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‘From dog whistles to whistles’: Professor discusses impact of anti-immigration laws

| Monday, September 20, 2021

The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted Dr. Robin Jacobson, who spoke on anti-immigration legislature for its online lecture series, “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary Friday.

The series is led by Dory Mitros Durham, associate director of the Klau Center and leader of the Keough School of Global Affairs’s Racial Justice Initiative, as a response to the acts of police brutality against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in 2020.

The program’s goal is to provide “students, faculty, staff and alumni of the University of Notre Dame with sustained, critical engagement on interdisciplinary topics related to understanding systematic racism, and committing to the daily work of anti-racism.”

Jacobson, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Oregon, is the chair of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound. She is also the author of “The New Nativism: Proposition 187 and the Debate over Immigration,” into which Friday’s lecture delved.

Jacobson began the lecture by discussing the shift in attitudes toward immigration between the George H. W. Bush administration in 1980 and the Donald Trump administration in 2016. She argued that immigration issues existed long before Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, focusing on “the historical development [of anti-immigration legislation] by looking at a moment in between 1980 and 2015, and that’s Proposition 187.”

Proposition 187 was a 1994 California voter initiative designed to deny undocumented immigrants access to vital social services. The law would have employees of government services — such as health care workers and school staff — ask anybody who they suspected was an undocumented immigrant to prove their status. If they couldn’t, the suspect would be reported to federal agencies. The law passed with 60% of California voter approval but wasn’t implemented due to an unconstitutional ruling.

Jacobson pinpoints Proposition 187 as “a turning point in racial politics” because it became a “code for a certain racialized form of anti-immigrant lawmaking.” Jacobson’s interviews with supporters of Proposition 187, she said, show that nativists “easily move back and forth between ‘undocumented immigrants,’ ‘Latino’ and ‘Mexican’.”

“They’re interchangeable terms,” she said. “[They] can’t possibly know a person’s documentation status. All they see is brown skin and hear Spanish.”

This, Jacobson argued, is what makes Proposition 187 and other anti-immigration laws racialized issues.

As immigration has become an increasingly polarized issue, the use of racialized language has become more aggressive, she said. Jacobson discussed “dog whistles” which she used to describe “implicit racial appeals — ones that could be made with plausible deniability to talking about race.”

This covert “color-blind conservatism” has now shifted into overt racism, she said. During the lecture, Durham referenced a woman’s comment in Jacobson’s book: “If [Proposition 187] makes me a racist, fine. I don’t care. I’m here to defend my country.”

Jacobson attributes this shift from covert to overt racism — “from the dog whistle to the whistle” — to the intensified political polarization in the United States and the work of activists and scholars in “naming implicit racism.”

Students pointed out that during COVID-19, they perceived “a shift in the way that we talk about and think about immigrants.” Durham says students “felt this was a moment in which there was still anti-immigrant sentiment and it was pretty explicit, but that we found new groups to be angry with and new groups to target with bias.”

Jacobson claimed that “the racial dynamics are pretty similar” between nativists and their targets, regardless of whether they are Latino or Asian. This changing target of anti-immigration sentiment towards Asian Americans and Asian immigrants may suggest that that anti-immigration is more of a racial issue than a documentation issue.

Any students, faculty, alumni or Notre Dame fans interested in hearing more from upcoming speakers at the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” lecture series can register online in the Klau Center’s website.

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore at Notre Dame majoring in Political Science and English with a minor in Chinese. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas when she isn't hanging out at Pasquerilla East Hall.

Contact Claire