Kelly Osbourne and the politics of fear

Lindsay Schubiner • Aug 10, 2015

This week, Kelly Osbourne found herself in the middle of a national conversation—and a powerful Twitter storm—after she strongly implied on live television that Latinos are only in the U.S. to serve the wealthy (and white). While criticizing Donald Trump for his anti-immigrant views, Osbourne showed her own racism, asking, “If you kick every Latino out of this country, then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?”

This statement is both offensive and dehumanizing. Yet as Jorge Rivas points out at Fusion, it is simply “the more explicit version of the tired narrative that claims immigrants do jobs Americans won’t do.” The problem is not just that this narrative defines people solely by the value of their labor to white people—a big concern, to be sure.

The narrative also, more nefariously, trades in a politics of fear.

The contemporary anti-immigrant movement was founded on fear—fear of losing a white majority in the U.S. combined with strains of outright fear and hatred of people of color. Its enduring power relies on this same fear. The anti-immigrant movement continues to organize white people afraid of demographic change, afraid of a racialized other, and afraid of losing their power (a group of people that includes no small number of white nationalists).

Since anti-immigrant activists can no longer be as explicit about their fear of people of color “taking over” the U.S., they use code words to describe that fear.

So it makes sense that the anti-immigrant movement’s arguments are also fear-based. Since they can no longer be as explicit about their fear of people of color “taking over” the U.S., they use code words to describe that fear. Their leaders argue that Americans should be afraid of immigrants taking our jobs, changing our (white) culture, challenging the dominance of our (Christian) religion, and marginalizing our (English) language.

Disastrously, some in our movement have responded to this opposition by playing right into their politics of fear.

Rather than shifting the framework and describing a true vision of justice and liberation for all, the “don’t worry, immigrants won’t take your jobs” narrative simply attempts to reassure white people that they have nothing to fear from immigrants. That immigrants pose no threat to Americans because they will only take dangerous, low-paid jobs that no one would want anyways.

Of course, this claim about immigrants’ work is patently false. Immigrants do all manner of work, and they do it with dignity: keeping homes and businesses clean, defending people in court, raising other people’s children and teaching them in school, performing surgery, starting businesses, and making scientific discoveries.

The conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #QueridaKellyOsbourne made this point powerfully. Created by Colorlines News Editor Aura Bogado, the hashtag allowed Latinos and Latinas, immigrants or not, to tell their own stories about work and challenge Kelly Osbourne’s comments directly.

All this still doesn’t mean that immigrants pose an economic threat; immigration simultaneously expands our economy.

Yet this argument is beside the point.

We will never win by making our case on the anti-immigrant movement’s terms, by simply responding, “You’re wrong,” to their arguments that build on very real fears among white Americans. Of course, we must expose the anti-immigrant movement and call out their arguments for what they really are—a cynical, racist attempt to dramatically reduce immigration to the U.S.

But if we lend the opposition’s arguments credibility by straightforwardly countering them, we will not only fail to make a compelling case, but we will handicap our future movement, and we will be proven wrong again and again.

There will always be an immigrant who receives a job offer over an American, creating a story the anti-immigrant movement can play on repeat. Similarly, despite continuing protestations (founded on anti-Black racism) that “immigrants are not criminals,” there will always be an immigrant who commits a crime.

Because guess what? Immigrants are human. Immigrants can be brilliant and clueless, amazing and flawed, industrious and inattentive, and so much more—just like every other human being. That’s exactly the point.

By making a fear-based argument, we will lose. We can’t win at their game. We can only win if we have a different, stronger narrative to offer, based on the insight and experiences of immigrant communities.

In crafting our narrative around the opposition, we forfeit the opportunity to focus on something far greater: our common humanity, our intertwined liberation, and a vision for our shared future based on hope, love, joy, empathy, connection, and transformation. This is difficult, no doubt. But if we can’t envision the future of the immigrant rights movement, how will we ever get there?

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