Twenty-three years ago on a hot August evening, I stood before the Anaheim Union High School District board of trustees. They were about to discuss whether to sue Mexico for $50 million and ask the country for an annual $10 million payment for educating the children of undocumented immigrants.
Children like me.
Board president Harald Martin, a native of Austria and the author of the proposal, blamed us for a supposedly degrading educational system in my hometown. He had even appeared on National Public Radio to compare Latino students to the small, furry critters from the “Star Trek” universe that once overwhelmed the Starship Enterprise.
“They were so cute and fluffy, nice little things when there were four or five of them,” Martin said. But once they numbered in the thousands, he added, “it wasn’t so nice anymore.”
He espoused what amounted to an early version of the Great Replacement, the racist theory that liberal elites are allowing nonwhite people to flood the United States to destroy the American way of life through migration and fertility. Dozens of us spoke before the Anaheim trustees, decrying Martin’s blatant racism.
As an American, I felt betrayed.
Made in the USA: Having graduated two years earlier from Anaheim High, I was a Doc Martens-wearing, “Simpsons”-quoting nerd who expected to earn a film degree within two years at Chapman University and fully assimilate into American life by moving to south Orange County.
What else was I supposed to do? I had never considered myself anything other than 100% Made in the USA — even if my creators were a Mexican immigrant father and mother, the former of whom came in the trunk of a Chevy.
In school, we were taught that we were in the best country on Earth. That anyone could make something of themselves if only they tried hard enough. That racism mostly existed in our history textbooks.
Well, that last part, at least, was a fair amount of hooey. Here are just a few real-life examples:
There was the Sycamore Junior High science teacher who told a classroom full of us Latinos that we didn’t compare to his students from the 1970s, when the school was far more white. The counselors at Anaheim High who funneled Latino boys like me into vocational and remedial classes instead of college-credit courses. The passage of Proposition 187 in 1994, the California ballot initiative that went even farther than what the Anaheim school board considered.
I dismissed all of those as anomalies. Then Martin’s resolution was passed by his fellow board members, though the lawsuit went nowhere because the proposal was, ironically enough, illegal. The fact that it went as far as it did — well, that shattered any illusions I had of the US as a color-blind, truly egalitarian society.
Pattern will repeat: Racially motivated mass shootings like the one that happened this past weekend on the other side of the country in Buffalo, NY, just drive this point home. Again, and again, and again. In the past, in the present and undoubtedly — and unfortunately — in some not far-off future, this pattern will repeat.
Payton Gendron, 18, killed 10 people at a grocery store he targeted because it was in a Black neighborhood. He left behind a vile manifesto dripping with the poison of racism and delusion and a fragility endemic to the likes of him.
What he did was extreme, but you hear this same fragility when politicians rail about immigrants and refugees. Or when white Americans talk about how things aren’t like they used to be in some fantasyland of a time—perhaps before civil rights began to finally take hold.
The United States is indisputably becoming more diverse. Asians and Latinos are the fastest-growing groups; Black America remains a catalyst for social justice and criminal justice reform. It’s the country I’ve known my entire life and one that has allowed my family and friends to prosper, racism be damned.
Yet if you’re not white, to millions of Americans, you’re something else — definitely not “legacy Americans,” as Fox TV host Tucker Carlson says again and again during his weeknight hour of glower. Instead, they consider me and my loved ones to be invaders and usurpers — or, as Gendron’s manifesto deemed us, “replacers.” I’ve covered the racism of their ilk throughout my career, from its origins in Orange County to its festering on the fringes of neo-Nazi web chat rooms in the early 2000s to its violent eruption again and again this century to its adoption as a de facto party plank by many Republicans, including the previous president.
What especially freaks out the Carlsons and Gendrons of this country isn’t that people like me aren’t the inheritors of the American Dream — it’s that we’re its inquisitors. We want a country truly based on the pledges of equality and freedom it was founded on. For too many white Americans, this is nothing short of a declaration of war; what’s reasonable to us makes them feel like they’re losing their grasp on what they might have believed was their exclusive birthright.
I’d feel pity for white people who think that their days are numbered in this country if that thought weren’t so laughably deadly. And wrong.
Benjamin Franklin had it wrong in 1751 when he fretted that Germans in Pennsylvania whom he reviled as “Palatine boors … will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs.” The 1911 Dillingham congressional commission got it wrong when it advocated for restricting immigration from southern and eastern Europe, arguing, “The new immigration as a class is far less intelligent than the old.”
California Republicans had it wrong in the 1990s when they backed a decade’s worth of state propositions that demonized Latinos and whispered about “reconquista,” a supposed plot by Mexico to take back the American Southwest through migration. And Martin, the Anaheim trustee from the not-so-distant past, had it wrong when he insisted the children of undocumented immigrants were destroying Anaheim schools. All these groups became part of the American fabric, whether the haters liked it or not. Why, some even became “white.”
Then you have the Tucker Carlsons of the world, with their loud, whiny megaphone, stoking the hate and the paranoia and the wrongness with their chatter of being replaced.
And then, unsurprisingly after all of that, you have your Payton Gendrons, those lonely, deluded souls who decide that the way to begin to make things right for the oppressed white man is to commit wholesale murder.
They stand athwart history, spewing a venomous lie that has claimed too many lives.