On a street in Shenandoah, Pa., deep in the heart of the anthracite coal region, six White teens took their racial hatred to a higher level. They confronted 25-year-old Luis Ramirez, an undocumented worker, and beat him to death.
At first the police chief, the mayor, and borough manager refused to believe racism was involved. Although there was already racial and ethnic tension in the 5,000 population town, the town’s political leaders were united in one belief—it was just another street fight gone bad. “I have reason to know the kids who were involved, the families who were involved, and I’ve never known them to harbor this type of feeling,” said the borough manager.
It took police almost two weeks, even with several witnesses, to finally arrest four of the teens. The district attorney charged two of the teens with homicide, aggravated assault, and ethnic intimidation, and two others with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Unindicted co-conspirators are millions of Americans and the far-right mass media.
It’s common for people in a nation that is in a Recession to complain. They’re frustrated with their lives, with bad working conditions, dead end jobs, and low incomes. They’re frustrated by skyrocketing prices, obscene corporate profits, and do-nothing legislators. The problem isn’t “us,” they believe, but “them.” Others. Outsiders who “invaded” America.
A century ago in the coal region, good ole boy Americans complained about the Irish and Poles who took “our” jobs in the mines. For decades, Whites kept Blacks out of almost all but the most menial jobs, and then lynched those who they found to be too “uppity.” During the 1920s and 1930s, the masses of Germans, trying to rationalize their own economic distress, decided the problem was the Jews—and Americans went along with that ethnic racism. We blame Asians. Africans. Muslims. Anyone who’s different.
In today’s America, it’s the “Illegals,” the code-name for undocumented Mexicans. Of course, undocumented Swedes or Canadians or anyone with White skin pass under the radar. Anyone with dark skin doesn’t.
However, politicians and pundits together yell that “illegal” means just that. “What’s not to understand about ‘illegal’,” they screech. They claim they aren’t after any one race or people. Just get rid of illegals. You know, the ones who take “our” jobs. Take “our” welfare. Take “our” education. Take “our” health care. For free! And, while they’re taking, say the forces of righteousness and purity, these illegals become criminals. Some do. But most don’t.
You can’t reason with people in their own crises. You can’t tell them that our prisons are filled not with undocumented workers but with American citizens. You can’t explain that most undocumented workers don’t want hand-outs because they don’t want to be known to the authorities. Volumes of data won’t convince some of the masses that undocumented workers, the illegals, often live in near-poverty and don’t get welfare. They don’t even go to the ER when necessary, and so their illness or injury “runs its course” while destroying other body systems because these undocumented workers, already exploited by American business, are afraid of being identified and deported.
In our schools, hatred festers and breeds. Jokes about race, ethnicity, religion, women, gays, and anyone not “us” are told and retold by students—and by teachers and principals who should know better.
Two decades ago, the hatreds would have been somewhat isolated, confined to the corner saloon or social club. But now, self-aggrandizing politicians and media talk show hosts and pundits, who erroneously believe they are populists, spew hate-filled torrents of bigotry and fear-mongering.
I don’t know if the six teens who murdered Luis Ramirez listen to talk radio, watch Fox News, or read web blogs and anonymous call-ins and letters to the local newspaper. They don’t have to. Their community does.
[Walter Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, a syndicated columnist, and author of 17 books. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available through amazon.com and other stores.]