The rise in social intolerance

The hate-crime and incident blotter is filling so fast now, it suggests the mean side of our national character is rising. To look away from what is happening could mean something equally telling — a failure to face a problem needing national attention.

The latest entry, on July 19, found two white teenagers in Shenandoah, Pa., charged with homicide and ethnic intimidation in the beating death of a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Those charged are just 16 and 17. A third youth is charged with aggravated assault.

In Nashville, Tenn., a pregnant Mexican woman stopped on a traffic violation July 3 and found to have a pending immigration-violation charge was held in handcuffs and shackles by the sheriff’s department as she was in labor prior to giving birth.

In North Carolina, Hispanic leaders received death threats for supporting a bill that would allow some undocumented immigrants the right to attend state colleges. Two of the U.S.-born leaders reported receiving profanity-laced messages and were told to "go back where you came from." Other demeaning remarks included — you guessed it — their Hispanic ethnicity.

In Phoenix, five individuals and Somos America, a Latino community-based coalition, have sued Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, his department and the county government, in U.S. district court for unlawfully stopping and mistreating Latinos in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth and 14th Amendments, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Arizona Constitution.

Plaintiff Manuel Nieto, Jr., a U.S. citizen, claims he was detained in front of his family’s auto-repair shop after police heard him listening to music in Spanish. The two Democratic Party contenders for county attorney, seeking to oppose incumbent Republican Andrew Thomas in November, say some undocumented immigrants were singled out at the expense of overall prosecution of crimes.

Many, many more infamous incidents have received media attention — in Farmers Branch, Texas, in Hazleton, Pa., in Long Island, N.Y., in Pottsville, Iowa. They have played out in virtually every state.

If left uncorrected, this social intolerance will become a part of our national character, just as segregation became part of it.

It gives license to discriminate. And all the while, nice people look on.

The numbers — especially the smaller-scale prejudicial infractions — are corroborated in a 2007 Pew Research Center. Astoundingly, the report found a majority of Hispanics stating that discrimination is a major problem for them.

Nothing like the current dimension has occurred in our country since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 when racists threw Chinese workers out of Western towns, driving many to seek refuge in Mexico.

During the 1930s’ Depression years, more than half a million "Mexicans," thousands of them with legal papers and thousands more born here, were uprooted and shipped to Mexico like cattle, in trains and trucks.

An unthinking rationalization says it’s their fault. They have it coming. They probably entered our country without permission.

Did the 75 undocumented immigrant employees working in the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, have it coming when they perished along with 2,700 others? Did they deserve to die?

The need today is to reconcile and account, admit and acknowledge what happened and what’s driving it. One step in that direction would be to call on all those running for a federal office to commit to conducting a national reconciliation inquiry that identifies what was responsible for the irrational overreaction to the immigration issue. Who are the opportunists and provocateurs?

Church leaders and human rights institutions should form part of the inquiry to hear from victims of abuse living among us. And we ought to invite those in neighboring countries to come forward with their perspectives. We shouldn’t listen only to ourselves anymore.

Voters in November should demand not just a commitment to logical immigration reform but to a national strategy to eliminate policies that encourage predatory practices against our national scapegoats, the most vulnerable among us. We can air out this pestilence with truth.


(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at joseisla3(at)