Friday, September 23, 2005
Race in America: It appears as though the gray areas in talking about race have gotten so expansive that there isn't much you can say without getting branded a racist. The Union-Tribune's Ruben Navarrette wrote a column earlier this week taking John Roberts to task for using the term "amigos" in an internal White House memo during the Reagan administration. Roberts noted that they should tout President Reagan's proposal for amnesty for illegal aliens: "I think this audience would be pleased that we are trying to grant legal status to their illegal amigos."
Here's the problem: The word "amigos" isn't in and of itself offensive, but what is offensive is the context in which the word is used. The tone of the memo is dismissive and disrespectful and condescending. As the grandson of Mexican farm laborers, I know when someone is looking down their nose at people who do that kind of work. Roberts' comments suggest that he didn't have a very high opinion of either U.S.-born Hispanics or Hispanic immigrants.
Navarrette may very well be correct about Roberts' disdain, but he's assuming the disdain is with regard to race. Instead, as someone who is obviously dedicated to the law, could it be that the disdain isn't contained in the word "amigos," but in the word "illegal?"
There's something else that really bugs me about Navarette's column, his assault on what he describes as Roberts ignorance of the Hispanic community.
First, the fact that Roberts would even make such a sweeping assumption shows that, at least at the time, this Harvard man's understanding of the complexity of the Hispanic community didn't extend beyond the No. 3 combination plate at whatever Mexican restaurant the Washington elite were spending their lunch hours. That community includes Cuban-Americans who – thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives legal residency to Cuban refugees who reach U.S. soil – tend not to get worked up over immigration. Mexican-Americans do get worked up. But they're conflicted over amnesty for illegal immigrants, with polls showing the ethnic group divided on the subject.
Navarrette correctly describes the situation today, but it's not clear that he's describing the situation when the memo was written 22 years ago. He refers to the Cuban Adjustment Act, but that wasn't the law of the land until 1996. Navarrette correctly characterizes recent public opinion polls, but it's unclear if those were the prevailing attitudes in 1983.
My general rule when going through life is if there are two ways to interpret a comment and one is offensive and the other is not, err on the side of "not". It's got to be really difficult going through life looking for a hidden meaning in everything anyone says.
On a related note: This column by The Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts is a must-read.