Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Meanwhile, in the heartland...

Conservatives frequently complain about liberals accusing them of being racist or insensitive to issues of race. The problem, they say, is that we're oversensitive or that we're just trying to make them look bad. We really don't have to try to make them look bad; they are quite capable of doing that all by themselves. I just wrote about the proposal in Mississippi to issue a commemorative license plate for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest isn't your run of the mill Confederate soldier, he was a slave trader before the war, a war criminal during it, and one of the founders of the KKK afterwards. In that other part of the country where we are told the real Americans live, we get this:

Last week, the Kansas House debated repealing an in-state tuition break for children of undocumented immigrants. Representative Connie O'Brien took to the floor to recount a story of taking her son to the financial aid office of their Community College. Her son wasn't eligible for aid, but she saw a young woman in line who had come to pick up a scholarship check. The young woman was having trouble because she had no ID with her.
O’BRIEN My son who’s a Kansas resident, born here, raised here, didn’t qualify for any financial aid. Yet this girl was going to get financial aid. My son was kinda upset about it because he works and pays for his own schooling and his books and everything and he didn’t think that was fair. We didn’t ask the girl what nationality she was, we didn’t think that was proper. But we could tell by looking at her that she was not originally from this country.

REP SEAN GATEWOOD Can you expand on how you could tell that they were illegal?

O’BRIEN Well she wasn’t black, she wasn’t Asian, and she had the olive complexion.

Before we get the racial aspect, there a few other aspects of the story that stand out. First, her testimony was completely irrelevant. The hearing had to do with non-citizen residents of the state getting in-state tuition. Her example was of a supposed undocumented immigrant getting a scholarship. Even with her amazing powers of perception, Rep. O'Brien couldn't tell whether the woman was paying in-state or out-of-state tuition. At the same hearing, another Republican pointed out that the law already bars undocumented immigrants from receiveing scholarships.

Second, look at the structure of her narrative. It's virtually identical to the Cadillac welfare queen: an undeserving member of "them" is getting something that we don't get and this is wrong. This is an extremely effective narrative among conservatives. Conservative psychology is extremely hierarchical and a person's position in the hierarchy strongly indicates their moral worth. You see this attitude every day in discussions of unemployment. To many conservatives, the unemployed and poor are, by definition, immoral lay-abouts undeserving of compassion from the hard-working and moral. Conservative psychology is also very black and white. There are basically two steps on the hierarchy: good and bad, deserving and undeserving, us and them. O'Brien and her son were in the first category; the foreign-looking woman was in the second. There is slight inconsistency in her use of these themes. Notice that she portrays her son as paying "for his own schooling and his books and everything" while claiming the injustice is that he can't get a government hand-out.

Now, on to the racial issue. On Monday, Kenny Johnston, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, called O'Brien on he comment. Naturally, he said she should apologize; that's how these political games are played. O'Brien in turn accused Johnston of trying to make a controversy over nothing. Responding to the implication that her comment was anti-Hispanic, O'Brien said, "I never said that was a Mexican-American," and added, "My son-in-law is from Afghanistan, and he's olive complexion." She says two things here. First, is the "I can't be racist because some of my best friends are brown" defense, though she's on shakier ground than most. She's trying to get some brownie points for something her daughter did--marrying a brown person--not for anything she has actually done. Perhaps more interestingly, she's undermined her case by implying that her judgement about the young woman's citizenship and immigration status was not based on an accent or on anything except for her color and lack of a driver's license. She followed with a statement aout the need do something about the flood of illegal immigrants and told the reporters she needed a few days to decide if she needed to say anything else.

Today O'Brien issued a statement: "I understand how they could have been misconstrued. I misspoke and apologize to those I offended. I have learned from this situation and will be more careful with my choice of words in the future." This is a tiny bit better than the standard political non-apology apology. Most examples of that genre apologize if anyone was offended and imply that the real problem lays with those who took offense, not with them for giving offense. O'Brien properly apologizes to those who took offense. It's a small distinction, but she deserves credit for being on the right side of it.

O'Brien then lost all of that credit by going on to embrace the rest of the script of the political non-apology apology. She insisted that her original point was valid, if inartfully stated. This is a perfectly fine position to take. We have all had the experience of saying something so badly that our original point was lost and wanted to make clear what what we had intended to say. However, O'Brien went on to insist that her judgement that the young woman was an undocumented immigrant was correct. O'Brien's original point was not valid. Her anecdote about a supposed undocumented immigrant collecting a scholarship while her hard-working son failed to qualify for student aid was nothing more than nativist whining. The hearing was about who gets in-state tuition, not about scholarships. As her Republican colleague pointed out, there already are barriers to giving government scholarships to undocumented immigrants (if it was a scholarship from a private foundation, then who qualifies is none of her business and none of the business of the Kansas legislature).

Her point was irrelevant and her insistence that skin color and possession of a driver's license is all you need know to determine some one's citizenship and immigration status is--well--racist, nativist, and idiotic.

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