Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, I have a few words about the immigration mess. As we heard earlier in the program, that bill aimed at curbing illegal immigration just signed in Arizona, has sparked outrage across the country. As we mentioned, it makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. without proper authorization and steps up law enforcement aimed at identifying same. Civil libertarians, religious leaders, immigrant rights groups are all up in arms, not to mention, the president, who is - it's worth remembering - a former professor of constitutional law.

All of these people have sounded the same alarm, that the measure is fundamentally racist because requiring law enforcement officers to act based on their suspicions will encourage exactly the kind of profiling that minorities -especially racial minorities - have been fighting against for decades.

Can I just tell you? I might be hard to see this at this moment if you're one of the people who now sees yourself with a big bull's-eye on your back. But there's an upside, which is that Arizona's lawmakers have pushed the issue of immigration back to the front burner. It's also worth noting that this has happened without bloodshed, or at least a very great deal of it.

It's not to say that people have not already lost their lives needlessly in the absence of a rational and consistent approach to immigration. They have. Including people crossing the border dangerously, the people charged with stopping them and people like that Arizona rancher who was mysteriously shot to death recently, who were just caught in the middle.

Still, all too often it seems that unpopular people cannot get the attention of policymakers until a lot of people die at once. There's some sort of incident usually involving the police. It escalates. There's a riot and everybody snaps to attention to resolve whatever issue has been sitting there in plain sight all along.

At least in this case the political system did finally react and President Obama, who's always being chided about putting too much on his plate, will presumably be able to turn his attention to yet another issue that really must be faced.

But there's something else that needs to be faced. Now that the issue has surfaced about how immigrants and black and brown people could potentially be treated based on their appearance, now we need to also talk about how immigrants treat other people based on theirs. I realize this is a sensitive issue. Nobody likes being kicked when he or she is down, but progress depends on all sides being willing to speak honestly with each other about what they want and expect.

And while immigrants' rights groups have been vocal about how they believe immigrants should be treated in this country, it's also true that Americans have a right to be vocal about what they expect from new immigrants. And one thing Americans have a right to expect is that immigrants will in fact make an effort to assimilate. All of this means learning English. On this score, the data is pretty clear that most immigrants will and with a quickness.

But there's another matter that gets less attention and deserves more, which is whether immigrants will be called upon to surrender their own prejudices regarding race, skin color, sexual orientation and religious preference. A groundbreaking survey by New America Media in December 2007 offers a window into what I'm talking about. It was a comprehensive survey of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians in America and it found that all of these groups have negative stereotypes about each other.

For example, majorities of each group said they prefer doing business with white people above all others. Significant percentages of Hispanics and Asians said they are afraid of blacks and significant percentages of non-Asian said Asians have no respect for people unlike themselves. There's more, but you get the point.

This isn't to say that all immigrants are carrying around retrograde racial and cultural attitudes, far from it. And it's worth pointing out that some prejudices are within the group, blacks looking down on other blacks, people from one part of the world often have very strong feelings about others from other countries in the same region often because of historic national tensions. And there's always been a fine line between appreciating ones own culture and shunning those who don't share it.

My purpose is simply to point out that part of the dialogue of the new beginning ought to include a reminder that just as politics should stop at the water's edge, so should centuries of the kind of racial and ethnic baggage that Americans have spent generations fighting to put behind us.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues