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A Platter of Prejudice 

Indigestible stands on immigration from the L.A. Times

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
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Way back in the ’60s, those with entry-level salaries, including me, had our own Great Good Place in New York‘s Chinatown. Lin’s Garden offered the best Big Apple Cantonese -- fried-duck won ton soup and beef-with-black-bean-sauce kind of stuff -- I‘ve ever had. All for upward of 85 cents per magnanimous portion. The stuff was so good and cheap, it didn’t pay to cook.

Lin‘s overlord, a pleasant young tyrant we called Bill, made his low-budget operation -- half a block off the Bowery -- pay by filling every seat, stuffing his customers together like dolmas in a can. You never chose whom you sat with at those long Formica tables, which the help would slosh clean with hot tea. Sometimes you saw your rice going onto a stranger’s plate. Sometimes you chopsticked a brown-sauced sea snail from an inattentive neighbor. No one much minded.

What I did mind was a certain guy with whom Bill increasingly seated me -- as though he saw in us an affinity. I never knew his name, but Mr. R, as one might term him, was a shaggy, indifferently dressed soul who could have been an autodidact cabdriver or a low-rung high school teacher.

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Roughly 30, with an engaging, soft-spoken personality that somehow enticed you into conversations you wanted to avoid, he‘d compliment you on your menu choice, offer a taste of his shrimp lo mein, say something chummy about the Mets’ finishing out of last place this year, and, pow, bang, there you were: smack in the middle of his conversational Main Course, the Menace of the Colored Race.

Against whom, Mr. R always insisted, he bore no prejudice: Colored people were nice people, great musicians and ball players and all that. “I‘m no racist,” he’d say, although he admitted to being called one now and then.

The facts were the facts, he said. Too many Negroes were having too many children. The White Race was in dire danger. If Anglo couples went on having just one or two babies, while the typical Negro stud sired his usual batch of 10 or 20, by the year 1980, America would -- and remember, “statistics don‘t lie” -- have a population of 450 million and be 90 percent Black.

“So what?” I asked.

That’s what was wrong with me, he answered. Like far too many white liberals -- liberals just like Mr. R before he saw the light -- I simply refused, out of my cowardice, dishonesty and benighted progressivism, to see the overpopulation writing on the wall. Our civilization was about to putrefy under the Negro Welfare burden. Wake Up, America!

Well, a lot has happened in 35 years. One change is that, thanks to Mr. R, I started eating Szechuan. But to this day, sometimes when I have Cantonese takeout, I also suffer a flashback echo of Mr. R (no fault of the Cantonese, of course).

Which is probably why the taste of roast-duck won tons rose in my throat recently while reading the Los Angeles Times -- specifically, then--Sunday magazine columnist James Ricci and his daily counterpart, Steve Lopez. Ricci and Lopez have embraced the same “rational” prejudice as Mr. R. But this time, the “threat” isn‘t millions of black welfare babies: It’s millions of immigrants. And we aren‘t talking about those blond, Slovakian immigrants either. We’re apparently (surprise!) talking about the non-U.S.-born who speak Spanish.

Last week, in a spectacularly unprincipled piece, Lopez urged Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Simon to tread the prejudicial path to victory over incumbent Gray Davis: to disdain the Latino vote and question whether all the state‘s problems can’t be blamed on immigrants. Like Mr. R, Lopez is a soi-disant liberal, of course. But as Mr. R himself might have said, and Lopez did say: “You don‘t have to be a right-wing, knuckle-dragging kook to ask such questions.”

Maybe not, but if you’re goating an entire state‘s ills onto one minority, it sure helps. I mean, without a resonant cavity filling your cranium, how could you insist, as Lopez does, that immigration is “the chief cause” of our state’s educational, highway, environmental, housing and a health-care problems, plus the shaky economy, water scarcity and even shoreline sewage pollution? As Lopez puts it: “We‘re swimming in dung off the coast of Orange County.” All because, I suppose, of brown-skinned aliens flushing toilets in Laguna and treading water off Doheny Beach.

There are two viscerally moronic things about Lopez’s rant. First, of course, immigration is not -- and I‘ll bet you knew this back when you worked in Philadelphia, Steve -- a state issue. The governor can’t do any more about it than the mayor of Covina can: Border patrol and immigration are federal functions, presently overseen by a Republican president who happens to disagree with you about this issue in a very big way. So maybe, Steve, what you ought to do is peddle your social excreta to Al Gore in 2004. Lots of luck, bud.

The second idiocy, as noted, is to blame Latino immigrants for everything wrong with California. Yes, immigrants use plenty of county health services and immigrant children fill L.A. Unified schools. But look at the rest of Lopez‘s accusations: Do undocumented people -- living eight to an apartment on subminimum wages -- really drive up those $250,000-average SoCal housing prices? Or crowd our freeways by commuting huge distances from the exurbs? Or fill their swimming pools to the brim with our precious water and hog the summer reservations at Yosemite? Why not denounce immigrants for the scarcity of Riviera Country Club memberships and the high cost of Armani? Lopez even condemns the newcomers for the economy -- he must think that Guatemalans run Enron. Real economists, on the contrary, credit direly underpaid immigrant labor with saving the Southland’s transitioning industries.

Lopez‘s is the lowest kind of propagandizing: that which, having assigned villainy to a certain group, hate-mongers it for every ill. Some call this sort of thing fascism. I’d term it egomaniacal journalistic stupidity. Probably, the truth lies between those extremes.

James Ricci‘s July 9 immigrant-bash was even grubbier. Ricci found himself an anti-immigrant guru, one Ben Zuckerman, a UCLA astronomer who captains a rogue Sierra Club faction that’s dedicated to slashing legal and eliminating illegal immigration. And Ricci worshipped Zuckerman‘s every word. Like the late Dr. William Schockley, the Nobel Prize winner who preached white racial superiority, Zuckerman brandishes a high-profile obsession that is far from his realm of scientific competence. Thus he (or maybe it’s Ricci) distorts -- or even reverses -- the actual data on which he supposedly bases his predictions. Which include a billion U.S. residents by 2100, most of them, presumably, immigrant. (Hey, we survived Mr. R‘s anticipated 450 million population bust-out in 1980, right?)

RicciZuckerman have an extraordinarily flexible attitude toward statistics: They start by saying that, over what they consider the pre-immigration decade ending in 1970, the U.S. population increase was so low that it was “reaching replacement levels.” But that “from 1990 to 2000,” due to those vile immigrants, “the U.S. population swelled by 13 percent, its highest 10-year increase ever,” according to Ricci. Not so, according to the Census. From 1960 to 1970, during that decade of purported low immigration, the population soared from 179 million to 203 million -- rising 13.4 percent. And for that matter, the population rose 18.5 percent from 1950 to 1960. But even this rate pales compared to other spans. From 1900 to 1910, the U.S. population rose more than 20 percent. From 1880 to 1890 (a decade of enormous immigration), it climbed nearly 26 percent. You get the idea. Someone must have drugged the Times’ fact checkers that week.

Of Zuckerman, Ricci and Lopez -- whose last names strongly suggest their own families‘ recent immigrant origins -- the kindest thing you can say is that, when it comes to population analysis, they’re cranks. Funny thing, though. These cranks are now getting the run of the state‘s major paper -- just as Latinos, with their snowballing voter-registration and citizenship rates, are entering the political mainstream.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

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