One particular phrase in James Dobson’s renewed call for a wall at the U.S. southern border has stuck with me. In his piece, Dobson writes the following about Central American asylum seekers:
Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation.
There is something wrong, in this country, with the way we talk about racism and white supremacy. There’s this idea that racists and white supremacists are skinheads with Nazi tattoos who join militia groups. You don’t do those things? Cool. You’re not a white supremacist. Except that that’s not how it works.
What does Dobson’s phrase “the culture as we have known it” mean? Dobson already thinks that evangelical Christian influence on American culture has been overwhelmed by secularism, so it’s not that—besides, most migrants from Central America embrace some branch of Christianity (many are evangelicals themselves). What is it, then? I have a informed guess. I think it’s race. In other words, this is a white supremacist statement.
Culture is frequently used as stand-in for race. I grew up in a community that prided itself on not being racist—but I still learned that something was wrong with black culture, and that black people could get ahead if they would only start acting like white people. The term culture, in other words, frequently takes on a racial dimension in conservative circles.
Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis argues that all humans are one race. Ham argues that it is wrong to speak of difference “races,” because all people are members of the “human” race, descendants of Adam through Noah. Ham is so insistent that I’ve seen evangelicals in discussions of racism argue that it is racist to talk of there being different races.
By focusing on culture, conservatives can pretend they’re not talking about race. (Just so we’re crystal clear here, it is racist to tell another racial group that you will only accept them if they believe, dress, and act just like you—and it is similarly racist to assume that any individual conforms to every stereotype about their racial group.)
Dobson doesn’t want to look racist. He avoids saying that he wants Central American migrants to stay out of the U.S. because they are Latinx. He says it’s because of their culture. But isn’t that the entire point of white supremacism? The idea that white culture is superior?
It is not possible to tell Central American migrants to stay out of the U.S. because they’ll “overwhelm the culture as we have known it” without being deeply white supremacist. This is textbook white supremacism.
When you start looking, you can find this kind of rhetoric popping up all over the right. National Review: “The native-born are having fewer children, leading to a fear that new entrants into American society will replace the existing culture rather than assimilate into it.” Rush Limbaugh: “We have an emergency. This is an invasion. The very existence and definition of American culture, American society, the rule of law.”
I remember watching, several years ago, as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fled to European countries, in hope of finding a place to restart their lives. While some countries, like Germany, embraced these migrants, right-wing leaders in countries like Hungary started putting up fencing and talking about these migrants as a threat to their culture. White, European culture. Lacking their proximity to Syria, the U.S. did not face the same test these European countries did. I remember thinking at the time that if the U.S. were to face the same test head-on, it would fail.
And here we are today, with hundreds of thousands of refugees walking thousands of miles to find a place to restart their lives. This time, it is the U.S. that has proximity. And just as I suspected it would, the U.S. is failing this test.
I live in a city. One in five people are immigrants. It is fine. Every day I hear people speaking in multiple languages. Most days I see people in hijab, or Orthodox Jewish girls with long sleeves leggings under their skirts. Multiple times a month I walk into nearby grocery stores or paleterias where all the labeling is in Spanish. And all of this is completely fine. None of it harms me in any way. This threat so many conservatives see in a multicultural, diverse society is utterly misplaced.
Let’s return to Dobson for a moment. I find his comment egregious in part because his has been arguing for decades that secularists have taken over and subverted American culture and society. What “culture” is it that he’s afraid Central American migrants will overwhelm? I Am Jazz is already in all of the libraries. Gay marriage is the law of the land. Dobson has been saying for ages that Christians have lost the culture. What “culture” is it that Central Americans will overwhelm? Dobson comment only makes sense if he’s talking about race—about whiteness.
In a different world, I could see Dobson welcoming these migrants, given that Central Americans are more religious than Americans are as a whole. Perhaps these migrants would be seen as the seed of a great reformation projected to sweep our country. But no. Dobson doesn’t see common cause with them at all. And I’d suggest it’s because they’re brown.
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