Mike Jones

In “I Am Not Your Negro,” the Oscar-nominated documentary by filmmaker Raoul Peck about the work of the late James Baldwin, Baldwin makes the this observation: “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger it’s because you need it.”

Baldwin’s question is at the heart of beginning to understand why the United States is in the middle of a polarizing and paralyzing debate about immigration. It also sets up the ability to explain why Donald Trump and his trolls are not a moral anomaly but the expected consequence of a society undergoing the stresses of major structural change.

Hostilities between different groups is a feature common to all forms of human social organization. Group conflict can be separated into two sub-categories: inter-group conflict, in which distinct groups of individuals are at odds with one another, and intra-group conflict, in which individuals who are part of the same group clash with one another.

The answer to Baldwin’s rhetorical question is provided by Rene Girard, French historian, literary critic and philosopher of social science, whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. His thinking regarding group conflict provides the intellectual construct we can use to give this moment the appropriate context.

Girard’s foundational ideas are that human desire is mimic behavior: we want what others want or have. This mimic rivalry is the basis of all social conflict. When the conflict caused by mimic rivalry becomes destabilizing, his other seminal idea – the scapegoat mechanism – comes into play.

This is where one person, the scapegoat, is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. Social order is restored, as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual. While scapegoating solves no real problem, it does serve as a psychological relief for a group of people.

America has been fundamentally changed by the evolution of American capitalism since the mid-1970s and the not-unrelated demographic changes that began at the same time.

The United States economy after WWII was a regulated market economy with heavy public investment and a strong social safety net. That economy not only produced extraordinary growth but also extraordinary benefits for average workers (including structurally-discriminated-against black workers). That changed in the mid-1970s when a libertarian, semi-fascist economic and social philosophy began to dominate America’s political and intellectual paradigm.

In 1950, when the population of the United States was 75 million, 89.5 percent of that population was white and 10 percent was African-American. In 2010, when the population was 310 million, 61 percent was classified as white non-Hispanic or Latino (Trump’s base) and 34 percent was classified as people of color, with 16 percent being Hispanic or Latino.

This major change in the demographic makeup of the United States was fueled by immigration. There were 40 million immigrants (14 percent of the population) in the country in 2010. Of that total, 14 million came to the United States between 2000 to 2010. It’s no understatement to say this is not your father’s America, especially if you’re white.

What’s the correlation between these seismic economic and demographic changes and the current immigration crisis? The immigration crisis is a function of intra-group conflict, and the group that’s in conflict is white Americans. The changing American economy, and the rationale for it, has decimated working middle-class white Americans. The changes in cultural norms resulting from the changing ethnic makeup of America has had a major impact on what W.E.B. DuBois called the “physiological wages of whiteness.”

To resolve tensions of this intra-group conflict a scapegoat was required, and that scapegoat had to be clearly identifiable as “the other.” That scapegoat became immigrants of color, specifically those from south of the United States.

This is an inflection point for the Hispanic or Latino community. The Hispanic community is far from monolithic. It’s extraordinarily culturally and geographically diverse, which is why thinking in terms of “the Latino vote” is inaccurate and leads to flawed political strategies. But all that could be changing at light speed.

The Africans forcibly brought to America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade were also a culturally and geographically diverse group of people, but 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow created a common group social identity needed to survive individually. Hispanic immigrants are now confronted with the same dilemma; how they respond will be determinative for the United States’ political future.

African Americans can’t afford to sit out this existential battle about immigration. As James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis, explaining why he stood with her: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.

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(1) comment


Uh uh... Because if it was the other way around those immigrants would not be out there helping Black people. They didn't do it in Florida when the Haitians came and they would not do it now. None of them ever marched with MLK. In fact they were on the other side and glad they weren't the targeted people. Your commentary is a bunch of hogwash!

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