the danger of exceptional thinking: immigrants in America

Our country suffers from a crisis, and it is poisoning our communities, invading our border towns, altering our schools, frustrating our communication, and taking our jobs.  No, the root of this calamity is not immigration.  It is amnesia. 

The idea of “America” is defined in conflicting ways, and can represent a beacon of democratic hope or the epitome of neocolonialism to those who live within and outside our borders.  However we see ourselves, we certainly have dominant American values: Normative culture desires the right to worship and the right to improve our station in life with hard work; in short, and above all, we value independence, advancement and freedom.  Such narratives of the “American Way” dominate our thought lives; and yet, I would argue that these ideals are held and acted upon in incredibly thoughtless ways.  Many of us prize the liberties of religion, freedom of movement, and self-possession, and yet, the America that exists for many of our inhabitants is neither accessible nor free.  I do not attempt to write a nuanced approach to immigration policy here; instead, I offer crucial historical context that will hopefully encourage us to think again about the way we think about immigrants and their place among us.

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

Our country has well-documented waves of immigration, each of which were met with violence, accusations of ruining the country, and brandings of outsider status.  Indeed, since before the American Revolution, we have targeted and excluded Chinese, Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Muslims and Mexicans in different decades.  We have a long history of blaming people from other countries for our own discomfort, documented by decades of legislation that prevent specific nationalities from entering the United States.  In American history, periods of stagnation and uncertainty have usually been manipulated to lead to periods of fear, fueling nativist impulses that inevitably exclude and scapegoat anyone who can easily be called an outsider.  Indulging our most basic instincts, we seem to believe blaming others will distract us from the causes of our uncertainty or loss.  Listed on paper, these laws, grouped chronologically by hatred and rejection of one country or another, seem rather silly, and quite bigoted.  The fact that this history is not referenced as appropriate context for our current immigration discussion stems from our collective amnesia.

I posit that amnesia is the root of the identity crisis currently portrayed as an immigration crisis because our country has only existed for 240 years.  This means that even the longest settled of our families have been “American” for less than 10 generations.  Among American power brokers (a group from which native peoples have been systematically excluded), immigration is therefore a part of every single American narrative.  Despite the fact that these migrating narratives are actually shared by every family, most of us whose families have been here for three generations or more instead use these narratives to create distance between “us” and “them.”  In my view, this distance, which leads to elitism, exclusivity, and possessiveness, stems from America’s favorite past time: Celebrating our own exceptionality. 

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

We reconcile our history as outsiders with our current orientation as insiders in one of two ways.  The first is outright, willful, amnesia.  We simply pretend we climbed out of Noah’s ark and onto American dry land.  We have always spoken English, loved white picket fences, baseball and church on Sundays.  We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders.  I think this commitment to telling our stories of hard work and belonging are actually the purest demonstration of American identity: We tell stories to help us articulate who we are and to whom we belong.  Most often, the narratives we tell ourselves about our histories are stories of ascension, proving that we were destined to belong.  American story-telling is crucial to our identity construction because stories help us create community.  Importantly though, the stories of our own belonging—in which we embody the essence of Americaness—purposely exclude others.  A collective amnesia allows us to embrace our legacy of belonging, even as we ignore others, denying them their stories of ascension.

The second avenue we take to reconcile our own migrating history with our now very settled selves is the doctrine of exceptionality.  Yes, my family immigrated here in the last century, but we were already basically Americans in our hearts, we simply had the misfortune of being born Irish, Italian, English, Canadian or German.  We loved church, and felt called by God to come here.  We already knew how to work hard, and we loved freedom.  We were not asking for a handout, just a chance to fulfill our own American Dream.  I guess you could call us immigrants, but we were different, exceptional, and not like those people creating today’s immigration crisis.

Instead of finding compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, requires us to recognize the ways in which we are similar. 

This claim of exceptionality prevents relationships in several ways.  It destroys any chance of a shared history that connects people in real community.  It prevents empathy from shaping our connections with others.  Instead of finding points of similarity and compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, would require us to recognize the ways in which we are similar.  Our commitment to exceptionality, to framing our journeys with idealistic terms of destiny, prevents us from recognizing the humanity in others. Finally, we support negative stereotypes of new immigrants and Americans in order to widen the space between us and them.  If we allow our collective amnesia to fuel our false narratives of exceptionality, then we can only think of immigrants as “them”, never “us.”

Our commitments to our amnesia and exceptionality are as strong as our commitment to preserving the American Dream and the American Way.  The great irony is that, because of American exceptionality, we are actively destroying the fabric of society made of the values we say we uphold.  As we look to pass lasting legislation regarding Dreamers and for immigrants living and working here below the radar, perhaps we should remember that many of our families came to America as outsiders who also dreamed. 

the danger of exceptional thinking: gentrification

I helped compile a panel of speakers for a discussion on important issues facing the people of Nashville last year.  I was most excited to hear from an African American woman who is the CEO of a transformative non-profit in town.  Her organization helps kids from the inner city understand themselves as the valuable children of God.  They accomplish this by providing consistent interaction with adults who love them, celebrating the wisdom of God through academic tutoring, and the creativity and beauty of God through training them in fine arts.

Because she is an expert in kids who live in the inner city, she has now reluctantly become an expert-of-sorts in the effects of gentrification on such neighborhoods.  She has seen what happens when we decide the profits of one group of investors are exceptional, and more important, than the history, jobs, schools and livability of people who are hanging off the edge of society.  She has seen what happens when we decide the comfort level and entertainment needs of the upper class are held as exceptional in a city’s landscape.  When homes are destroyed so hipsters can take over a neighborhood and walk to dinner.  

As this panel was forming, I asked this speaker to send the title of her talk so slides could be prepared.  The organizer, responding to those of us involved, presented her title, “Gentrification, Does the Rising Tide Lift All Boats?”, and then felt the need to clarify, saying, “What she calls gentrification, most of us know as urban renewal.” His response exposes the lack of understanding about the issues that face our cities, and of the changes damaging those in our urban center.

This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist. 

A white, upper class man calls this process “urban renewal” because his notions of “urban” are that those centers were abandoned decades ago, and that only crime, poverty and homelessness stayed behind.  This type of thinking comes from a place that privileges his perspective as authoritative, or exceptional, rather than knowing the limits of his experience.  This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist.  A majority culture perspective might sound something like this: Urban centers were dead and dying after we left them behind during the integration movement of the Civil Rights Era.  Now that we want to return to these centers, we are only bringing “good” along with us.  Hence the term, “renewal.” 

From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not. 

At its core though, gentrification is about displacement and renaming.  In the same way that the organizer wanted to rename “gentrification” with “renewal,” the magical genteel transformation of a city only happens when “wealth and whiteness” replace “marginalized others.”  Wealth and whiteness, since the founding of our country, have a way of overlooking poverty, people of color, and systemic injustice.  From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not.  Gentrification does bring renewal to cities, and an influx of investment and people with money to spend along with it.  However, this practice of prioritizing the needs of a few as “exceptional”, and therefore as vital to the city, has some devastating implications:

First, gentrification necessitates displacement.  Brown moves out so white can move in.  Yes, when homes have been owned by people of color for generations, they are often complicit in selling their own property.  However, lest we get on a “their choice” high horse, remember that the vast majority of such sells are below market value and a small fraction of the expected profits when the property is rebuilt or renovated.  Further, for many families this is their only asset, and many do not possess the networks needed to demand a fair deal and then to use the windfall wisely.  It is also worth noting that many of these folks are relentlessly pestered with multiple calls, letters and visits per week from pressingly eager profiteers.  Finally, families who sell or are displaced when their rental or governmental homes are torn down are most often the very people least able to accommodate the changes such a move necessitates. 

In my urban—formally perceived as ghetto—neighborhood, there were dozens of small rental homes, multiple bus stops, good sidewalks, 5 churches, a park with a community center, 2 grocery stores, and 2 drugstores within a ½ mile radius.  For a family who can only afford low rent or to live in a home paid for long ago, who might not have a car or multiple cars, these assets are not just perks but absolutely vital!  Such urban realities are necessary to function for their kids, to get to work, to get by. 

When these folks are displaced, they cannot simply move to a new place.  When gentrification moves at an accelerated pace due to investors, these families have to move 10-30 miles away to find comparable rent.  In Nashville, the communities absorbing such displaced persons do not offer bus lines, neighborhood centers, and walkable grocery stores.  Why would they?  These communities are far outside the urban center, where such commodities are superfluous.  In short, displacement is not just inconvenient or awkward for the poor who no longer recognize their neighborhoods.  Rather, it usually initiates a cycle of loss, including but not limited to one’s job, method of transportation, dependable groceries, neighborhood school, community center, and church.  It is devastating.

These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships. 

Second, even though this trend might be inevitable, the way in which we experience and even trumpet gentrification has devastating implications because of the speed with which it moves.  When one or two white or wealthy families decide to move into an urban neighborhood, they are typically motivated by a few common passions.  They often have rejected a life oriented around fear and protection.  They often are passionate about pursuing perspectives different from their own.  They usually have a love for restoring broken or old things.  This process, even if it initiates the eventual displacement of the majority of the original residents, can take decades.  And these decades see beautiful, awkward, hard, enlightening integration.  Slow, honest relationships with people not like each other.  New-found understandings of what neighborliness is.  These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships.  Gentrification might indeed still dominate an area, but it takes time, and that time can foster a new foundation to society that will radically change the way we relate to one another. 

All too often, our versions of “urban renewal” in no way resemble the painstaking description above.  Instead, a handful of investors, armed with profiteering builders and real estate agents, move into a neighborhood like a swarm of locusts.  This does not produce slow change infused with knowing relationships; it is rather characterized by entire blocks being knocked down, while fast, tightly-packed houses replace them.  And then, as a reward, families with no passion for or appreciation of the urban center and its place as a refuge for marginalized people pay over-asking prices to move into this manufactured version of the American dream.  This is not slow gentrification.  This is displacing the poor to make room for the rich on steroids.  People, their livelihoods, their culture and the one place they call their own in American society is lost in the process. 

As a people who say we are committed to the common good, who believe in the power of community, we must examine how our addiction to our exceptionality results in making decisions with no awareness of our impact on others.  If we believe all people are created in God’s image, then we must consider those people when we think about where we live, how we make a living, and how we contribute to displacing others.