Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Legacy of Misinformation

This Democracy Now! report quotes Ann Coulter being stupid -- not exactly news, I know.
Meanwhile, appearing Sunday on ABC’s This Week, conservative pundit Ann Coulter argued immigrant rights should not be considered civil rights. Host George Stephanopoulos asked Coulter about her claim.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Immigrant rights are not civil rights?
ANN COULTER: No, I think civil rights are for blacks.
ROBERT REICH: See, this is essentially the problem. And the Republicans don’t understand—
ANN COULTER: What did we—can I just say, what have we done to the immigrants? We owe black people something; we have a legacy of slavery. Immigrants haven’t even been in this country.
Isn't Coulter a lawyer?  Since she is, she should be able to read a statute, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  "National origin" could apply to immigrants, but the purpose of the Act was also carefully delineated:
To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.
Civil rights, as I hope you can see, are not for only one group.  A good many people are unaware that the Act protects not only blacks but whites, not only women but men, and so on.  Even leaving whites out of it, "race" covers not only people of African descent but all non-whites.  Whether "national origin" can be stretched to include "immigration status," I don't know, but it's not clear how this Act and its successors would apply to immigrants.  Even legal immigrants (until they get a green card) and visitors must get government permission to work in the US, so refusing to hire someone without such papers isn't discrimination under civil rights law.  (If anything, the "illegal immigrant" problem bespeaks a lack of discrimination against undocumented immigrants, since many US employers prefer to hire them: they're cheaper and more vulnerable.)

I think I've mentioned before that many people seem to think that "Civil Rights" means "black people's rights," just as they generalize "discrimination" beyond the specified domains of the Civil Rights act.  You can see this when someone defends, e.g., racism as discrimination by pointing out that there are all kinds of discrimination, like someone five feet tall will not be hired as a professional basketball player.  True, but "discrimination" in civil rights law has a defined, limited meaning.  In the same way, commonly used terms like "gay rights" or "women's rights" are confusing shorthand for "the civil rights of gay people" and "the civil rights of women" -- though, again, forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation ("gay rights") or on sex ("women's rights") also protects heterosexuals and men.  (I believe I've also seen people try to define the "civil" in "civil rights" as "polite," which is not what it means in that context.  Others have similarly misunderstood the "civil" in "civil marriage.")  So Coulter's not the only one who's confused.

There was also this bit, in the same segment:
DR. ALFREDO QUIÑONES-HINOJOSA: We’re all humans. We all have the same abilities. We all have the same potential.
No, we don't all have the same abilities.  But legal equality doesn't mean sameness.  As for potential, there's no way to know what anyone's "potential" is, but there's no reason to believe that everyone has an equal amount of it.  But even people with different abilities and potentials are to be treated equally under the law.  Is this really rocket science?  I've been amazed at how many people don't get it.

Of course, Coulter's remark that "we owe black people something; we have a legacy of slavery" is disingenuous.  The American Right doesn't think that America owes black Americans anything, and has constantly opposed civil rights legislation, let alone affirmative action.  The real reason for antidiscrimination law and affirmative action, however, is not to redress the legacy of slavery but to counter the American tradition of white racism in the present.

It's true that "immigrant rights" aren't civil rights, but that's because "civil rights" refers to a subset of rights, not to the people who are entitled to them.  Everybody gets civil rights.