06/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration and Diversity in America

Arizona has a very serious problem. Arizona's problem is us. It does not want us here.
I am paraphrasing words spoken by Malcolm X back in the 1960s in reference to the American racial segregation policies of those times. Those words could have been spoken in any era of our country's history. The word "us" could refer to Native Americans. Or Irish Americans. Or Italian Americans. Or Jewish people. Or to the Chinese who were excluded from certain communities and states. Or to the Japanese detained during World War II. Or to Arabs and Muslims, especially since September 11th.

So to focus solely on that sweltering state we call Arizona would be a terrible mistake. That is simply too easy. Yes, Arizona's new anti-immigration law identifying, prosecuting, and deporting illegal immigrants is detestable, inhuman, and, no doubt, racist toward the mostly Latino population affected by it. And yes I have residual memories of Arizona refusing to honor Dr. King's birthday as a holiday during the Reagan era. But this is not some isolated example of pure ignorance. As much as I'd like to say otherwise, the sad reality is that our nation has a history of taking two steps back (the rise of the Tea Party, and this new Arizona law) for every step forward (the historic election of President Barack Obama).

The deeper issue is that after 234 years, the United States of America still does not know what it is, or what it wants to be. The America I see as I travel the country as a speaker and political organizer is a land of great diversity, of many races, cultures, and tongues. A nation where the world's population has come, some willingly, some out of necessity, and some, like my ancestors, by brute and lethal force. But come we have, and here we are, in this grand but shaky experiment, to see if we really can "form a more perfect union" as the U.S. Constitution puts it.

But as long as the narrative of America is told by the conquerors and not the conquered, --to loosely quote the late great historian Howard Zinn in his landmark A People's History of The United States--then we will continue to have a country where hostile White crowds morph from the Klan to the Dixiecrats to the Tea Party, remixing the tired slogan "We want our country back" for a new generation of bigots who claim to be patriotic but who might struggle with the American History questions on the game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

One indisputable fact is that from the time of America's "founding," immigration has been crucial to this nation's growth--and also a source of conflict. Anyone who doubts this should re-watch Martin Scorcese's grossly underrated film Gangs of New York, in which newly arriving Irish Catholic Whites found themselves pitted against "Native" Whites on the eve of the Civil War. We know that this particular immigration explosion lasted well into the 1920s.

Here we are now in the early morning of the 21st century, and we're experiencing the biggest surge of immigration in nearly 100 years. But this time they are not coming from Europe. They are coming from Latin America. From Asia. From Africa. From the darker and more "exotic" parts of the globe. They work hard. They raise families. They play by the rules. And they are terrified of being deported. They are called "foreigners" and "illegal aliens" as if their contributions to our society, indeed their very existence, was somehow undeserving of respect.

Those who participate in the marginalization of immigrants don't have the good sense to recognize that, along with slave labor, America was built on the backs of immigrants. Then and now. Maybe it's because I grew up in Jersey City where, because my generation was the first to go to integrated schools, I learned to love and appreciate people of all cultures. As a child, my friends were Black and Puerto Rican, Dominican and Jewish, Polish, Italian, and Irish, with a little German thrown in for good measure. I remember my Filipino and Indian friends too. I saw difference, yes. But I also saw humanity. And I was fascinated, not repulsed or terrified, by this rich cultural diversity.

Yes, I did go through a period in my life, during college, where I embraced hardcore Black nationalism. What Black kid at a majority White university might not do the same during those formative years? I was a highly sensitive young person, trying to figure out who I was.

But somewhere between my years on MTV's The Real World, those years with VIBE magazine, my cross country drive from Atlanta to Los Angeles, and my visits to 46 of America's 50 states these past 15 years or so, I began to broaden my thinking, to shift my passion from rage to love. I also began to feel a sense of kinship with people. All people.

Now of course I realize my life experiences have been rather unique. But even if you cannot or choose not to travel as I do, nothing prevents you from picking up a book. A good one to start with is Zinn's, cited above. And nothing prevents you from turning your own fear and hatred and into courage and love. When we are unjust to one group, we are also being unjust to God, and to ourselves. That is the crux of the problem with Arizona's despicable law, with the Tea Party zealots who continue to create a climate of violence in the era of Obama, and with you, or I, if we see this going on around us and we say absolutely nothing. To me there is no worse form of cowardice than inaction in the face of injustice. Or complete silence.

So let me say this very plainly: immigration is the American civil rights issue of the 21st century. As an African American it pains me to see the Facebook posts by young Blacks saying "we should just kick the aliens out of the country." I get it: when a group has been marginalized and discriminated against as long as Black folks have been in America, a certain paranoia sets in. Some of us Blacks have been so well conditioned to the idea of being "the minority" in this nation, that we just cannot imagine being shoved aside by this rapidly growing Latino population. Our employment status, or lack thereof, has led many Blacks to suggest--in the meanest ways possible--that Latinos have taken our jobs. That is not even the issue. The real challenge is why do we continue to have mass poverty, high unemployment, and so few opportunities for so many Americans, whether they are Black, Latino, or a working-class White person from a rural community?

So, yes, let's boycott Arizona until this law is overturned. If Arizona is now going to stop and harass Latinos as if they were some kind of fascist state, then that state does not deserve a dime of your hard-earned money. But let's not stop there. My campaign for Congress has articulated a new vision for America's immigration policy, detailed on my website

• Change immigration policy from a paradigm of protectionism and fear to one of pragmatism and opportunity

• Fully fund USCIS to allow our immigration service to modernize its systems, eliminate its backlog of applications, and assist millions of Americans currently eligible for citizenship

• Create a fair path to citizenship for those inside our borders that focuses on integrating law-abiding immigrants into our national fabric and strengthening our communities

• Reduce corporate America's ability to use immigrants as economic pawns by ensuring that companies pay workers fair wages

• Promote unity and harmony by strengthening the lines of communication between local government, law enforcement, and immigrant communities

And more than any of these, let us begin to treat Latinos and other new immigrants, no matter where we reside, as human beings, not as servants, not as a source of cheap labor, not as people who ought to learn English--or else. If we truly want to communicate with them, let us start by giving them the same degree of love and respect that we give ourselves. And by the way, my fellow Americans, there is nothing wrong with learning, say, Spanish. The fact is that Latinos will be the majority population in America in a few decades. And how embarrassing is it that so many citizens of the most developed nation on the planet cannot speak a second language--as citizens in so many other countries do?

Finally, let's stop saying this is a post-racial America. As long as we live in an America that can pass laws like this, then it's clear to me that Barack Obama's November 2008 victory was not the ultimate achievement some of us may have thought it was. Our work has only just begun.

Kevin Powell is 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States House of Representatives, the 10th Congressional District in Brooklyn, NY. You can reach him at