Moral Panic

I think of the children of undocumented immigrant workers. Years ago, Juanita’s tiny, two-year-old daughter, Cecilia, stumbled over to me where I sat on a kitchen chair. She looked at me from her small face with her brown-black eyes. The remains of a braid with a ribbon tied around it captured her hair on one side of her head. The rest was tangled around her head. She was very small, I thought about six months or so younger than she actually was. Her legs were bowed, her feet turned in, and I was told she had convulsions. She stumbled around the kitchen and fell when she could not step around her feet. She kept returning to me, where she played a silent game. She repeatedly placed a bit of nothing carefully in my hand, then had me hand it back to her. At one point, Cecilia carried a nude doll over to me and thoughtfully poked her fingers in the doll’s eyes. Cecilia’s face still haunts me, and I searched out resources of her and her mother.

I thought of her again when I heard about Obama’s new deportation policy last week. In it Obama announced that nearly one million young, upstanding undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children will be spared from deportation for the next two years. During the last few years, I’ve lost track of Cecilia, but I hope she falls in the favored categories.

Michael Welch, who wrote Detained: Immigration Laws and the Expanding I.N.S Jail Complex (2002), gives an interesting argument concerning our contemporary obsession with punishing undocumented immigrants. He explains that the nation has experienced a “moral panic” over such immigration. A moral panic occurs when “a group of people emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interest.” (9) This fear results in a “moral crusade” against those who are defined as the threat. He explains that such a moral crusade against immigrants occurred in the early to mid 1990’s. Writing shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers, he stated that he was very concerned that another moral panic against immigrants would occur as a result. I expect that he feels the conditions of the Great Recession has given further fuel to such a campaign.

According to Welsh and others, such moral panic involves: “. . a heightened concern over the behavior of others and how their actions affect society.” (11) It also involves a “hostility toward an identifiable group,” (13) Such attitudes are seen in the “criminalizing of immigrants,” for example, defining immigrants as “predatory villains, drug dealers, and even terrorists.” (16)

A moral panic against immigrants also sees them as pathological and a threat to public health. (18) Welsh writes about a commentator who blames them for spreading tuberculosis, measles, cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and leprosy. In addition, during a moral crusade the target group is seen as less intelligent than the dominant group. In the process, such groups as undocumented immigrants function as a scapegoat. Welsh quotes Robinson and says scapegoating is “the placing of blame for one’s troubles on an individual or group incapable of offering resistance.” Certainly, that has been the case since 9/11 and the recession. Middle Eastern immigrants regularly report that they have been racially profiled.

People experiencing moral panic perceive danger in exaggerated terms. For example, people talk with alarm about immigrant children destroying education for native-born children. Also, people during a moral panic often exaggerate the numbers involved. Since Obama changed deportation policies I have heard opponents to his actions say that “millions” of people will be made legal.

Moral panic also changes over time. There are times when it is more acute than others. Worries about immigration have ebbed and flowed throughout U.S. history. At times citizens have been warned of the anti-Asian “yellow peril,” and Japanese Americans were forced into detention camps during World War 11.
According to Welsh, moral panic about immigrants was worse during the early 1990’s, better in the later 1990’s, then worse again during subsequent years. It is also volatile. It can lie dormant, then erupt quickly or “break out,” then fade again. Welsh states that it does not “necessarily mean that there is no potential for a problem; rather, societal responses to the putative problem are fundamentally inappropriate.” (33) I certainly believe that mass detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants is inappropriate. It is not humane, it ignores the history of the United States as an immigrant nation, and does not take into account all that undocumented immigrants contribute to our nation.

With food and medical care Cecilia grew into a lovely young woman with gifts to give her country. The question for citizens is now: do we panic and cause immense suffering to people such as Cecilia and her mother or do we accept what they have to offer their adopted nation and relax and accept such contributions.

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Welfare

Many years ago, I was a single parent with three children under five. I worked four part time jobs trying to support them. When I was unable to get child support and my child care fell through, I went on welfare for the better share of a year. Back then, welfare payments were $220 a month and my rent was $175. A friend started sending me $50 a month, and I hid that income from the welfare department. I was constantly frightened that they would find out.

At the same time a woman I knew also cheated welfare by taking a temporary job in a pickle factory and not reporting the income. She was caught and sentenced to a prison term. She was allowed out during the day so she could continue working but had to go back to prison for the weekends and every night. Her children were taken away. All these years later, I still think of her.

I received welfare in 1971, long before the 1996 welfare reform act under President Clinton. Between the years when I had it and the early 1990s, welfare rolls and single parenthood rates expanded. According to Ronald Sider, in Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, 2007, a poll taken on election night in 1994 revealed that “a majority of those questioned thought either welfare or foreign aid was the biggest item in the federal budget.” (226-227) This misperception fueled an angry movement to end welfare, Aid to Dependent Families.

When campaigning, President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” He proposed a two- year time limit on receiving payments, but he desired the government to guarantee everyone a job at the end of their eligibility. The Republican majority in Congress accepted time limits but forgot about Clinton’s promise of a job. In the process, it reduced the federal government’s role, turned Aid to Dependent Children into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and threw welfare policy to the states, who had less generous programs. Sider continues, “[W]elfare rolls dropped a stunning 65 % from 1994 to mid-2003,” but the number of people living in desperate poverty only dropped 15%. Then President Bush pushed a plan to increase the work requirement over education and training. Subsequently, poverty levels for people who leave welfare were very high. Food bank programs, homeless shelters, and other charitable institutions reported much despair.

Since then we have had the Great Recession, which has dramatically increased the percentage of people in poverty. Sabrina Tavernise, writing in the New York Times on September 13, 2011, says that the Census Bureau reported that the “number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.” People of color have been hit the hardest. African Americans experience the highest poverty rate at 27 % and Latinos at 26 %. 9.9% of whites live in poverty. One child is five is poor. The current unemployment rate is 8.3%.

The past decade was also marked by a growing gap between the very rich and the poor, and the government responds to the rich but not the poor. A study in the late 1980s and early 1990s (cited in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner Take All) asks if the opinions of richer Americans were more likely to be heard and heeded than those of the poor. Hacker and Pierson say, “It turns out there is pretty high degree of congruence between senators’ positions and the opinions of their constituents–at least when those constituents are in the top third of the income distribution. For constituents in the middle third of the income distribution, the correspondence is much weaker, and for those in the bottom third, it is actually negative. (Yes, when the poorest people in a state support a policy, their senators are less likely to vote for it.) (111)

I find that final sentence to be shocking, almost as shocking as I found my acquaintance’s prison term for having worked in a pickle factory. Not only are the poor not represented, but government goes against their beliefs, no matter how hard the poor try realistically to analyze their situations. How can we call this a democracy or a country with humane policies? A final quote: Hacker and Pierce found that “while senators in both parties were more likely to vote for a policy when it was supported by better-off voters, Republicans were much more responsive to high-income voters than were Democrats.

Governor Mitt Romney said he wasn’t concerned with the very poor, then claimed it was a mistake. The study cited above clearly reveals that the government also does not care about the poor. If it did the Senate would not vote directly against their beliefs and desires.

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Nativism

On July 22, 2006, my husband an drove across the desert in our air conditioned car. At the same time, eleven-year-old Olivia Luna Nogueda and her older sister, Marisol, seventeen, attempted to cross the Arizona desert from Mexico on foot. 110-degree heat broiled the landscape. The girls were trying to reunite with their parents who were in Atlanta, Georgia. They traveled as part of a group of about twenty people being led by a smuggler. Olivia became ill, and the smuggler abandoned her and her sister.

An excruciating headache struck Olivia. She stumbled, hallucinated, and passed out. Her body cooked while she was still alive.

Marisol, the seventeen-year-old, stayed with her little sister until Olivia was unconscious. Then Marisol, dizzy and desperate, searched for help. She eventually reached the Sells Baptist Church on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. With the guidance of Marisol, Tohono O’odham police found Olivia and performed CPR until she was picked up by ambulance. The eleven-year-old child died on the way to the hospital. Her body temperature was 106 degrees.

The policies that led Olivia and Marisol to attempt to cross the desert on their feet reflect a resurgence of Nativism in the United States. Nativism is either a policy favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants or the push toward a revival or strengthening of the “native” culture over against cultures that arrive with immigrants. It especially opposes the merging of cultures by prolonged contact and often represents a dread of alien radicalism.

The historian John Higham characterized the nativist, saying, “. . . he believed that some influence originating abroad threatened the very life of the nation within.” (Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 1965.)

Nativism has recurred throughout the U.S. history, beginning with early settlements and “the first naturalization laws when only whites of ‘good moral character’ could be naturalized. It continued through such things as the Chinese exclusion laws, the development of eugenics, the Johnson-Reed national origins quota act of 1924, such events as the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semitism, and the contemporary backlash against undocumented immigrants. It was especially dominant during times of economic distress. See Peter Schrag, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism and Immigration, 2010.

During times of economic growth, we have pulled immigrants toward our land as a source of cheap labor. During times of struggle and fear, we attempt to push them back into their home countries. Schrag talks about contemporary issues that contribute to current social anxieties: “the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor.” (10)

During the depression years of 1929-1939, we forced 400,000 Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children out of the U.S. into the interior of Mexico. People who looked “Mexican” were rounded up in raids of public and private places. Ironically, the U.S. deported 396,900 people in fiscal year 2011, a similar number to all deported during the depression. Schrag says that nativism and racism are not unique to the United States. “What makes them significant,” however, “is that they run almost directly counter to the nation’s founding ideals.” (2) We see ourselves as a “city on a hill,” imagining that we are a shining example to the world. Our founding documents talk about the rights of man and equality.

Except for indigenous peoples, we are a nation of immigrants. Nevertheless, each immigrant group was denigrated in its time. Those already here called the new groups unassimilable because they felt such groups were badly educated, crime prone, and diseased. In 1901, Missouri prohibited the ‘importation of afflicted, indigent, or vicious children.’” (7)

Somehow, as we make our calls for immigration reform and try to answer nativist accusations, we have to remember people like Olivia. Her desires were simple. She tried to reunite with her parents at a time when immigration policies did not make that possible in any safe fashion. Immigration issues are extremely complicated, but we owe it to the memory of those lost in the crossing to wrestle with the issues and not fall into easy explanations.

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God’s Plan for Justice

Maria Elena Lucas, a farm worker and union organizer, found meaning in the everyday work of her people. She saw their hard lives as part of a larger struggle that included God ‘s plan for justice in this world. Nearly twenty years ago, she told her stories to me:

“It was not until my early years in Onaraga, (Illinois), when I started going through all those terrible things together with the other migrant people, that I knew that God was calling me in a special way. When we went through the wintertime and hunger and discrimination and everything altogether, I began to see people not like I would see my kids, my children, but different, and to see myself like God was telling me something. I don’t even know how to describe it. I began to see it like my obligation, my duty, like I was their sister, but more than their sister, like I had to do something on behalf of God.

“And I began to see people . . . like a suffering Christ. It seemed like Jesus, like the passion, like when he had been crucified. It was like I was seeing the crucifixion of God or Christ through their sufferings.

“It wasn’t just like this group of people here are having problems with the grower and we’re going to fight, it was more a sacred thing. I don’t know why I developed that feeling, but I remember exactly when it started. We were working out there together in the fields in the snow, and I was looking at the women and the men, and, somehow, I began to change. It was just like God was there, it was God I was seeing, and something was terribly wrong. I was very moved that I had to do something about it. I still feel that way. If I see something wrong, I say, ‘This is not what God wants. This is not the way it has to be.’ . . . Oh God, I loved those people in Onarga.

“It was like there was something holy between us. Sometimes we’d be out in the fields working on a beautiful day, and I’d look up and the sun is working, the bees are flying, some children are crying, others are laughing. I’d be with Gloria Chiquita and Comadre Lencha and Lucia, and people’d be picking tomatoes and putting them on their shoulders. I’d stop and look at them and say, ‘Don’t you feel something? Don’t you feel. . .like God is here?”. . . [Quotes from Forged Under the Sun: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas, edited by Fran Leeper Buss, 1993.]

Now Maria Elena is a disabled, 71-year-old. She lives on the Texas-Mexico border and is frightened of going outside because of drug violence, but she still carries that vision of justice for those who are oppressed. She believes her people’s suffering is similar to the crucifixion of Christ, and that we must act in reaction to that hardship. Today, all Maria Elena can do is sit in her tiny house and write, but she records her observations of the daily life experiences of the poorest of the poor.

Other peoples also saw their suffering as part of the crucifixion. El Salvador, in the 1960s and 1970s, lost 80,000 people to government violence that was backed up by the United States. In Progressive Catholic churches in El Salvador, survivors saw their torment as part of a long struggle to bring about a new order, the reign of God. A critical part of that reign would be justice for the poor. The people certainly didn’t wish for their martyrdom, but they also felt they had a sacred duty to continue their activism, and if it brought death, they’d die for their people. [See Anna Peterson, Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion: Progressive Catholicism in El Salvador’s Civil War, 1997.]

Today, most of us do not face such extreme situations. Many of us have comfortable lives, and we do not think a lot about being a part of a movement designed to promote hopes for a justice as dreamed of in the reign of God. Yet, such a meaning can provide the strength to carry on such a vision through defeat and exhaustion. That kind of vigor is essential for the political and spiritual battles we have to fight today. Maria Elena’s life can be a model for the rest of
s. Old age and disabilities do not stop her in her quest for goodness for the people she loves.

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New Movement

About twenty years ago I knew Catherine McGowen, a retired cleaning woman from a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama. A small African American, she had been one of grass roots activists in the civil rights movement. She was raising two young sons when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began . She attended the first mass meeting on December 5, 1955, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on people to fight “until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I was interviewing Mary Robinson, the subject of the book, The Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist, and Mrs. McGowen was her older friend. Mrs. McGowen showed me her first voting card, for which she had risked her life. The only daughter of tenant farmers from “Bloody Lowndes County,” Mrs. McGowen boycotted buses and sang freedom songs at church rallies. One night white vigilantes trapped her and others inside the First Baptist Church of Montgomery for the entire night. She told me, “We felt power in ourselves. We sang songs and knew that justice was on our side.”

The civil rights movement was made up of thousands of people like Mrs. McGowen and Mary Robinson. Today, Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, calls for a new movement to dismantle the incarceration system that leads to a lifetime of warehousing and the loss of rights experienced by so many poor African Americans and other people of color.

To end the War on Drugs, which has swept thousands of poor people of color into blighted lives, we must quit pretending that we are a color blind society and instead recognize that it is because those most caught in the system are largely black and brown that we have indeed been blind, this time to their suffering.

Alexander states that: “Today, no less that fifty years ago, a flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system. When people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy. Drug crime in this country is understood to be black and brown, and it is because drug crime is racially defined in the public consciousness that the electorate has not cared much what happens to drug criminals–at least not the way they would have cared if criminals were understood to be white. It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.” (214)

Alexander calls for a movement building that recognizes color, as well as class and gender, as a system of stratification in our country, declaring that the “prevailing caste system cannot be successfully dismantled with a purely race-neutral approach.” (239) Certainly, talking about race makes people uncomfortable, but it is our culture’s crime if we don’t deal with the way race has been used to demonize part of the poor in our society.

We need to have a vision of a “. . .thriving, multiracial, multiethnic democracy free from racial hierarchy. It would offer a positive vision of what we can strive for–a society in which all human beings of all races are treated with dignity, and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security. This expansive vision could open the door to meaningful alliances between poor and working-class people of all colors, who could begin to see their interests as aligned, rather than in conflict–no longer in competition for scarce resources in a zero-sum game.” (259)

I was stunned by the enormity of the mass incarceration system in the United States. Reading the book felt life changing, but I am confused about what I can do. That is part of the insidious nature of such a inbuilt system. It parallels the lives of those of us on the outside, and we barely know it exists.

Somehow we must build that new movement Michelle Alexander talks about. The people at the beginning of the civil rights movement also did not know where to begin even though African Americans knew their living systems were saturated with injustice. Those of us who are white must also become aware of the injustice of the mass incarceration system. Reading this book and talking about it to others is a place to begin.

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The Politics of Abortion

Maria Elena Lucas, an ex-farm worker, poured her heart out into the spiral bound, green notebook. Dating her inscription March 16, 1990, she declared, “I . . . refuse to believe God is a man or that there is only one God. God is not a man and if she is a man, no wonder!”

I have had a similar feeling when dealing with Planned Parenthood and abortion politics in Arizona recently. It’s true, we have a woman governor, Jan Brewer, who has taken leadership in the matter, but the decisions are proposed and formed by a primarily male legislature. That legislature supports a social vision that believes women’s adult ability to envision their own destiny is secondary to events in their reproductive lives. Such an understanding of basic reality supports traditional, male-dominated politics, and it almost seems like the struggles of women for autonomy in the past forty years did not happen.

Arizona recently passed a law that severely restricts abortion after twenty weeks. (See John M. Gionna, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2012.) Then on May 5, 2012, Terry Greene Sterling wrote in the Daily Beast, “Arizona’s governor threw yet another political volley at Planned Parenthood Friday night, inking a law aimed at preventing thousands of women on state Medicaid rolls from accessing family-planning services–including breast exams and pap smears–from organizations that also offer abortions.” According to Sterling, former U.S. surgeon general, Richard Carmona, told the Daily Beast, “This is an example of how politics and overheated rhetoric get in the way of common sense. Planned Parenthood provides a vast array of women’s health care services, often reaching under-served communities where health and economic disparities make access to quality care difficult.”

It’s true that abortion is complex decision, but the serge of laws designed to block women from making that choice seems to reflect a near-panic on the Right about the control of women. As I’ve studied racism and class distinctions over the past forty years, I’ve sometimes wondered if control of sexuality was as deeply fundamental to our culture as I once thought it was. Perhaps class or race is a more basic determinant of oppression, I began to think. But, once again, it feels like I have been slapped across the face by a harsh reality. Social structures consider sexuality, and, consequently, the control of women’s bodies, as absolutely necessary. It is a basic condition upon which our society rests.

It’s not that class and race are not also foundational. For example, look at all the voter registration restrictions being proposed and implemented. But when society is threatened by economic or social turmoil, as it is today, the wagons circle again, protecting basic ideas. One is that women’s dangerous sexuality must be controlled by larger social forces. Why else, the focus on access to contraception or the great fear of gay rights?

I’m old enough to remember when abortion was illegal. Years ago, my friend Lee described her two self-abortions. With contraception unavailable, she did them to prevent two of her eight pregnancies in ten years. Desperate, she jammed glass swivel sticks up her vagina into her uterus. The second attempt nearly killed her. For the sake of women like Lee, we must maintain access to contraception and abortion.

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War on Drugs

Shortly after Ronald Reagan promoted the “War on Drugs” in 1982, I met a young African American woman locked in jail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She had been arrested in a drug sweep and charged with prostitution. In the background, cells clanged shut and women’s voices shouted. Thin and nervous, the woman chewed on a strand of her straight hair and spoke in a near whisper. “They took my daughter. They said my mother wasn’t fit to care for her. My daughter’s my life.” The young woman cried, then she paused, opened her eyes wide, and looked around. “They’re watching me. All the time. I can’t even go to the bathroom in private. I think I’m going crazy.”

I was ultimately unable to offer the young mother any help other than a few dollars for candy bars. A half-way house located her child, but by then she was placed in a foster home and the woman would have to go through a costly court fight to get any visitation. The young woman was trapped in what became almost a “total system,” a structure in which whatever way the woman moved, she would lose.

Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (2010) describes how governments use punishment as tools of social control. In fact, she says, “the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to actual crime patterns.” (7) Instead, punishment can be used as a way of disciplining and maintaining dominance over segments of the general population considered dangerous or needed to perform non-free labor. In the U.S. this control has been racialized, it is linked directly to the control of poor African Americans and other people of color.

This was the case during sharecropping and segregation in the South after the Civil War up until the old cotton plantation system broke down in the 1950s. During this period of the original Jim Crow, black families were trapped into living on white-owned land and working white-owned fields year round. They did so in exchange for life in a cabin and minimal food from their own garden. This system was maintained by government approved terror in the form of lynching.

Gradually, African Americans broke free, and many moved or escaped to urban centers in the North where they formed vibrant communities based on their own professional classes, service work, and factory labor. Recently, with the breakdown of manufacturing and the export of labor overseas, the economic base of those communities has been shattered.

At this point, the government instituted a militarized War on Drugs, sweeping vast numbers of the poorest people of color into incarceration and a lifetime of second class citizenship. The media helped by sensationalizing black crime. Alexander states that studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates, and “whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” Still, “in some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.” (6-7)

The War on Drugs and the association of criminals with black men, developed when Republicans wanted to appeal to working-class whites from the South. It became even more militarized under Clinton. In fact, politicians compete in their desire to be “tough on crime.”

One of the frightening aspects today is that poor people of color are being warehoused in the incarceration system because they are considered disposable, people who can be “purged from the body politic.” (207) That leads us to ask the next question. To what extent might society go to get rid of such people?

Also, what about that young African American woman I met with at the beginning of the War on Drugs? Once labeled, did she ever break free of the system of mass incarceration? Did her child know her mother?

For the last six years, I’ve been working with young women caught in drug addiction and the bureaucracy of Child Protective Services. Michele Alexander’s book inspires me to ask a deeper question. How do I make a difference not only in their individual lives but also in the broader system that imprisons them in the first place?

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