Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NYT Immigration poll follow-up: What's the Matter with Baby Boomers

Sorry for my hiatus -- I was in New Orleans this weekend for a (very, very fun) bachelor party. Monday was a recovery day for my brain. Now, on with the show.

Damien Cave at the Times this morning gave an interesting parsing of the newspaper's latest poll on immigration. One of the poll's central findings was that older Americans were much more supportive of the Arizona "Show Me Your Papers" law than were younger ones. The article makes a strong historical connection between the experiences of Baby Boomers growing up and those born after 1965 that's worth considering as this policy debate moves forward -- that Boomers grew up during the period of immigration restriction, when the percentage of foreign-born Americans fell to 4.7 percent (in 1970). Most of those immigrants, moreover, were Boomers' European-born grandparents.

Demography, though, starts to lead the article off the rails about here:
Boomers and their parents also spent their formative years away from the cities, where newer immigrants tended to gather — unlike today’s young people who have become more involved with immigrants, through college, or by moving to urban areas.
“It’s hard for them to share each others’ views on what’s going on,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “These older people grew up in largely white suburbs or largely segregated neighborhoods. Young people have grown up in an interracial culture.”
Please forgive me for using the personal and anecdotal here, but when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey I lived in pretty much what Frey was describing. When we started dating in college my wife was shocked that I'd never eaten Indian food. My only defense was that we only had Italian restaurants and diners in my part of Jersey. The immigrants I encountered growing up were very much like those my parents did - Italians, Greeks, Poles. 

What I didn't grow up in was a political culture thoroughly enmeshed by racism. The critical aspect that distinguishes modern-day "interracial culture" from that in which Boomers were raised is not merely the experience of living among those from non-European family backgrounds; it is that race is no longer an acceptable concept for categorizing, analyzing, and predicting the behavior and character of people. Belief that race was a real, biologically-supported, and stable fact created the demographic (not to mention political) landscape that Boomers grew up in. It drove not only white flight to the suburbs but had shaped the nation's immigration policies since the 1880s. The America of the the 1950s and 60s was intellectually closer in many ways to the 1910s and 20s, or even the 1880s and 90s, than it was to the first two decades of this century. The America of Boomer Youth was racist, not only because of segregation and other forms of racial discrimination but because race formulated the way people thought about the whole of society -- even its white members. The assimilation of their immigrant grandparents to "American" social and cultural norms hid from Boomer children the fact that racism had informed the way the nation had thought about their "white" ancestors, too. It was precisely why there were not more immigrants from anywhere hanging around their block. 

To expect that old ideas easily evaporate with the passage of time is naive and lazy historical analysis. 
Growing up amidst the Civil Rights Movement may have soured many Boomers to the idea of racial discrimination, but not of the significance of race to understanding groups of people. While this crazy, modern, multicultural world in which they now live makes them feel like Cirrocs, we should keep in mind the mental boxes many Boomers use to make sense of this change.

Race is elephant in the room for older Americans as they weigh in on the immigration policy debate. Those that support measures like the Arizona law understand that to be racist is about the worst thing you can be in contemporary society. They generally feel that discrimination is wrong. But they are still racist in the sense they think that racial difference is real and significant. They perceive Latino immigration through that frame of mind, a frame of mind in which they were raised. They can't say they disapprove of "new" immigrants because of their racial difference because that makes it sound like they're white supremacists. So they focus on the outcomes of that racial difference -- immigrating explicitly to break laws, sucking up "welfare," educating their children without paying for it, dealing drugs, spreading disease, messing up the parking lot of Home Depot, etc... The irony, of course, is that immigration restrictionists said the exact same things about their immigrant grandparents -- but at least were explicit in their racism when they did. [I have reminded my own family members when they complain that Latino immigrants do not want to learn English that my Lithuanian great-grandfather never learned to read English himself.] It's not just a fear of change, but a fear of the obliteration of whiteness, a concept that has been central to American national identity from its founding. 

Old ideas die a slow death. Just one more reason to be depressed about the political dominance of the Baby Boomer generation right now.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Chris. One of the things that strikes me about boomer immigration fears, and which bears out your argument, is the total lack of faith that Hispanic immigrants will ever assimilate. You get the sense that not only do boomers think that Latinos are unassimilable, but that they'd prefer them not to. This comes through in the unwillingness to consider policies that will actually integrate illegal immigrants into society. If our parents complain about illegals for using town resources, isn't the better solution to get them on the books and paying taxes? If the problem is many uninsured illegals getting treated at hospitals and passing on the costs to everyone else, isn't the better solution to get them access to insurance? No matter how hard they say otherwise, those racial categories you describe are present.