Last week, The City Paper’s Kyle Swenson reported that Sheriff Daron Hall, a champion of Nashville’s controversial 287(g) program that extends immigration enforcement authority to localities, was to appear on a panel at the National Press Club along with members of an immigration restrictionist think tank called the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). The Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-racist watchdog group, singled out CIS as an organization with hate group ties. When this was brought to the attention of the sheriff, he canceled his appearance.
He shouldn’t have. His decision was no doubt an overcorrection of another — opposite — poor decision he made last year, when he agreed to speak about 287(g) to the local chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Anyone with any degree of political astuteness knows that the Council of Conservative Citizens is a radioactive group. It is a direct descendant of the Citizens Councils of the ’50s and ’60s that sought to preserve Jim Crow segregation. The appearance was an embarrassment to the city and to Hall, one the sheriff vowed never to repeat.
CIS should have been vetted thoroughly on the front end, and once the sheriff decided it was an appropriate venue to appear, and committed to do it, he should have stuck with and defended that decision.
And it was an appropriate venue. The fact is that the Center of immigration Studies isn’t a white supremacist organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center won’t call it a hate group outright. It will say only that it has “ties.” It’s textbook guilt by association, which is used so often because it works.
CIS is not the Council of Conservative Citizens. It’s true that seed money to start the think tank years ago came from a man with questionable views on race, but that doesn’t put the current organization across the line of permissible dissent.
It’s a think tank. It issues reports. It puts out press releases. Yes, it means to affect policy restricting immigration. But it doesn’t use race or ethnicity as a wedge, or seek to divide and inflame. Its approach is intellectual and its leadership’s arguments based on statistics and data.
If the Center for Immigration Studies is a hate group — a label meant to tag someone or something as racist — essentially, then, no one could ever advocate for immigration restriction without being racist.
That, in fact, may be what this is all about. There is a segment of elite opinion out there that believes arguing for reduced or restricted immigration is necessarily racist. But that’s an article of faith, not proof.
To characterize someone or a group as marginal and outside the lines of permissible dissent, you need demonstrable evidence — more than just a decades-old donation and guilt by association. Just as Planned Parenthood should not be made to answer for the eugenicist beliefs of Margaret Sanger, neither should the Center for Immigration Studies be made to answer for the white nationalist thoughts of onetime donor John Tanton. Judge the group by its work.
All of which isn’t to say that racism doesn’t exist in the immigration restrictionist movement. It does. But just because David Duke wants to curb immigration doesn’t mean its wrong to do so. This is not, pardon the pun, a black-and-white situation. There are several shades of gray that are only made grayer when what essentially are charges of racism aren’t leveled responsibly.
Once polite society has lumped someone in with the racist rabble, that someone tends to make that designation part of their identity. As much as we like to think of ourselves as independent actors impervious to the influence of others’ perceptions, we’re not. How we are seen by others molds how we see ourselves. If enough people see you as racist, you might start to believe it — whether or not it’s true.
Hall may have felt that the Council of Conservative Citizens debacle had put him on his heels and it wasn’t worth getting involved in an argument over the legitimacy of some Washington think tank.
But it’s actually a debate worth having.
Calling the Center for Immigration Studies a hate group does nothing but radicalize and marginalize people who already feel alienated. We should keep as many people inside the definition of legitimate political discussion as possible because the last thing we want is a bunch of reactionaries with earned chips on their shoulders reaching critical mass.
* This column as orginally posted contained a hyperlink to a blog post by Betsy Phillips under the words "elite opinion." That link has been removed.
A.C. Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com’s political blogger. Visit him at http://postpolitics.net