Columbia University in the City of New York

Looking at Issues Toward Transformation & Equality

By Barbara Arnwine | @barbs73

Barbara Arnwine is a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School and president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, a national organization committed to using a multisectoral and interdisciplinary approach to bring about systemic change that achieves racial, gender, economic and social justice and human rights. She also is an advisor to the Awakening Our Democracy series. 

The Awakening Our Democracy fora is designed to stimulate a campus-wide discussion of the many aspects of American democracy, both challenges and promises, in the 21st Century.  

Kicking off the two semester fora on "Awakening Our Democracy" is a very special program examining the multiple permutations of our current national public dialogue on "Immigration and Belonging."  Democracy, government by the people, also in its broadest sense implies a nation committed to the equal rights and enjoyments by all of its residents in all of its many societal, political and economic institutions. Throughout its history,The United States of America has struggled with the issue of immigration.

A major part of the American Narrative is the celebration of the US as a nation of immigrants.  This narrative celebrates religious tolerance, the American Dream, the ability of all to assimilate, the ethic of hard work as the key to social mobility and the promise of equal citizenship.  

However, this narrative has belied our truth.  Early in its existence, the United States of America became consumed by an ideology of white supremacy.  Even in the US Constitution, there was the unresolved and bitter treatment of Native Americans and enslaved Africans.  These contradictions would only worsen as the US committed itself to the goal of "Manifest Destiny" which was undergirded by "White Supremacy." In the early 20th Century there were bitter anti-immigrant riots against immigrants from Europe who were perceived as poor undesirables, non-whites, communists or socialists or potential scabs in the labor union fight.  However, the ideology of white supremacy and racial social formation would eventually absorb these Europeans as Whites and confer upon them the highest privileges and benefits offered by government while discriminating against all non-whites.   

Still, this nation has always been the economic beneficiary of "forced" or "voluntary" immigration by many diverse populations.  From the forced enslavement of Africans,to the Mexican War Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, this nation has fought to reconcile its complex and idealized narrative with its reality.  

And today, these contradictions abound.  The increasing racial demographic diversity of this nation, especially the growth of populations of color, has fueled a new fear in many Americans of the loss of the USA as a white nation.  Presently, in 2015, some categories of immigrants are being openly demonized in the public sphere by political candidates using the worst stereotypes and non-factual assertions.  In the political sphere, restrictions on democratic participation have targeted Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans.  

For the last several years, the USA has deported an average of 400,000 Mexicans and Central Americans undocumented immigrants back to their countries often at great personal risk.  Currently, there are over 11 million people in the nation who are undocumented immigrants.  Many undocumented children who have spent the majority of their lives in the USA, have launched the powerful Dreamers Movement seeking citizenship and the right to educational and career opportunity.  

Yet, Asians and Latino families that are generations old in this nation are still viewed as "new" or the "other."  And there has been horrible unjust immigration policies against Afro-Americans which are almost invisible in the Immigration Debate.  

On the other hand, in the aftermath of 2001, our nation continues a 14 year process of fearful and over-aggressive racial profiling of Arab, Muslim, Sikh and others viewed as "terrorists."  

Today in contrast to this fear of racial diversity and demographic change, has been the great success of many of the US cities with high immigration. New York City itself has benefited tremendously from the influx of Dominican, Chinese, Caribbean and African immigrants who have revitalized neighborhoods, built new economic strength and added much cultural diversity.

In 2013-2014, an estimated 886,052 foreign students studied at US colleges and universities.  Indeed, Columbia University is estimated to have an international student body of 13,354 students in 2013 or 26% of the total university enrollment.

After years of benefiting from the rich thinking and team work of US educated and high tech leaders from other nations, the US is witnessing a reverse "brain drain" as persons seek to build new markets abroad. Some leave out of dismay at US ethnoracism seeking better opportunities abroad.

Some states and cities have developed immigrant friendly programs including providing driver licenses or other identification to strengthen the democratic living of those not yet naturalized or seeking permanent citizenship.  And in many cities, non-governmental organizations, municipal bodies and brave individuals are fighting wage theft and segregated employment opportunities and careers. Others have questioned the rules of voting rights that are based on citizenship by seeking the right to vote for immigrants at the municipal level.    

Notably, the speakers for this opening forum are activists, artists and scholars who are dramatically impacting the American consciousness on the issue of immigration.  They are engaging all of us in looking at these issues anew toward a goal of transformation and equality.

Related readings and organizations suggested by the author:

  • Zinn, Howard. A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (Barnes & Noble, 1980)