Friday, August 11, 2006

The Nation finds nativism in Nashville

The August 28 cover story of the national magazine The Nation describes the growing international population in Nashville and a part of the city that is fueling an emotional backlash:

"[T]he country-music capital has rapidly morphed into what one writer dubbed 'a new Ellis Island,' the unlikely symbol of America's biggest refugee and immigrant resettlement since the Industrial Revolution. For more than a decade now, most immigrants have been bypassing traditional urban destinations in favor of Middle American towns and cities where jobs are abundant and unemployment is scant. Music City has ranked first among US cities since 1990 in immigration growth, and now has the largest community of Kurdish refugees in the United States."

"As the temperature over immigration keeps rising, [an activist] says she worries about the level of frustration she's hearing, more and more, from other nativists in Tennessee and around the country. 'The most popular formula is, 'soap box, ballot box, ammo box.' They'll X out the first two, like those options are gone and all you can do is arm yourself and get ready. I'm looking at that going, phew! It's going to get ugly.'"

"Welcome to Tennessee, white-hot nexus of the new American nativism. When Governor Phil Bredesen complained this summer that Tennesseans were being whipped into a 'frenzy' over immigration, some took issue with the culprits he cited--opportunistic Republican candidates--but not a soul could challenge the accuracy of his description."

"The son of a former Democratic Congressman in North Carolina, [radio personality Phil] Valentine is a leading voice--and instigator--of Tennessee's nativist backlash. 'Wake up and smell the tacos,' Valentine likes to say, flaunting his political incorrectness. His website recently featured a full-color image of the Statue of Liberty wearing a sombrero, with a huge black mustache pasted on, a jar of salsa instead of a flame and a bottle of Patron cradled in her lower hand. Liberty rests on a tottering foundation of Chicklets, Tostitos and a Taco Bell sign."

"[O]n the campaign trail, especially this year, nativism rules. The big statewide race this year is to replace Bill Frist in the US Senate, and it features three Republican contenders who've spent much of the primary season honing their Wyatt Earp imitations. One of them, former State Representative Ed Bryant, got so carried away in May that he lit out for the Arizona border to help the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps splice together a fence. Not to be outdone, shoo-in Democratic nominee Harold Ford Jr., the whiz-kid Congressman with a generally moderate voting record on immigration issues, hit the airwaves in June with a startling new ad."

"Fears of a Ku Klux Klan revival in East Tennessee have been stoked by large turnouts of Tennessee Klansmen at recent rallies of a newly invigorated KKK in nearby northern Alabama--and by two hate crimes that put Tennessee immigrants on notice last year. In one case, a former Klansman named Daniel Shertz was arrested for plotting to blow up buses carrying Hispanic immigrants from Tennessee to Florida. In the other, a Mexican grocery store in Maryville was torn up by five young white supremacists who scrawled swastikas, 'SS,' and 'WP,' for white power, on the front of the store as their calling card."

The article does offer reason for optimism, however, pointing out the defeat of nineteen of twenty restrictionist immigration bills this year in the state legislature, and the launch of the Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (story here).

"While there's no doubt 2006 has already been a tumultuous year in Tennessee, [advocate Stephen] Fotopulos says he's 'not pessimistic at all. I'm constantly amazed at how we'll go out to a rally where people have these Phil Valentine talking points and are as certain as they can be. We start talking about it, and we usually end up at a reasonable place where we see that we really do want the same things. It's bad to have a system that doesn't work. It is. And there are people here who have very real cultural concerns, who see the life they've known being submerged. We can talk about that. But what truly changes people is human contact. In fifteen years everybody here will know Hispanics personally, and it just won't be so much of an issue.'"

Nashville has been in the national spotlight on this issue before, including an article in the Carnegie Reporter (story here), a nationally syndicated column (story here), and the web site Working for Change (story here).

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