What Have We Learned?

by Lucas Diaz, Executive Director-Puentes New Orleans

A little over two weeks ago we held a press conference in New Orleans, with support from many leading social justice minded organizations, to denounce Senator David Vitter’s use of racist images of Latinos in his campaign ads. We asked that he take the ads off the air, refrain from using them again, and open a dialogue with Louisiana’s Latino community so that he can engage with us in a more meaningful manner. Did he respond? No. Was Louisiana troubled by this? Apparently not, as it had no negative effect on Vitter’s bid for re-election.

Unfortunately, this experience should highlight the deep vulnerability that the Latino community faces in a state such as Louisiana at this time in history. Is it a stretch to make such a statement? I don’t think so. Despite the state’s rich history and heritage of Spanish and Latin American culture, we cannot with confidence rely on this heritage to offer up a positive influence over our elected officials. When a United States Senator chooses to offend one group of people in his state for the purposes of gaining political points with another group, and he does so with impunity, it is hard to ignore the message this sends. Clearly, to Senator Vitter, and other legislators in this state who intend to follow his strategy, Latinos are fair game for any number of stereotyping, prejudice, bias, discrimination, bigotry and intolerance that can be used to appeal to people’s unrealistic fears and poorly informed anger.

Add to this that we have already seen a number of attempts within the State Legislature to install Arizona-like laws, as well as the fact that our state has a majority Republican delegation in the House of Representatives and a Republic Governor that is touted as a potential Republican Presidential candidate, and it becomes clear that more of the same is to come on the issue of immigration. What can the Latino community do about this? How do we mobilize and fight any future messages or policies that disparage our community? Well, to be honest, we have already been proven insignificant by Senator Vitter’s campaign ads. Why is this the case? Because we don’t naturalize, and if we do, we don’t register to vote, and if we do that, we don’t vote. Add it all up and we are, unfortunately, unimportant to elected officials.

Now, look around nationally at the rhetoric used in immigration messages and how it impacts the Latino community. You will notice, as you may have in our own community, how the messaging intentionally dehumanizes Latino immigrants. The result? Suspicion of all Latinos. Misinformation about the Latino community. Fear that the Latino community is in your town to take your jobs, take your women and maybe even take your life. Any good student of U.S. history, specifically Reconstruction Era and the Jim Crow laws that emerged in the South, will tell you that similar messages were used to dehumanize blacks in the eyes of white voters. Candidates during that era were disparaged for being too friendly to blacks, for wanting to give black people the power of the vote. Sound familiar? It should. In campaign ads from those days, blacks were the reason white people were losing their jobs, fearing for their lives, and concerned about their women. How does that strike you?

Add to what I’ve just written the information from the following report from NPR. In this report, NPR highlights the connection between prison business interests and the Arizona immigration laws. Is this a coincidence? Listen to the report and you will hear legislators claim that it certainly is a coincidence. Really? At what point did the rest of us suddenly turn dumb? Now add to this piece of information the real economic fact that detention centers are big business. They equal construction jobs initially and sustainable public safety jobs in rural communities over the long-term. Can a connection be made among dehumanizing immigrants, specifically Latino immigrants in political rhetoric, a push for more detention centers by legislators, and a growing jail industrial complex? My imagination says yes. My ability to reason says yes. Connections can easily be made. Can they be proven? I don’t know that it matters. The State of Louisiana already has among the largest collection of local, state and federal prison complexes per capita in the United States. It’s a vital economic component of Louisiana life, but at what expense?

So what have we learned? Well, first that we are relatively powerless, because of our small number of eligible voters, to combat ongoing efforts to further dehumanize our community for ulterior motives. Second, that we can expect the trend to continue, at least for the next two to four years, of a growing negative rhetoric towards Latino immigrants across our state.

What can we do? Well, the very first thing is to register to vote and actually vote. We have to demonstrate our viability as a community by actually voting. It’s not good enough to just register. It’s not good enough to just become a citizen. We have to naturalize, register to vote, and actually vote. And we have to vote consistently, every year, to begin to show up on the record books. This is the single most important way to begin to demonstrate that we matter. There are other means, of course, from organizing community to advocate groups, going on radio, on TV, etc. But if we don’t begin to participate in the democratic process by voting, we continue to run the risk of experiencing more of the same of what we received from Senator Vitter.  Do we really want to continue to live through that? I don’t want to, and I hope more Latinos agree.

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This entry was posted on Friday, November 5th, 2010 at 11:11 am and is filed under Puentes Director.

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