Public Comment

Signs of Our Time

By Steve Martinot
Monday May 03, 2010 - 09:36:00 PM

On Mayday, I participated in the march and rally in SF for immigrant rights. I do this because I think that people should come before profits, human rights before property rights, and if those principles held true, we wouldn't need borders in the first place. 

The march of about 10,000 people ended at Civic Center. Across the street, in front of City Hall, there was a small counter-demostration, a total of 31 persons, strung out along about 200 feet of sidewal, holding signs. Some were the usual advertisements, like "Minutemen securing America's borders," which constitute the mask behind which Minutemen harass Latinos in Chicago, Los Angeles, or North Carolina, far from the Mexican border. And there were the outright lies, such as "Illegals cost us trillions," where just the opposite is the case. Immigrants come to work, produce value, get minimum pay or less, pay taxes, and pay into social security without ever having a prayer of eventually benefiting from any of it. They send home what they can, and the rest benefits us, including those holding their perfidious signs. 

But three signs in particular caught my eye. 

One said "We need more ice at this fiesta." Ice, of course, is a reference to ICE, Immigration Control and Enforcement. Since this was directed at our demonstration, it was a suggestion that the demonstration itself (including myself) needed to be deported. You remember the old saw (from Cold War years), "if you don't like it here, go back where you came from." Beyond admitting the well-known fact that all non-indigenous people in the US are descended from immigrants, it meant that our tenure or residency here is contingent on agreeing with certain people arrogant enough to set standards for us. It is not the law that these counter-demos want to enforce, but the purity and homogeneity of their kind of society and culture. We know, from European experience, what that ethos looks like when it gets militarized. 

Another sign said, "Get in line to become an American (legally)." America is two continents full of people. The immigrants who come from countries south of us are already Americans. Many of them are the sons and daughters of people who have been on these two continents for millenia, much longer than those individuals with their white faces claiming to be the "Americans." For people in the US to consider themselves "the" Americans is to reduce all the other Americans to lesser status through their exclusion from being Americans; in other words, to dispossess them of their dignity and humanity as Americans. It is therefore a colonialist attitude, using a structure of racism as its technology. But there is no term by which people of the US can refer to themselves as simply "people of the US," free from the arrogance of being "the" Americans. In Spanish, there is such a term. It is estadounidense. It means a person from the US. There is no direct translation of this term in English. One possible translation of estadounidense would be "USian." People in the US could then refer to themselves as "USians" if they believe in the equality of peoples, which is one of the foundations of democracy. Perhaps these counter-demos should stand in line to become pro-democratic. If they work at it, some of them might make it. 

But finally, there was one that said, "Illegals are not a race." Of the 31 people in the counter-demo, three were black. Two, a man and woman, were holding this sign. I found myself wondering what they were doing in the counter-demo. They should have been with us. What the immigrant rights movement is fighting for is an end to the racialization (i.e. made a social category that is dispossessed, demonized, and segregated) of Latino immigrants by government and white populists like the Minutemen. 

It is true, "illegals" are not a race, and neither are immigrants. Neither are black people or white. Black people are not born black. The term "black" used in that sentence does not refer descriptively to color, but to a social category. That is, the term has both a descriptive and a racializing use. Whatever their color may be, and human coloration (descriptively) varies over a continuous spectrum, they are not born as socially categorized. They are made "black" (as a social category) by the white supremacist society into which they are born. Similarly, white people are not born white. They too are made white (as a different social category) by the white supremacist society into which they are born. White supremacy gets away with a lot of stuff because it maintains a certain confusion between socially categorizing labels and the other role of those terms as descriptive. One of the things it gets away with is getting other white people to perform their whiteness by seeing themselves as white. For white people to see themselves as white, they have to define others and see others as non-white in order to see themselves as not that, within the matrix (remember the movie, "The Matrix"?) of white supremacy, and to think that that is a normal way to be. But it isn't. It's a politically and culturally determined social category, in a hierarchical relation to other social categories. Here's an example. A white person might say, "I don't see myself as white, I'm just human. I think all people should think that way, including black people." But black people in the US have had to live their entire lives dealing with and resisting white supremacy, which isn't true for white people. For a white person to think that black people should just give that up, and abandon who they have had to become to deal with and resist all that, because this white person can, is a way of acting white. In pretending to give up telling others who they are, it continues to tell them who they should be, rather than simply let them decide how to live this difficult society, and respect that decision. 

In the meantime, we are all racialized (white, black, Latino, Native American, Asian, Middle Eastern) by white supremacy and the social machinery (the identities, institutions, and attitudes) by which it produces that racialization and imposes it. Where does racism fit into this? Racism is the technology of that white machine.