Race, Space & Place: How the Reinforcement of White-Normativity and The Racialized Other Impacts U.S. Immigration Perceptions, Policy and Detention

When analyzing contemporary socio-economic and political issues, it is important to address the histories that shape mainstream national ideologies. Once adopted, these histories highly influence policies relevant to the nation as a whole. Thus, within this blog series I will highlight some of the often ignored historical influences that have guided popular national perceptions of race, space and place. With that, I will also analyze how these historical methods have shaped policy and how they are utilized by politicians and corporations to lobby for and justify mass incarceration and detention that most negatively affects people of color and immigrant groups.
 
 
As the third part in this blog series, I initially planned to analyze the ways in which the previously articulated "gatekeeping ideology" paved the way for the start of the U.S. Census and how it has been continually used to reinforce restrictionist and nativist immigration ideologies. However, in light of the recent announcement by President Obama regarding future immigration policy plans, I felt it necessary to re-evaluate the goals of this blog series which ultimately aim to analyze the ways in which race, space and place interplay into historical and contemporary American immigration policy, popular perceptions and anxieties around the ‘racialized other’. Therefore the following is the final part in this blog series focusing on the racialization, criminalization and dehumanization of migrant people’s by the U.S. government, utilizing state-sanctioned surveillance practices and media propaganda as a basis to justify further oppressive restrictionist policies and thus immigrant detention and incarceration. 
 
“Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme oppressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.” This quote taken from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow speaks to the ways in which Americans generally perceive racism as “a function of attitudes”, largely ignoring the ways in which social systems within the United States have been structured to disadvantage groups of “racialized others”. As discussed in part one of this blog series the racialized other has historically and contemporarily been reinforced through the normalization of whiteness and what John Fiske terms ‘coding normality’. Though rarely explicitly stated and thus in code, even today white is assumed to equate to normal while racialized others are thus ‘marked’ exemplified through my own irritating experience with a nickname I was given in High school as “Black Ashley”. This is what I mean by marking race. 
 
The constant reinforcement of what it means to be “normal” in America (usually white, heterosexual and patriarchal) along with individualized frameworks of racism often express a lack of awareness of the everyday struggle that people of color (POC) face in America and across the globe. My own experiences in day-to-day interactions with whites in this so-called “liberal” and “progressive” but yet highly segregated capital city of Austin, Texas, I’ve heard countless comments such as, “I don’t see race and as soon as we stop seeing race, racism will disappear” or “Race isn’t an issue anymore, why are y’all still complaining?”. Statements like these helps to solidify Alexander’s argument that because so many Americans understand racism through a solely individual lens, the structurally oppressive ways in which race disadvantages POC go widely unacknowledged. In her book Alexander states, “They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide, torture and every form of systemic oppression.” By ‘they’, Alexander refers to individuals and institutions that deny oppressive acts. 
 
 
The above is an image of a map of capital city Austin, Texas and the racial segregation of Austin's city streets. Each color represents a racial category as defined by the state. Find other cities using the map at: http://demographics.coopercenter.org/DotMap/
 
As discussed in part two of this series, restrictionist immigration policy and the gatekeeping ideology originated through classist and racist perceptions of white supremacy and American ethnocentric elitism. As we see, these concepts have been continually perpetuated into today to the extent that Congress in 2007 established a 34,000 immigrant detention quota, which arguably further frames immigrants in a criminalizing manner. While various grassroots movements fight to advocate for immigrants rights, the general American public appears to be either largely unaware of the issues surrounding oppressive and often abusive governmental systems of immigrant and family detention or are complacent in their privilege as Americans to not care enough to do something about it. Throughout my work with Grassroots Leadership this has been true of many people I know or meet and many (even racialized others) whom I try to reach out to about this issue. Today, the oppression of immigrants, through racialized, fear-based policy and media propaganda (some of which I exemplified in my last posts) help to shape public perceptions, while ignoring the broader issues of human rights and social justice for all. Though Immigration policy and reform are controversial issues within the American public debate, the problem of immigrant detention and abuse is just another form of systemic oppression that on the broad scale, it appears, Americans are wearing blinders to.
 
Using propagandic imagery depicting the lazy, mooching immigrant here only to abuse American resources and who is forever threatening to the social order, media often feeds fears originated in slavery and later developed in Chinese Exclusion (as discussed earlier in this series) about the dangerous and racialized other that is continually force-fed to us through media outlets. These fear-inducing images, not facts, are often offered up as justification for the dehumanization, criminalization and thus detention of migrant peoples predominantly from Latin American countries. Another factor to consider is the ways in which racialized spatial segregation, continuing to be a widespread phenomenon of today, influences American perceptions of immigrants. In her book Alexander highlights, “Racial segregation rendered the black experience largely invisible to whites, making it easier for whites to maintain racial stereotypes about black values and culture. It also made it easier to deny or ignore their suffering.” This quote, although regarding the Black-white divide, I invite you to remember as this blog unfolds as it has become a major factor in both the lived realities of Latino migrants and in state-sanctioned methods of surveillance through policing and control of border spaces. Studies like those of immigration specialist Professor Nestor Rodriguez, have shown that immigrants, many of whom disperse into large cities within the U.S., live in largely immigrant and racially segregated neighborhoods. Because segregation is so prevalent today, the experiences of the ‘illegal’ immigrant and their struggles only exists from a one-sided usually economic and racialized lens, often without a deep or complex understanding of the vast array of factors that prompted their migration to the United States. Until one removes their blinders and finds themselves in an actual immigrant detention facility, with an Alien number or A# in hand (clearly indicative of the consideration of these people on the part of the U.S. government as not quite human), it’s easy to stay uninformed and pretend that the suffering of those targeted by the state’s racialized surveillance practices (especially post-9/11) of border control aren’t actually happening. 
 
Governmental authority, through dominance over mainstream media, is thus, allowed to funnel immigrants into a wide-spread system of detention and incarceration (through quotas no less), much of which is operated under for-profit, privatized prisons. How easy is it to pretend that the horrors (often human rights abuses) of immigrant detention (men, women and children) don’t actually take place or that the conditions in these majority-minority (latino) spaces aren’t that bad. Once one finds themselves listening to the traumatic experiences of migrants fleeing violence in their home countries, like that of seeing the dead bodies of children getting dragged away and consumed by wild animals while police officials do nothing, putting the blinders back on is both difficult and highly unlikely. 
 
The immigrant experience, often with implications for ‘racialized others’ whose encounters with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has both culturally and traumatically devastating consequences for Latinos, especially considering the largely beefed-up security and enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border post-9/11 and political unrest that has so many Central Americans and Mexicans fleeing their home countries. Through this, media and governmental forces once again utilize the ‘insider’ ‘outsider’ dichotomy discussed in part one of this series, through an American nationalist lens that is ultimately framed through a normative narrative of whiteness. The racially differentiated sense of the citizen, I argue, only reinforces notions around American national identity as normative while framed through a whitened lens, while racial otherness and foreignness is deemed both abnormal and threatening.
 
Although President Obama recently announced his plans for the future of immigration reform, he completely ignored the issues of immigrant and family detention and failed to address the extension of these spaces like the opening of the new 2,400 bed Dilley family detention facility. Nor did he address mass deportation that often has distressing effects on deportees. The United State’s excessive reliance on mass immigrant detention is a technology of surveillance in that it places racialized others in oppressive systems and often inhumane detention spaces, while both criminalizing & demonizing those born outside of the United States for their thirst for the American Dream. The racial implications of this can be seen in Arizona’s enactment of the SB 1070 law allowing police to use reasonable suspicion to request the papers of individuals perceived to be in the country illegally. This and various other programs that attempt to normalize racial profiling are largely discriminatory and this one in particular allows for the misuse of the overly-ambiguous and wholly discretionary concept of reasonable suspicion. This is yet another state-sanctioned technology of surveillance that allows police to utilize biased preconceptions about the racially coded ‘insiders’ (Americans) and ‘outsider’ (‘illegal aliens’) with vastly discriminatory outcomes for Latino populations. 
 
John Fiske points to how defining normal through surveillance is racialized when he states, “coding normality is, as I argue later, crucial to surveillance, for the function of surveillance is to maintain the normal by disciplining what has been abnormalized. The racialized other, of course, is one of the most urgent objects of abnormalization, for his or her visibility is a formative factor in the constant normalization of whiteness.” (Fiske 72) The visibility of the racialized other, “illegal” immigrant or non-American then, must be controlled to maintain white-normativity and thus supremacy. This is furthered by the knowledge that large (white dominated/owned) companies like Corrections Corporations of America, GEO Group and others stand to make make huge profits in a multi-billion dollar privatized prison industrial complex that gains financially from the reinforcement of the racialized other concept, white-normativity and the denigration and detention of black and brown bodies. What better way to surveil and control a population of abnormalized, racialized others than by throwing immigrant adults and children into detention facilities, profiting from it, and then lobbying American congress to continue to do so by spreading unwarranted fears about the population whom nobody can see or hear from?  From this one can see how the constant surveillance of the racialized other by a white system, exemplified by the race-based ‘insider’ ‘outsider’ dichotomy described in part one of this series translates into today’s system of mass incarceration and thus the overall coloring of the prison industrial complex.
 
In the end I keep asking myself, why do we as Americans allow the system to function in such oppressive ways? At this point it’s hard not to see how the American public, much like throughout the Hitler regime in Nazi Germany has been poisoned by media propaganda to devalue others' life and humanity, and in our case for simply not being born on land that we stole on this side of a fence that we built and socially constructed. Through all of the information provided above I have concluded a few things: Black and Brown bodies have been othered, de-valued, criminalized, harshly-punished and thrown away throughout the entire history of the United States and that institutional racism is still legal (just more subtle) in almost all facets of social life in the U.S. Today we incarcerate women and children fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States, the same country whose political force de-stablized their home countries to begin with. Today multi-billion dollar corporations running privatized prisons, profit from the incarceration of American citizens and asylum-seeking migrants. Today our government would rather pass policies justifying historical racism than realize its inescapability and the need for change. We've been conditioned by our government to ignore oppression however more and more POC and non-POC "allies" continue to strive for a more just world. Although pessimistic on the surface, once awakened, I have faith through the work of Grassroots Leadership and other organizations' advocacy, that the American public will remove its blinders and realize the equal value in lives beyond one race, one class or one nation