During questioning in the Democratic radio debate yesterday, debate sponsor NPR came dangerously close to promoting civilian pursuit of immigrants. The New York Times summed up NPR's questioning in this way,
"If there is one issue that has challenged presidential candidates of both parties in Iowa this year, it is immigration, and the Democratic contenders were confronted with it again Tuesday, in a provocative way. Should American citizens, they were asked, turn in someone they know to be an illegal immigrant?"
Even after Hillary Clinton responded that citizens should not be "enforcing the broken laws of our federal immigration system," NPR's Steven Inskeep continued the line of questioning by asking, "If a citizen witnessed some other kind of crime, wouldn't you want them to report it?"
Contrary to what the Times tells us, such a line of questioning is not just "provocative", but is, in fact, more like DANGEROUS. In a political environment that already lends itself to countless forms of racial profiling (and to smashing the distinction between federal and local law enforcement under the guise of immigration policy), such a line of questioning only serves to further legitimate another formerly wacky idea, an idea one could, until recently, only find in the netherworld of white supremacist websites. Even those who constantly ask me, "What don't you understand about the word 'illegal'?" should recognize the inherent danger in NPR's approach.
Yesterday's questioning of the Democratic presidential candidates around immigration seems to indicate that NPR is willing to use public airwaves to provide broader forum for formerly fringe ideas. Public airing of such questions will only exacerbate racial tensions against Latino and other migrants that even the FBI tells us are the object of a disturbing increase in hate crimes (and that's just the tiny minority of anti-immigrant hate crimes that are even reported).
What would happen if, for example, such state-funded media started asking whether it was advisable for citizens to single out and report other people based on their religion or physical appearance? Experiences in Germany during WWII and here in the U.S. during the pre- and post-Emancipation periods have already demonstrated the danger in state-funded -- or any other media -- isolating a group for pursuit by local and federal authorities and civilians. This kind of racial logic further deepens the abyss opened after 9/11, when Muslims, South Asians and Arabs became the "beta's" for the new, state-sponsored, national security-tinged profiling of immigrants and other non-whites.
NPR's line of questioning has started taking us beyond "racial profiling" and into even more treacherous racial and political terrain. Imagine what would happen if, for example, some us decide to get licensed guns, drive to the U.S.-Canada border, capture and hog tie blond-haired, blue-eyed people that we suspect of being undocumented. Would we-say, the "Minutomen" -- get the same fair and balanced treatment from law enforcement and the media as the Minutemen, who have undertaken these very actions against Latino migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border? And would these white immigrants get the same treatment by federal and local law enforcement, civilians and NPR and other media?
NPR should know that raising these kinds of questions in the current climate will likely not result in profiling and further intensifying and expanding the governmental and civilian hunt for blond-haired, blue eyed Canadians and other whites. NPR's troubling line of questioning will instead impact non-whites already suffering the brunt of attacks by the same government that funds public radio.
NPR does have decent people and many relevant and good programs. But, left unchecked, those at NPR responsible for yesterday's debate questioning on immigration will likely follow the tried, true and audience-building path paved by hate radio on a.m. and private sector "successes" like Lou Dobbs, CNN and other media making an industry of fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment.
We should not be complicit in allowing publicly-funded institutions like NPR to cross this dangerous racial border.
This post first appeared on Robert Lovato's blog.