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White Fear

A new book calls Latinos 'the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity.'
 
 
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Just as excerpts from a polemical new book by Harvard international relations expert Samuel Huntington were hitting newsstands, I was in New York and visited Huntington's old neighborhood in the Bronx near blocks of sooty, industrial-age housing projects.

Despite the slight chill that overcast Sunday, the area's main drag, La Bainbridge, a street long ravaged and revived by the ebb and flow of economic depression and war, burst with beats of American life: colorful restaurants and shops, vibrant Catholic, evangelical, and Muslim churches and mosques, and lots of immigrants pregnant with a ferocious work ethic.

Most of the Bronx residents of Puerto Rican, Dominican and – increasingly – Mexican descent trekking along Bainbridge have probably never heard of the powerful Bronx native who recently penned what may become the defining document of "Americanness" and "Latinoness" in our time (if the profound impact of his best-selling previous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is any indicator).

These Bronx residents may not be aware that they and other Latinos in the United States are protagonists in an ongoing American – especially Anglo-American – crisis in which they are the latest group cast as "Barbarian Other."

In his just-published book, Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity , Huntington speaks about the meteoric rise of white nativism in America, for which he offers not an apology but a rationale: "The most powerful stimulus to such white nativism will be the cultural and linguistic threats whites see from the expanding power of Latinos in U.S. society."

What Bronx residents and for that matter most of us don't know is that, in crossing the East River or the Rio Grande, Latinos have crossed a modern-day Rubicon into hostility and war in the eyes of some whites like Huntington.

We Latinos are now living in the vast and varied terrain of white fear.

The failure to recognize white fear and confront it on its own terms has become Latinos' central strategic error in the domestic policy wars that vilify immigrants, destroy schools and disproportionately push larger and larger numbers of former students of crumbling school systems into prisons and into the ranks of the dead and endangered in Iraq.

In a chapter entitled "Assimilation," Huntington is very explicit about this nexus between perpetual war and the construction of national identity: "Without a major war requiring substantial mobilization and lasting years ... contemporary immigrants will have neither the opportunity nor the need to affirm their identity with and their loyalty to America as earlier immigrants have done."

I can't erase from my own mind the images of families and children devastated by the Cold War counterinsurgency culture designed for El Salvador by the U.S. National Security Council, or NSC, during Huntington's tenure there in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, I can't but wonder what awaits all Americans of Latin American descent as Huntington lunges into the domestic component of his perilous vision known as "The Clash of Civilizations" in his earlier book.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Huntington isn't just some cloistered academic crank; he's a warrior-scholar with direct links to vast networks of political, military, academic and media power; he's a political scientist who learned how to integrate the double helix of domestic and foreign policy as the former coordinator of security planning at the NSC.

As one of the pioneers of the post-Cold War American grand strategy, Huntington understands better than most how to engineer society through an ongoing psychological operation or, as his NSC memos put it, a "psy-op." Manufacturing various types of fear – including racial fear – is a standard psy-op that affects multiple audiences in multiple ways.

Rather than fall into the psy-op trap of reactive anger by dismissing the book as the rant of a "racist" or a 19th century backwoods nativist, it is best to interpret Who Are We as another very dangerous installment in the career of a seasoned national security specialist. With the steely calculus of a post-Cold War warrior in search of new enemies, Huntington is helping create a fear that is transforming American and Latino identity, and U.S. politics overall – a fear most visible in our gated communities, gated countries and gated minds.

Huntington's 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies , has for many years been a textbook for authoritarian leaders. Another of his books, The Soldier and the State was and still is required reading in national security theory for numerous military leaders, including those of the Salvadoran military. That's the same Salvadoran military that brought my Salvadoran college students in the United States their most vivid recollections of their home country: Dante-esque mounds of body parts and ground littered with the dead bodies of national security practice.

How has political-military scientist Huntington suddenly come to view Latinos as "The single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity"?

In search of answers, I went to the Bronx County Historical Society, also on Bainbridge, not far from the formerly middle class projects that once housed the Huntingtons. Huntington's hood has changed – radically so. Latinos account for over 48 percent of the Bronx's 1.4 million people, and whites are now less than 30 percent of the population.

Outside the Bronx Historical Society, just a few feet away from the lone green carpet of museum lawn, pockmarked telephone poles and brick walls display concert posters for musicians who trace their musical lineage to the thump and mix of black, Puerto Rican and Jamaican Bronx rage that went global in the 1970s. A globalized Bronx gave the world Huntington and hip-hop.

Yet, only Huntington's world is represented inside the Historical Society. Only white immigrants and their descendants are celebrated on exhibition walls and a multi-volume series of monographs on Bronx history end for some reason in 1965.

Like the historical society, Huntington himself – born in 1927, a professor at Harvard's School of Government by 1962 and today a resident of Boston's elite Beacon Hill – missed experiencing his old neighborhood's most important 20th century demographic change: the huge influx of blacks and Latinos in the 1960s, when the Latino population doubled to 400,000.

Staring at the mostly war-related artifacts of the historical society, it is easy to see how Huntington, who says he's descended from English settlers who arrived in Boston in 1633, puts forth his Latino "threat" thesis in no uncertain racial and geopolitical terms. In his view, Latinos are a menace to U.S. civilization as defined by what he calls the country's core "Anglo Protestant" culture defined by the English language and customs, including individualism and the work ethic.

Latinos in the United States don't enjoy the same clarity of argument. They are paralyzed – hesitating between black and white. While they most resemble African Americans in rates of poverty, imprisonment and health problems, half of all Latinos checked "white" on the 2000 census.

Attacks like Huntington's may serve Latinos in one way: it may push the country's largest "minority" to decide whether it is more black or white, whether it will fight the power or serve it. The ceaseless troubles visited in recent years upon prosperous and well-assimilated Arab and Muslim Americans – the primary "others" targeted in Huntington's previous book – show there is likely no saving middle ground of "brown" in times of white fear's war against those perceived as 21st century barbarians. In white fear's eyes, any shade of brown is suspect.

Even though ideas about race, ethnicity, culture and civilization are fluid and murky, white fear is cohesive and entrenched. It gets funding for research using state-of-the-art statistical methods to prove age-old ideas about white intellectual superiority; it informs government policies and media coverage that – despite the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, white militias and private border battalions – never link "white" with "threat," "terrorist" or (to use Huntington's term) "challenge." White fear mobilizes Republican and Democratic voters to defend their perceived racial interests under the guise of patriotism.

White fear is profitable. Bond issues for prison construction managed by major investment banks are more profitable than school construction bonds for improving the decrepit, crowded public schools like Taft High School in the Bronx. The prison construction bonds also depend heavily on a steady flow of young, brown bodies of former students of de-funded schools, as do the crowded barracks in Iraq's deserts.

Though Latinos are well on their way to surpassing African Americans on the rolls of Rikers Island and other prisons as well as those dying in the deserts of Iraq, there is no mature and sustained Latino equivalent of the established black critique – literary, musical and political – of the politics of white fear and its nefarious effects. Huntington's Who Are We has little to do with Latinos and everything to do with whiteness in America. We must realize that we can't win these ideological wars by leaving the cold silos of white fear untouched.

We must meditate about and lay siege upon the workings of white fear as if we are indeed the very barbarians Huntington invokes. We must now take our place alongside African Americans and countless barbarian others at the front of the long march to move this country, this world beyond the calcified history and fossilized notions of "civilization" and "assimilation" lurking behind the gated white walls of the Bronx Historical Society and Samuel Huntington's mind.

Roberto Lovato is a Los Angeles-based writer. This article was produced under the auspices of the George Washington Williams Fellowship of the Independent Press Association .