Don't let pandemic turn into scapegoating

Miami Herald, The (FL) - Saturday, May 2, 2009

Author: DAVID A. LOVE,


We can't let the swine-flu outbreak poison our national dialogue.

Unfortunately, the Internet is buzzing with people hurling ugly names at Mexicans and calling for closing the border. This is just the latest sign of the rise of right-wing hate groups.

The source of the flu has not yet been firmly pinned down, so to blame it on Mexico or Mexicans makes no sense. One report suggested that the flu might have started at a million-pig operation co-owned by the U.S. company Smithfield Farms.

Why blame Mexico or Mexicans for that?

Above all, let's remember that this is a virus, and viruses don't recognize borders or claim nationalities. It's an international public health hazard, not an import that goes through customs.

But the anti-Mexican hysteria this has kicked up serves as a sad reminder that extremists in the United States are gaining strength.

The Department of Homeland Security has sounded the alarm on the rise of extremist groups.

The department recently issued a report called "Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment."

According to the study, the current economic downturn and the election of a black president have provided recruitment opportunities for white-supremacist and radical right-wing groups.

Atmosphere of discontent

As the report warns, "The consequences of a prolonged economic downturn -- including real-estate foreclosures, unemployment and an inability to obtain credit -- could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past."

Even before the swine flu outbreak, targeting Mexican immigrants was a primary focus of right-wing extremists.

There has been an increase in anti-Latino hate crimes in recent years, and the amassing of weapons by militia members who were plotting to kill Latinos. For example, the report notes that a Wyoming militia member was arrested in February 2007 after he expressed his plan to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and kill immigrants who were crossing into the country. And in April 2007, six militia members were arrested for allegedly planning a machine-gun assault on Latinos and for weapons and explosives violations.

This toxic climate also poses a risk to President Barack Obama. The election of the first black president has caused concern among extremists, and has provided a useful recruiting tool for these groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama received more threats than any other candidate in recent memory. And several white supremacists were arrested for plotting to assassinate him or threatening to do so.

Extremist anger

Racially tinged anti-Obama sentiment -- not merely an honest disagreement over policy -- was on full display among the recent anti-tax " tea parties" throughout the country.

One protester held a sign that read: "Obama's Plan -- White Slavery." And at a tea party even in Washington, D.C., one man's sign said: "Stand idly by while some Kenyan tries to destroy America? WAP!! I don't think so!!! Homey don't play dat!!!"

Some elected officials are trying to tap into this extremist anger with calls for secession and states' rights, a time-tested racist code word for the suppression of civil rights of minority groups. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the anti-immigrant climate has created a "war zone" for low-income Latinos in the South, the nation's fastest growing Latino population. Regardless of immigration status, they are the targets of racial profiling, discriminatory local ordinances, wage theft and other abuses.

The swine-flu outbreak is scary enough. We don't need to make it worse by fueling the basest sentiments and easy prejudices that some people still hold.

David A. Love is a writer and human-rights advocate based in Philadelphia.

2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services