The Days Grow Hot, O Babylon!: Fear of a Non-White Nation

The days grow hot, O Babylon!
‘Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!

— Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh

If the Arizona immigration unrest of the last week counts of any value, it must be that in the coming days and months, Brown citizens must brace up for a ratcheting of policies and rhetoric unwavering in fervor to make of them criminals with no right to live in this “shining city upon a hill.” Even with unprecedented outrage, calls for serious boycotts, daily protests, university withdrawals, SNL skewering, and White House disappointment, the fire, it should be clear, has only begun blazing. Soon it would spread far and wide, consuming any Brown body in path.

As Greg Palast noted, the bill passed was more reaction than action—more preventive than proactive. “What moved GOP Governor Jan Brewer to sign the Soviet-style show-me-your-papers law is the exploding number of legal Hispanics, US citizens all, who are daring to vote – and daring to vote Democratic by more than two-to-one,” wrote Palast for Truthout. “Unless this demographic locomotive is halted, Arizona Republicans know their party will soon be electoral toast.”1

A budding Brown major-minority could wreak terrible havoc in a state like Arizona, thus the need for some arbitrary laws, whose proponents argue have nothing to do with disenfranchisement, that shoot for the knees of specific voters of color—a la Birmingham, with its very own Bull Connor. And through the last week, abounding evidence to back up this claim has unfolded indiscriminately.

No more are words minced or euphemisms exploited to conceal convictions. Now that the house is burning, anti-Brown champions—many of them politicians and powerful—can screech out their racist and beastly demands uninhibited.

In Iowa, six GOP congressional candidates all have ideas on what to do with their “illegals.” Pat Bertroche, an Urbandale physician, stepped up first: “I think we should catch ’em, we should document ’em, make sure we know where they are and where they are going. I actually support micro-chipping them. I can micro-chip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I micro-chip an illegal?” It’s not popular, Bertroche conceded, but it’s cheaper than erecting a fence. Another contestant, Dave Funk, worried using the term Undocumented Worker “is like calling the drug dealer an unlicensed pharmacist.” As Scott Batcher sees it, “If we’re allowing illegals to come in, we’re probably letting terrorists walk across the border, too.” Brad Zaun, a state senator, complained “Illegals are killing us financially” and should all be “put … on a bus and sen[t] [back] wherever they came from.” For Jim Gibbons, border-crossing is no different from human trafficking; it is “illegal and immoral” and a “pretty important thing.” These kinds of talk, these war-like noises, Mark Rees bemoaned, should find greater mainstream appeal, but the public, to its detriment, let “politician[s] bury those things that are uncomfortable to talk about.”2

San Diego-area Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, a constitution adherent, wants to deport naturally-born children of undocumented immigrants. “We’re not being mean,” Duncan protested at a party rally last week. “We’re just saying it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen. It’s what’s in our souls.” Duncan might well have the chance to will his wishes into existence if Republicans take over the House later this year and push through a bill banning automatic birthright citizenship for such children.

“Why do our politicians make us give driver’s license exams in 12 languages?” asks Republican Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James in a recent campaign ad spot. “This is Alabama: We speak English,” James belts out. “If you want to live here—learn it.” He swears to make this law upon chance as governor. I’m a business man, he comforts constituents. It’ll save money. “And it makes sense.” It makes sense. Then a stare-at-the-ground 4-minute pause. “Does it to you?”

Back in Arizona, the state legislature passed last week a bill equating cultural studies with “ethnic chauvinism,” claiming most curricula encourages insurrection and self-segregation, and—here we go again—intimidates conservative teachers in public school classrooms. About the same time, a Wall Street Journal report uncovered efforts by the Arizona Department of Education to police and punish teachers with accents—predominantly Brown. Aiming for those who, to students, might sound “heavily accented” or “ungrammatical,” the department “dispatched evaluators to audit teachers across the state on things such as comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar and good writing.” Is it possibly that of all the plagues the education system today falls victim to, this department saw none dealing greater volleys than teachers who jumble certain consonants? Or is this about cultural capitals—and cultural intercourse? “It doesn’t matter to me what the accent is,” a smart parent countered: “what matters is if my children are learning.”3

The fire will spread far and wide.

Bill Quigley, advancing the discourse, wrote recently of an immigration issue larger than Arizona, national in scale, of an out-of-control immigration-enforcement agency that “is not actually targeting convicted criminal aliens, dangerous aliens or even violent aliens” but “everyone” who looks the type. You look the type if you’re Florinda Lorenzo-Desimilian, a Maryland 26-year-old married mother of three (all U.S. citizens) who was arrested in her home by local police, Quigley noted, “on a misdemeanor charge of selling $2 phone cards out of her apartment window without a license.” She was booked, fingerprinted, and her prints shipped to the FBI which called up ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and found her to have overstayed a work visa. Desimilian was imprisoned for two days and is currently on the verge of deportation.4

When Barack Hussein Obama II clinched the presidency in November 2008, and masses of White people at once began stocking their basements with military firearm, and began showing up at his events armed and loaded, ready to “take” their “country back,” many saw it as downright-redneck Republican racism, others thought of it half-racist and half-disgruntlement-with-feelings-of-powerlessness from decades of casino capitalism that only did good a few rich; yet others believed the ragers, who eventually formed flesh as select factions of the “Tea Party,” had justifiable reason to rise up against what they saw as shifting ground—rewriting of reality: beginning of a people-of-color-takeover that would ultimately topple the White majority in but a few decades. Obama, thus, whether wittingly or not, marked the first splash of this wave blowing northward. After all, as the son of a Kenyan father, a son whose American citizenship was still in grave question, nothing shorter than full-scale attack on Whiteness and all that it embodies (read: people) was at work.

In hats, flags, masks, mustaches, and all the other costumes Dollar Store coupons can cover, the Parties marched through the streets of Washington, of Chicago, of Indiana, of Atlanta, of New York, of Alabama, of Arizona, coughing up patriotic cries—we will not be intimidated! we will not be depopulated! To whom the message was directed was hardly coherent. For some, Obama was the recipient. Others bayed at the moon and slept well at night, assured Lincoln and Washington were smiling down on them, for standing up for their country’s White-Judeo-Christian indelible identity.

The Texas Board of Education added its stamp mid-March, appropriating language of the Civil Rights Movement to deliberately misconstrue racial history and reality, deleting major historical figures like El Salvador archbishop Óscar Romero, and consistently blocking inclusion of Hispanic role models for the many Hispanic children serving in the state’s public school system. “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist,” Board member Mary Helen Berlanga chanted as she stormed out.

This feeling of helplessness, of castrating rage, that pushed Berlanga out is becoming fast a reality for many Brown people. It is fast approaching—that sense that you are not wanted, and that any attempt to insert yourself into a reality to which you are a rightful inhabitant would face a firewall; that the best you can do, to preserve the remnants of sanity chipping away each second, is remove from a land or place or space that has rejected you: that no more has use for you.

This is a “very serious problem,” as Malcolm X understood over four decades ago. “The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here,” he lectured with usual, razor-swift clarity. How do you reconcile with that rush of betrayal that clouds your mind, that pushes you to the edge of the bridge, that pushes you beyond that edge. African-American peoples can speak a word or two about that—about coming to sobering grips with that unmanageable reality. I’ve paid all my dues! they moaned. I’ve led a righteous life! I’ve been a responsible citizen! I’ve filed all my taxes timely! I’ve worked three jobs for decades, shifting between hospital bathrooms and fast-food canteen cash registers and voter-registration drives. And for all this—I deserve nothing but spite and shame and humiliation?

The society you’ve contributed invaluably to over a span of centuries now abruptly sees you as a threat to be exterminated, as harbinger of crime and disease, as the very cause of current unrest—as a thief, snatching the slice of pie reserved for citizens.

It’s the rumble of identity and myths, as James Baldwin deftly knew—and tried to get the rocks to acknowledge: Of what use are you to a society that depended on you once but now can see no title for your fit—however below human dignity? Of what use are you to a society that sold you myths of grandeur but failed to register the promises once reality (and its consequences) factored in? And when looking back on the years of lost allegiance and lost pride, what do the children of Israel say to Pharaoh—who needs them more than they need him? And what do they demand of him? Dignity is good. Reparations are just. But not even the full restoration of dignity or mammoth monetary compensation can lick the wounds and sober the agony of decades and centuries built on the shabby foundations of betrayal.

The millions of Brown undocumented immigrants in this country have for the last few years felt pinned to the mat by this reality. Without their hard, and often undignifying, work, the national economy would wobble, certain states would go under, thousands of families would lose balance, hundreds of businesses would shut down, bridges wouldn’t get built, houses wouldn’t get cleaned, gardens wouldn’t get cut, flowers wouldn’t get trimmed, fruits wouldn’t get picked, and chaos may very well let loose. Yet, with silent strokes of pen, like that in Governor Jan Brewer’s hands on April 23, their humanity is at once abandoned at the feet of the first officer willing to stop some boy or girl or man or woman or wife or daughter or grandmother who looks the type—in practices reminiscent of the Fugitive Slave Law—and demand they present proper documentation or submit their hands to handcuffs that could lead them away from this shining city forever.

So, clean, cook, wash, dig, build, sow, lift, scrub—but don’t even dare to vote, José; don’t entertain any such self-damning thoughts, Maria!

And what if, approaching tipping point, millions of “wetbacks,” as for years many have snickered silently, decided to march from Egypt back to their promised lands, decided to pick up their cross and return to places where financial stability might not be guaranteed but dignity is assured. What would be the responses of many on the Left who regard themselves true allies of Brown people? Would they lift their hats, bow gently, and apologize on behalf of the thugs on the Right who “just don’t get it”? Or would they take real solidarity with Brown people, and tell their people—if they leave, we leave, too? And would Pharaoh and his minions, faced with a reality not as pleasant as they imagined, crouch into a corner and cry, “My slaves have deserted me,” or rush through some petty immigration “reform” bill that offers little comfort to the many abused and dehumanized and assaulted and insulted by years of indifference—on state and federal levels.

However the pendulum swings, the choice falls in the laps of Brown people—both registered and unregistered. As the fire escapes the water hoses of the many who, well meaning, have begun sprinkling ephemeral solutions upon this very serious problem—of identity and myths—only Brown people know what’s in their best interest, and what safeguards their dignity—and that of future generations—most adequately.

But to James Baldwin they can turn confidently, who pleaded in 1963, when this same fire pursued his people: “to do something which I know to be very difficult: to be proud of the auction block, and all that rope, and all that fire, and all that pain.”

All that fire! and all that pain!

  1. Greg Palast, “Behind the Arizona Immigration Law: GOP Game to Swipe the November Election,” Truthout, April 26, 2010. []
  2. James Q. Lynch, “3rd District GOP hopefuls take tough stances on immigration,” GazetteOnline, April 27, 2010. []
  3. Miriam Jordan, “Arizona Grades Teachers on Fluency,” Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2010. []
  4. Bill Quigley, “Not Just Arizona: Immigration Enforcement Out of Control on Federal Level,” Dissident Voice, April 30, 2010. []

Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print. He can be reached at: tolu.olorunda@gmail.com. Read other articles by Tolu.

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  1. JE said on May 4th, 2010 at 12:42pm #

    I’m confused? Why would brown citizens need be worried about being made “criminals?” If they are “citizens” then by definition they are NOT illegal immigrants. Ergo, they needn’t worry about being criminalized.

    “Screech out their racists demands….” Someone has a flair for the dramatic.