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The generation gap on immigration

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, May 18, 2010 13:35 EDT
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Part of me found this article about the generation gap on opinions about immigration fascinating, and part of me wondered, “How often are we expected to find it a revelation that the teabaggers are a bunch of cranky old racists whose anger that the world is passing them by boiled over when the country elected a black President?” The article itself is kind of weird; the focus is on young white people resisting older white people and their racism, but what’s missing is much discussion of the fact that younger people are also just a lot less likely to be white than older people. Not that there can’t be racism across all sorts of lines, but the brutal reality is that the anti-immigration temper tantrum is being thrown by a bunch of older white people that are pissed about the multi-cultural direction this country is going. Perhaps the writer thought caveating his points to death would read poorly. Still, when he says something like, “her generation watched ‘Sesame Street’ with Hispanic characters”, I have to point out that a lot more members of her generation are Hispanic, which is going to influence the polling data on this. True, there are many Hispanic Americans who oppose immigration, but on the whole, I have to point out that these demographic changes will influence the polling data tremendously, at least as much if not more than shifts in opinion amongst white Americans between generations.

Still, I think there’s something to be said for just this phenomenon that the writer focuses on. It is true that those of us who grew up in much more racially diverse environments are way more laid back about this stuff. And that also has an impact. The gap between generations on the issue of immigration is remarkable, to the point where it definitely represents both the growing diversity of younger generations of Americans and the fact that younger white people are breaking with older generations on this issue.

Still, divisions were pronounced by age: for instance, while 41 percent of Americans ages 45 to 64 and 36 percent of older Americans said immigration levels should be decreased, only 24 percent of those younger than 45 said so.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how foolish Arizona politicians were to make attacking immigrants a centerpiece of their legislative efforts in an election year. Or ever, really. It’s seen as unbelievably stupid short term thinking—pandering now to get a bunch of teabagger votes, but the price you pay is you create a reputation for Republicans as racist towards Hispanics right when Hispanics are growing as a voting bloc. But this is also epic short term thinking when it comes to age demographics. I suppose Republicans are betting on the fact that the younger generations just don’t vote. And that may be true, but as every year passes and more of the older generations die off, each vote from a younger person counts for more. And that’s true, even if we don’t see a single non-voter now switch to a voter as she ages and becomes more civic-minded.

What’s interesting to me about all this is that this explosion of anti-immigrant sentiment has blown the cover story about how conservatives aren’t opposed to immigration because they’re racist. We were all supposed to pretend that their hostility to immigrants had nothing to do with difference, and was just a principled political opinion. But now, it’s a free-for-all of racist blather. Some of the quotes from the article really get to this:

Mike Lombardi, 56, of Litchfield, Ariz. — one of 1,079 respondents in the Times/CBS poll conducted from April 28 to May 2 — said his support for his state’s new law stemmed partly from the shock of seeing gaggles of immigrants outside Home Depot, who he assumed were illegal. Comparing the situation to his youth in Torrance, Calif., in a follow-up interview, he said, “You didn’t see anything like what you see now.”

There’s nothing about that sentiment that isn’t pure racism. He’s not saying, “Hey, those guys are great, and I love their work ethic and what they contribute to the community, but (fill in policy argument).” It’s just that he sees this group of men, and even though they’re not doing anything any reasonable person could ever find offensive, he’s pissed because they’re different than he is and there’s change. And even if you want to stretch and say that being pissed about change isn’t necessarily racism, I have to point out that the Home Depot wasn’t there when he was a kid, either, but he’s not up in arms about the existence of Home Depot.

And then there’s this classic of the genre:

“My stepdad says, ‘Why do I have to press 1 for English?’ I think that’s ridiculous,” Ms. Vespia said, referring to the common instruction on customer-service lines. “It’s not that big of a deal. Quit crying about it. Press the button.”

Sometimes I wish we could add up the calorie expenditures of pushing the 1 for English over a lifetime and show the people who cry about it that, if they’re that worried about it, they can chew a stick of gum and gain all of that back. Pushing the button certainly wastes less energy than the non-stop whining about it.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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