in any other, and it’s for the mutual benefit of all that we treat it.