Mining Racism in a Northeastern Pennsylvania Town

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, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: walterbrasch@gmail.com. Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MrSynec3 said on August 10th, 2008 at 2:50pm #

    The average citizen judges what he sees and not who is the master mind behind behind what he sees. Yes, the main culprits are big business which encourages and rewards illegal immigration to guarantee an endless supply of cheap and intimidated labor that will reduce the bargaining power of the American workers and push their salaries and benefits down and down.
    What the average citizens see is hordes of illegal immigrants that are
    descending on small/big town America and taking the small number
    of jobs that are left behind after NAFTA and out sourcing to Chine and the far East. They see crowding in the schools and compitition for the little social and medical services for the needy that are available after the massive tax cuts of GW Bush. And yes, they see rise of crimes and gang activities. So, they have the right to be resentful and fearful.
    The orignial wave of immigrants eg. (the Irish, the poles, the Italians
    etc etc) came here in a period when the whole country was being built
    and industrialized and there was tremendous need for workers. Definitely that is not the situation right now.

    s

  2. Tom Joad said on August 10th, 2008 at 4:47pm #

    The orignial wave of immigrants eg. (the Irish, the poles, the Italians
    etc etc) came here in a period when the whole country was being built
    and industrialized and there was tremendous need for workers. Definitely that is not the situation right now.

    Yeah, my grandparents were in that wave. Polacks to be exact. They got here thru Ellis Island about a hundred years ago.

    The Mexicans I see are usually pretty brown. I think this is because they are decendents of the native indians that were here thousands of years before my ancestors. For that reason I have a little problem resenting them as “foreigners” .

  3. walt brasch said on August 10th, 2008 at 7:04pm #

    “What the average citizens see is hordes of illegal immigrants that are
    descending on small/big town America and taking the small number
    of jobs that are left behind after NAFTA and out sourcing to Chine and the far East. ”

    Hardly. I doubt most immigrants (at least from my experience in the field) are taking anyone’s job. If anything, business is NOT paying well, NOT giving benefits–and expecting undocumented workers to take the jobs because American citizens won’t. Would things change if business paid better? Possibly not–most of the jobs are in unskilled or low skills. Many Mexicans could work at higher levels, but can’t get hired. (And, I doubt ANY illegal Mexican is taking away jobs of lawyers and doctors or store managers.)

  4. cg said on August 10th, 2008 at 7:15pm #

    Typical answer from someone who spent just how much time “in the field?”
    While “in the field” did your guides, sponsors, sherpas or whatever they’re called these days give you the grand tour or the quickie tour?
    Try being honest and admit that many Mexicans can and do work at those “higher level” jobs they are capable of and do so for the same proportionate “cut” in pay the lower level workers take. It’s still a bounty for them. Far above what they are used to at “home.”
    That’s the word in the “field.” And I ought to know, I don’t just visit there, I live there.
    Hardly, indeed.

  5. MrSynec3 said on August 11th, 2008 at 1:24am #

    To Tom Joad,

    Are you trying to be sarcastic and “cute”? You did not answer not even
    a single point of my message! Are you just another TROLL?.

    To Walt Brasch,

    No one said that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from lawyers and
    doctors. How about construction, mining, meat packing
    and yes, Wall Mart and similar job catogeries. How abot taking a job
    from a black young man who is trying to start in life or just average kid looking for a summer job??!! And in doing so pushing the level of wages
    and benefits available to workers down and down.
    Many illegal immigrants are taking and capable of doing high end jobs
    and are pushig every body else out. They are accepting lower pay and
    almost no benefits. Please do not kid yourself and try to kid us.
    Please be honest with yourself and us .

  6. walt brasch said on August 11th, 2008 at 5:05am #

    A couple of you have questioned my “in the field.” Please note: I grew up and worked in Southern California, and in a city that is about 65% Hispanic. And, stop talking off the tops of your heads. I agree that SOME undocumented workers are taking higher paid jobs, but most Anglos complain that such workers are taking jobs Americans could have. As I wrote forcefully, in a downturn economy, people look at others to blame for their own problems–and problems caused by the system. One of those problems is owners who outsource jobs, anotehr is owners who are willing to pay low wages and no benefits and who do everything imaginable to keep unions away. Don’t carp at the messenger–carp at the system first.

  7. walt brasch said on August 11th, 2008 at 5:05am #

    A couple of you have questioned my “in the field.” Please note: I grew up and worked in Southern California, and in a city that is about 65% Hispanic. And, stop talking off the tops of your heads. I agree that SOME undocumented workers are taking higher paid jobs, but most Anglos complain that such workers are taking jobs Americans could have. As I wrote forcefully, in a downturn economy, people look at others to blame for their own problems–and problems caused by the system. One of those problems is owners who outsource jobs, another is owners who are willing to pay low wages and no benefits and who do everything imaginable to keep unions away. Don’t carp at the messenger–carp at the system first.

  8. Zorro said on August 31st, 2008 at 8:50am #

    Your article is hateful rhetoric from the open borders side. I don’t see how YOUR speech is any less divisive than the speech of those who might demonize illegal aliens. You don’t know or have all the facts of this case. Is there anger about illegal immigration in this small mining town? YES Is there anger about illegal immigration in the country as a whole? YES. It cannot be distilled through the prism of racism. It is not that simple. It is the failure of this government of George Bush to enforce immigration laws that we already have which has resulted in MILLIONS of people from other countries coming here at an alarming rate through illegal means.

    It is ALARMING because it is not being stopped and the presence of these MILLIONS of outsiders who we did not invite to come here that is changing our small towns across this great country. We don’t know WHO has crossed our borders even STILL, this many years after 9/11. We have border crossings yet we have huge swaths of desert with no border fence that people travel in the night and not get caught. How stupid is that in our “War on Terror” that we have thousands of people possibly PER NIGHT sneaking into our country at our borders?

    The people of this town are under assault by the invasion of people from other countries who refuse to learn our language and who are being supported by the likes of the Catholic Church and various ethno-centric groups that are NO different than groups like the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. We used to have a name for giving aid and comfort to the “enemy” and that name is SEDITION. There are many who are guilty of that. And YES our enemy are those people who come here illegally and settle in our communities when we don’t know who they are or whether they are criminals.

    I think once the FACTS come out in this case there will be a slightly different picture. Perhaps the FACTS about Ramirez being in Vine St Park with the 13 year old sister of his FIANCEE may reveal Mr Ramirez was not the hero they are making him out to be. Perhaps it will be learned that Mr Ramirez was a dirtbag who was molesting girls in his spare time and calling it a relationship? Perhaps it will be discovered that Mr Ramirez started the fight that the teens finished? Perhaps it will be discovered that his death resulted in the fatal blow that the CEMENT provided rather than the fists or feet of the teens. And I DO believe this is also a case of a language barrier becoming part of the problem. After living in this country for SIX YEARS Mr Ramirez STILL did not know English. THIS is part of the PROBLEM!! He was also a fugitive and had been involved in a stabbing incident in 2004 it has been learned.

    You see – you don’t have all the information and people like you just jump on the story as if you do. Shame on you.

    And for Walt Brasch – commenter above – if the illegal aliens were not here to take the slave-wages jobs – the DEMAND for employees would drive wages UP not DOWN. The imported SLAVES are driving wages down because our government is getting away with NOT PUNISHING business who hire illegal aliens. Even though they are conducting raids that merely scratch the surface – the employers who hired them are STILL not being punished – even AgriProcessors in Postville where HUNDREDS of illegals were picked up and it was found that the HR department was helping them forge their documents!!!!!

  9. walt brasch said on August 31st, 2008 at 9:58am #

    Dear Zorro–were you ever in Shenandoah? Did you talk with people, analyze the facts, and then write your conclusions? Do you have any basis for your “ideas”? Do you beoieve that ALL business owners who hire illegals should be fined and imprisoned? That, of course, would mean that several thousand (yes, thousand) Republicans will be fined and imprisoned for knowingly hiring workers at subpar wages and no benefits. And, think about this — how many illegals got the job YOU were looking for? Were they better trained than you? Or, were the onwers willing to pay them poorly and explout them at your expense? More important, were you willing to work for any job that an illegal has? Ndxt time you comment, go on the streets and develop some knowledge–and then write something of substance