It was an idea so bad that even some Republicans on the far-right margins of the party — the climate change deniers and evolution doubters — denounced it.
The University of Texas at Austin chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas had been planning recently to sponsor a “catch an illegal immigrant” game, during which young conservatives would stroll the campus wearing signs designating them as “Illegal Immigrants.”
Anyone who was able to capture an “illegal immigrant” could turn him or her in for a bounty, a $25 gift card.
In the face of opposition from the university and condemnations from Republicans and Democrats alike, the group canceled the event.
In the Associated Press account, the chapter chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas seems stunned by the backlash. He resorts to a dependable, if not particularly convincing, face-saver, saying that the event was “meant only to spark a debate on a crucial national issue.”
Clearly, the enthusiasms of these young conservatives outran their callow judgment. Their Republican elders, mindful of the burgeoning national potential of Hispanic voters, helped rein them in. Maybe the less said about unseemly episodes like this one, the better.
Still, it’s worth reminding ourselves occasionally that the worst manifestations of racism in our nation’s history — slavery, lynching, Jim Crow — were in some respects the most readily jettisoned. Certainly, it took a civil war and decades of national upheaval to establish everyone as more or less equal — on paper, at least — but eventually we accepted the moral clarity with which we know that slavery and lynching are wrong.
But it’s the subtle, casual racism, usually accompanied by a dose of smug self-righteousness, that’s much harder to finally eradicate. It’s the kind of tacit racism that looks the other way as our nation’s capital’s football team continues to use a racial slur to designate its mascot. It’s the kind of racism that makes it easy to forget that, whatever their stated purposes, events like illegal immigrant hunts and affirmative action bake sales have a racial component that reaches back toward mock slave auctions, segregated water fountains and blackface minstrelsy.
But here’s the biggest problem with the illegal immigrant hunt and similar events: a failure of empathy, an inability to imagine oneself or a loved one in wildly different circumstances.
Conservatives often take heat for this. Other commentators have noted Dick and Lynne Cheney’s willingness to buck the party line on gay marriage once their daughter married her partner. But conservatives don’t have a monopoly on the failure to empathize.
After the illegal immigrant hunt was shut down, the chairman of the Young Conservatives weathered a predictable onslaught of online abuse and death threats, which are much bigger violations of civilized behavior than a misguided, tasteless, youthful miscalculation.
Certainly, illegal immigrants are, by definition, violating the law. But largely they’re honest, very hardworking individuals who put more into our economy than they take out.
In the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” decades of global warming are telescoped into a few days, and the world is suddenly beset by catastrophic weather, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and a modern ice age that makes much of North America unfit for habitation. In desperation, U.S. citizens flee south; the movie depicts them wading across an unrealistically narrow and shallow movie-version of the Rio Grande River to the safety of Mexico.
This scene evoked a hilarious, ironic laugh from the audience when I saw it. The unsympathetically named “wetback” has occupied one of the lower rungs of our cultural ladder for decades, and it was an amusing pleasure to be reminded that, if the tables were turned, no one is above sneaking across a border if he can create a better life for his family on the other side.
If you had the courage and initiative, wouldn’t you?
John M. Crisp, a McClatchy-Tribune columnist, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at email@example.com.