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Ruben Navarrette: Americans of all colors need to think hard about being empathetic

Summary: Having followed the U.S. immigration debate for 30 years, why is it that many Black Americans never cared about the plight of immigrants — even backing Democratic administrations that mistreated them — until the migrants who showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border were Black Haitians?

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

IMMIGRATION IMPASSE: America is the land of immigrants, and yet Americans don't like immigrants. We don't just have a broken border and a broken system. We have a broken discourse. This series -- written by the grandson of a Mexican immigrant who has covered the issue for 30 years — takes a clear, honest and unflinching look at why America's grand promise to take in the "huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" has been so difficult to keep.

SAN DIEGO — Something is bugging me.

Having followed the U.S. immigration debate for 30 years, why is it that many Black Americans never cared about the plight of immigrants — even backing Democratic administrations that mistreated them — until the migrants who showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border were Black Haitians?

University of Maryland Law Professor Chaz Arnett, who is African American, recently noted to Axios Today that Haitian migrants now in the United States awaiting refugee status are subjected to facial recognition technology. Arnett implied not all asylum seekers are so closely monitored.

"The presumption is that these people are a danger to the country, that these people are deviant, that they have the capacity to be criminals," Arnett said. "Why else would we surveil them?"

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Sunny Hostin — the Afro-Latina co-host of ABC's "The View" — also decried the dreadful treatment of Haitian immigrants at the border.

"U.S. policy towards Haiti has always been corrupt," Hostin asserted. "When people say, 'Well, get in line' … There has never been a line for Haitians. I take this personally because my husband is Haitian. …They should not be treated like this, and enough is enough."

New York Times Columnist Charles Blow, who is Black, also had much to say about the Haitians during a recent interview by African American radio host Tavis Smiley — my old friend and former radio co-host.

"They're not given a hearing of any sort," Blow said. "They've been gone from Haiti for so long that many of them don't have a place to return to. …These people deserve to be treated fairly."

Immigrants treated as criminals, told to get into a line that doesn't exist, and sent back without a hearing to a place they don't recognize?

Say it isn't so. Latinos have long suffered these same injustices.

To help sort this out, I turned to someone who thinks deeply about race — a former law professor of mine, who is African American.

I should have known I'd get schooled.

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A graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School — as well as a Rhodes Scholar — Randall Kennedy is brilliant and one of America's most consequential intellectuals. His most recent book — "Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture" — is a collection of essays over a quarter-century.

The professor and I have known each other since the Spring of 1988, when I asked for, and received, permission to take his class — "Race, Racism & American Law" — as a Harvard undergraduate. I devoured the law school course, even as some of my college courses were devouring me.

We have long enjoyed each other's company, and we both enjoy challenging our own people — African Americans and Latinos.

Why does he do it? I asked.

"First, I do what I do because I like doing what I do," he replied. "Secondly, we face difficulties, especially peoples who have been marginalized. You have to have good ideas. You've gotta think hard. It requires debate to have better thinking. And we need better thinking given what we're up against."

Preach, amigo.

I asked Kennedy what we should make of the fact that Black people seem to have finally found a group of migrants they like: the Haitians.

My own theory starts with the distinctly unjust experience of Black Americans. Native Americans had their country stolen from them, and Mexican Americans lived in the Southwest while it was still part of Mexico. But unlike every other group of Americans, African Americans were kidnapped from their families, shipped to this country in chains and enslaved.

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"The result is a lack of empathy," I told Kennedy. "What happened to African Americans in this country was so horrible, so repulsive and so singular and unique — to literally be owned as property, to be declared by Congress three-fifths of a human being — that you don't see yourself in anyone else's story. That trauma robbed you of your empathy."

My professor listened carefully. Then he politely told me — in so many words — that I had it wrong.

"I think your interpretation is actually a rather generous one," he said. "Because there is something else going on that's going to sound a little bit harsh, but I think it's true. Black people are just like everybody else. Just like other groups degenerate into narcissism and see things only from their point of view, Black people too! It's something we need to fight against. But I think your point about immigration is dead-on."

Sounds like a passing grade. I'll take it.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at ruben@wctrib.com.
© 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

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