My 72 year old neighbor helps my husband chop down a tree that had been damaged in a storm last winter, so as a thanks we invite him and his wife over for a BBQ. My neighbor, who is a retired Vietnam veteran asks me about my next book, which is on undocumented Latino youth. He responds with a statement that left me stunned and speechless. He says: “Mexicans are a unique immigrant group. They are the only immigrant group in U.S. history that isn’t interested in upward mobility. They are perfectly fine working in the fields.”
This is a perfect example of the social construction of Mexicans that leads to perverse, perverted policy design vis-a-vis tough on crime, mass incarceration, school tracking etc. It is also an example of what Feagin calls racism in the backstage as I’m not sure my neighbor knows my parents are Mexican. He knows I’m “something” but I believe that because he only knows I’m a college professor he isn’t sure what my race could be—certainly not a Mexican-American professional. So, I have been made privy to two racist comments about Mexicans in our neighborhood in the past week, but this is another blog. Returning to the belief that Mexicans lack the desire for social mobility. The consequences of this stereotype on Latinos are found in many public policies.
According to the well-known scholars and leading figures in the public policy studies area Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram, public policies are strongly implicated in the reinforcement of social stratifications of different target groups. Some groups get constructed (i.e., middle class and/or business) as being worthy of advantage, while other groups (minorities, feminists, or homeless) are often socially constructed as social deviants whose differences from the mainstream should be subject to scrutiny as potential threats to the public order and prevailing norms. A description of Schneider and Ingram’s book states, “Public policy in the United States is marked by a contradiction between the American ideal of equality and the reality of an underclass of marginalized and disadvantaged people who are widely viewed as undeserving and incapable.” That is how Latinos are impacted by public policy in America. This is explains why the Dream Act has not passed or comprehensive immigration reform for that matter, resulting in far greater obstacles through life than necessary for most Latinos.
Did I say anything to correct my neighbor’s perspective? I wish I could report that I responded with something witty such as, “I should have stayed in the fields like my parents working 12 hour days getting sprayed w/pesticides for less than minimum wage instead of going to college and then to grad school to become a professor!” Or something less sarcastic, more wise and kind such as, “Mexican immigrants and other Latinos are stuck in low-wage jobs because of large complex societal impediments that make upward mobility almost impossible.” But I said neither of these statements. Instead I just stared in stunned silence. Did his wife say anything? She “fixed” it by adding, “Well, at least the Mexicans we know are like this.”
In Policy Design for Democracy Schneider and Ingram explain that politics, culture, socialization, history, the media, literature, and religion all contribute to the social construction of societal groups and the individuals associated with those groups.
White Eurocentrism is expressed in candidate Mitt Romney’s comments about how “Culture makes all the difference” when describing the difference in economic development between the U.S. and Mexico. This statement was described as “ahistorical, prejudiced and very biased” according to Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
All this contributes to strong messages about the inferiority of Latinos and other ethnic and racial groups that my neighbors have learned quite well.