A few weeks ago I wrote about the possible (read: likely) effects of employing certain rhetoric when advocating for same-sex marriage (namely that which aligns homosexuality with heteronormativity…homonormativity?). Historically, civil rights discourses have pitted minority groups against the dominant group in a sort of “tit-for-tat”; if you want this, then you have to give this up. If you want that, then you have to behave this way.*
NPR published a story on 28 June 2011 in which Corey Dade describes a recent rhetorical tactic being used by many undocumented youth i/o/t gain both visibility and support for legislation that would give these youth a path to citizenship:
This so-called DREAMers movement has gained wide attention for engaging a new generation of young immigrants who have grown up in America and would have been granted legal status under the legislation. Despite the bill’s failure, organizers say thousands of young people continue to “come out,” fueling an expansion of grass-roots efforts in multiple cities and making legislative pushes on the state level.
Dade gives one specific example, that of Viridiana Martinez, ” 24, who disclosed her illegal status at a rally last year, is one of thousands of young adults and teens who have organized nationwide based on a new strategy that places themselves on the front lines in the debate over immigration reform.”
Because both the gay rights movement and the immigrant rights movement (of which the undocumented youth movement is part of) are happening simultaneously in our cultural moment, we have a unique opportunity to observe and compare how the rhetoricians working within these two movements employ (or don’t) the common tropes of previous civil rights movements, and whether or not their respective rhetorical strategies take the opportunity to undermine homogeneity in the U.S., or if they too will reinforce it.
(Let me just say that I understand that people involved in civil rights movements aren’t particularly interested in how their means might be rhetorically analyzed; I understand that–first-and-foremos–civil rights activists want to ensure whatever rights they feel they are being denied. Nonetheless, some civil rights movements and the resulting legislation have been more effective than others. After all, there’s such a difference as de jure and de facto.)
Another important aspect worth mentioning of civil rights movements and their ability to be co-opted into bigger (read: national) discourses is how politicians describe, support, or denounce these movements, especially as an election season nears (and this shouldn’t be news to anyone). (But) take the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example. The way we remember the passage of the act includes JFK’s early drafting and support of it. Our collective memory also gives us Lyndon B. Johnson’s avowed efforts to pass the act immediately after he assumed the presidency. Writing for Slate.com about a recent release of recordings made of Johnson’s White House phone conversations between 1 June to 4 July 1964, Jason Sokol notes that
Five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson committed himself to a strong civil rights bill. Scholars have depicted this as a defining moment in his presidency. The native Texan wanted to show skeptical Northern liberals that he stood tall for racial equality.
The phone calls that transpired between Johnson and other law makers in the weeks leading up to the passing of the Act offer a counter-narrative to this popular story, however:
The tapes make it clear that the president who enacted the most important civil rights legislation of the last 140 years was deeply suspicious of the civil rights movement. Johnson phoned only two African-Americans during this five-week span: NAACP head Roy Wilkins and National Urban League director Whitney Young. Both were moderates. Johnson thought grass-roots leaders were pushing too fast and too hard. At one point, he referred to Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer as “outlaws.” In public, Johnson distanced himself from King. Scholars treat this as a pragmatic maneuver designed to hold the political center. But in these phone conversations, Johnson occasionally belittled and denounced King. His maneuvers appear rooted in personal distaste as much as political pragmatism.
It should come as no surprise that political pragmatism is also at work now that many Americans have been made aware of their proximity to undocumented youth by virtue of their “coming out.” Combine this with the widely-accepted reality that Latinos–the group which, because of media representation is often correlated with immigration, is being stereotyped and legislated against–will become a significant majority of voters in the next and subsequent election cycles, and it’s no wonder that we see politicians taking careful measure of how they react and/or respond to this public activism. For your consideration, the timing of this announcement (as reported by Dade):
ICE last week issued a memorandum granting its agents “prosecutorial discretion” to extend leniency to DREAM Act-eligible people and others while cracking down on those who pose “a clear risk to national security.” Leniency would take the form of deferred deportation…
A few days after the lauded reporter Jose Antonio Vargas disclosed his own immigration status in the New York Times Magazine, Dade asked whether or not the revelation that Vargas has been living in the U.S. illegally for decades would result in his deportation. He concluded that it wouldn’t. David Ramirez, an undocumented youth who was detained during a protest in Atlanta, GA, but who wasn’t deported, offers this simple, but accurate explanation: ”I think we got special treatment. Trying to deport us probably would have caused too much of an uproar.”
*Consider Reconstruction. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) promised 1) citizenship to blacks; 2) due process to all persons; 3) equal protection for all people. And that’s it. The Amendment simply and only outlined what previous slaves (and future residents of the U.S.) would get. It in no way prescribed what they needed to do to “deserve” it. And yet, Amendment XVI has, for a long time, been interpreted as some sort of deal (which some, like Bill Cosby, feel blacks haven’t held up their end of) where if former slaves act and seem more like white Americans, they can be considered citizens, enjoy due process, and equal protection.
For another example, see the “If I Were a Negro” column, which ran in Negro Digest during the 1940s. The column, often penned by prominent white members of U.S. society, offered unsolicited advice to blacks hoping for something better in the years leading up to the civil rights era. Eleanor Roosevelt’s contributions offer some of the most salient examples of the “tit-for-tat” rhetoric.