“Criminals,” “Illegals,” “Terrorists” and #AllLivesMatter

My heart broke just a little bit more every time I saw the reactionary #AllLivesMatter hashtag. Because mostly, white people were using it as a rude rebuke to undermine the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. That’s sad on so many levels.

And of course, all lives do matter, so I think we should take over the #AllLivesMatter hashtag, — specifically, I think we should apply it to all online conversations about the use of torture by the government (like the recent revelations of the use of torture by the CIA). And in discussions about why people migrate and how migrants should be treated. And eventually, once we are able to reclaim its meaning, use it in conversations about how we’re going to end police violence towards African American people.

The U.S. government – our government — is routinely surveilling some people, stopping and searching some people, demanding that some people prove they’re citizens, arresting and torturing some people, all based on different pieces of racist profiling. For different communities of color, the details of how this unfolds differ, and each community has its own historical context.

The loaded trinity of words: “Criminals,” “Illegals,” and “Terrorists” are central to institutional racism. Each of these terms, when used to describe human beings, are used to first teach us to dehumanize certain people, then to remind us to keep dehumanizing people.

Although changing the way we speak cannot itself change our lives, it’s difficult to improve our lives without confronting and removing language that reinforces racist stereotypes and dehumanization.

“Criminal” is not a noun unless it’s being used to scare you

When we use “criminal,” to describe a person, there are two immediate problems. A—we are trained to think of a black person way too fast and B—we are generally talking about someone else who we neither know nor care about.

“Criminals” – most of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves, understand that this word is generally coded to refer to people of color, and generally African-American people. Some of this can be traced to the post-Civil War U.S., when slavery was no longer permitted except for when a person has been duly convicted of a crime. The need to duly convict as many black people as possible so that as “criminals” they could be returned to slave labor began in earnest.

Criminalization was also part of the pushback against the hopeful notion being advanced by black and white abolitionists that Black people shouldn’t be slaves because they were fully human. Slavery depends on the premise that some people aren’t fully human.

So first there is the way we have racialized that word. Then comes part B: many of us know on a gut level that if you can empathize with someone, you don’t generally call them “a criminal.”

This has led to a whole host of related problems, because then, sometimes, when someone we love or can sympathize with commits a criminal act, we think, “he can’t have done that, because I don’t think of him as a criminal.”

Yet, our loved ones can and do commit crimes. And the framework of “but my loved one isn’t a criminal” has led to hurtful and damaging minimizing of people who have experienced violence or serious crime.

“Criminal” is best used as an adjective. Criminal acts are committed by all sorts of people. Defrauding the taxpayers is a criminal act. Sexually assaulting someone is a criminal act. Stealing a loaf of bread is a criminal act. “Criminal” as an adjective just describes an action that’s against the law. All of us have broken the law at some point in our lives. Some of us have broken the law for great reasons, like being opposed to apartheid.

The place in our minds where we use the word “criminals” to refer to other human beings is where we implicitly say, “that’s not me” and we start treating people as if they are “the other.”

I don’t use “criminal” as a noun. I’ve found “person with a previous felony conviction” is a reasonable substitute.

Two “I-words” that go together: “Illegals” and Indifference

A- The point has been made any number of times, yet bears repeating, that describing a person as “an illegal” is not particularly descriptive nor is it factually incorrect. There are many types of laws any person can be violating at any time, and yet “illegal” in common usage only refers to a person breaking one type of law – immigration law.

B- Come on, this usually refers to only one racial/ethnic group of people who have violated immigration law: Latinos/Latinas.

Killing people doesn’t make you “an illegal,” renting out vacant apartments using an online service that allows you to break landlord/tenant law doesn’t make you “an illegal.” And in neither case should they. Actions and objects can be illegal. People cannot be “illegal.” Unless you want to dehumanize and ignore them.

In our current time, “Illegals” is a word that has become a justification for all manner of cruel and dismissive behavior directed at Latinos in the U.S. A vast system of prisons, jails and detention centers has sprung up over the last decade to disappear people, without event the assumption that they are entitled to a speedy process to clarify their legal status.

Massive numbers of deportations have happened over the last decade, with little concern about their effects on families and communities – to prove that our current administration is “tough on immigration.” And yet, no matter how many people are deported, it’s not enough for the public appetite given how much people believe they have to fear immigration and “illegals.” Apparently, we’re even willing to abandon children who fear for their lives, because they are “illegal immigrants.” This indifference is a clue that we have strayed far away from good sense.

On a basic level, we have too few conversations about the roots of migration here in the Americas, and why so many people from nearby countries have migrated here in the last thirty years (hint: it started when we started messing with other people’s governments.)

There is no way we can have useful or practical or intelligent conversations about immigration until we get rid of the dehumanizing baggage shown by people using the word “illegals” and “illegal immigrants.”

This is the only one of these three words that already has a campaign to stop its use: “Drop the I-Word.

“Terrorists” is a word used to manipulate you

A– Although terrorism surely existed before 2001, (believe me, I know), in the post-Sept 11th world, the U.S. government started peddling a business model in which the world contains so many “terrorists” that want to destroy us that we need to be willing to spend any amount of money and trade any number of civil liberties away to contain this “threat.”

B– Oh, and let’s be honest, the person you’re supposed to picture in your head when someone says “terrorist” is Muslim. They are supposed to scare you because they’re nothing like us. And you’re not supposed to worry about things our government does to a person labeled a “terrorist.”

The word “terrorist” is not even particularly descriptive, because there are many settings in which groups of people are acting in ways that are terrifying–yet, most of the times, we don’t call those groups of people “terrorists.” “Terrorists” is a malleable word, and once a government uses it, we are supposed to allow, or even welcome all manner of exceptions to civil liberties, the rule of law, and plain old common sense.

For example, this week it became clear that our government tortured non-U.S. citizens who are Muslim or Middle Eastern. We disappeared people into secret prisons around the world to be held without charges, but because they were labeled as “terrorists,” we are supposed to accept it as the cost of a “war on terror.” As in all wars, “our” lives are precious, and “their” lives are expendable.

Some Senate Republicans, who in the spirit of true conservatism would actually have to stand by the rule of law and be glad we live in the sort of country where the government periodically investigates itself, attempted to suppress the report because they think people in other countries will become enraged and violent. They are unconcerned about people being kidnapped and tortured because those people could have possibly been “terrorists.” That label justifies the mistreatment of people, especially when it’s used to describe Muslims.

We cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated into allowing any group of people to racially profiled as terrorists — in part, because it’s unfair to assume anyone is a terrorist because of their racial or religious group. And we also have to call for an end to the use of the word “terrorist” to mean someone doesn’t have civil and human rights. Because once any person’s civil rights get taken away, everyone’s rights are in jeopardy.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“Criminals,” “Illegals,” “Terrorists.”

We’ve all heard these words, and many of us have used them. None of these words are neutral. They each have a political agenda embedded in their use, and each is routinely used to marginalize and dehumanize a community of color.

Each time I hear them, I think to myself, “wait a second, what exactly are we talking about here?” And I think about how to shift the conversation away from the fear and indifference these words are supposed to invoke.

Because without that conscious shift, we can’t prevent crime and violence, we can’t figure out the puzzle of immigration in the modern world, and we can’t end acts of political violence. Those are all problems worth solving, they each require an approach where we stop acting like “we” are fully human and somebody else isn’t.

And any of us who are targeted by any one (or two) of these words need to be vocal about rejecting all three of them. Like these folks marching in Jackson Heights last week.

So, yes, #AllLivesMatter. I suggest using that hashtag when talking about immigration and torture. (We may have to let it sit for now in reference to police violence against Black people, since that hashtag has been used so recently on the pretext of ignoring racism targeting Black people).

Let’s reclaim #AllLivesMatter from its obnoxious origins to redirect us to the reality that words can be used to separate us, but that when it comes to humanity, all of our lives do matter, without qualification.

Image from www.restorefairness.org



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