Media: "Rights for Some People, Not Others" by Chon A. Noriega

The Chronicle of Higher Education
September 9, 2005
Volume 52, Issue 3, p. B9
By Chon A. Noriega
For those of us who study minority issues, today's intellectual climate is -- as it has always been -- contentious. But it's becoming chilly in new, and frightening, ways.
Within an hour of releasing a policy brief on noncitizens and voting in California, our Chicano studies center here in Los Angeles received a deluge of fax and e-mail messages and telephone calls. Most expressed unbridled hatred and disgust for the report, its author, and our center, vowing to fight our alleged campaign "to turn the United States into Mexico." And oh yes, they promised to ask the state to cut off our funds. Both talk radio and anti-immigration groups continued the effort for several months before turning to other incidents.
What had we done? The report -- written by Joaquin Avila, an expert on minority voting rights who had twice argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court and been awarded one of the MacArthur Fellows Program's "genius grants" -- drew upon recent census data that showed an increasing number of California cities with large noncitizen adult populations. Avila acknowledged the limited prospects for political integration in the state, but nonetheless recommended further debate and research on noncitizen participation in local government. That included neighborhood councils, but also voting for local office, something that already occurs in Chicago, New York City, and Maryland.
While some of those who protested were open to reasoned debate, most contented themselves with comments like, "Mexicans need to learn birth control." Perhaps more troubling, everyone (including the news media) conflated noncitizens with "illegals," conveniently ignoring the status of legal resident. In the process, they quickly slid into assuming that only U.S. citizens were entitled to civic participation or protection of the law. What was most surprising was that those who contacted us -- even those who made explicit threats -- signed their names and, in some cases, provided their phone numbers and addresses. No one wanted "balance" on this issue; they simply wanted us to go away and were confident they spoke for all Americans and taxpayers (assuming the two were the same).
If there is a chill taking place on the campuses, it stems from those kind of presumptions: Some people have rights -- including freedom of expression -- and others do not. One of the consequences of this turn is that the public university is now seen as the advocate, if not the author, of the research its faculty members produce, rather than as a site for presenting, examining, and challenging ideas. The CNN host Lou Dobbs exemplified that attitude when he criticized our report: "And it has the imprimatur of UCLA, one of the nation's most respected universities, calling for voting rights for illegal aliens?"
Of course, protests against immigrant and minority rights are nothing new. Several colleagues have spoken to me matter-of-factly about the filing-cabinet drawers where they keep angry letters they have received over the decades. One still receives hate mail for a study noting that more than half of all births in California are now to Latinos, as if he were personally responsible!
What is new is that recent critics are more emboldened: An organized sector of the electorate, with significant access to the mass media, prefers to silence public efforts to study the profound demographic changes and social disparities in our society. If those efforts succeed, our society will fly backward into the future, like Walter Benjamin's angel of history, our gaze fixated on a past that will seem like "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage." Oddly enough, that effort to restrict knowledge and rights is touted as a vision of progress.
Chon A. Noriega is a professor of film, television, and digital media and director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, and editor of Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies.