Oh Bill O'Reilly -- It's "Our" Country, Too

While there may be disagreement about the Arizona law, it is absurd and un-American to engage in such a critical national conversation in a way that entertains only the most acrimonious voices.
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I recently was asked to appear on The O'Reilly Factor to discuss the Los Angeles Unified School District's ("LAUSD") reaction to Arizona's controversial immigration law. The school board had passed a resolution providing that LAUSD schools would teach students about the law in the context of other provisions that compromised or interfered with civil rights. Fox News then reported that LAUSD was going to teach its students that the law was "un-American." That was the subject of this particular O'Reilly show.

When I contacted the LAUSD to confirm whether it had approved such an "Arizona is the new un-America" curriculum, a member of the Superintendent's staff informed me that it was not (he also informed me that he previously had attempted to correct the Fox News reporting on this point, but apparently to no avail.) While an individual member of the school board had described the law as "un-American," LAUSD students were (thankfully) not about to be lectured about the unpatriotic tendencies of their Arizona neighbors. The Board had, however, decided that educational institutions should provide instruction about the law in the context of other controversial legal and political provisions (such as Jim Crow and Japanese relocation laws). I was prepared to defend this approach.

On the show I met two opponents: Mr. O'Reilly himself and a radio host who lamented the fact that the LAUSD has been overrun by "ethnic minorities." (As a graduate of the LAUSD and one of the "ethnic minorities" who apparently did the overrunning, I should have known the direction in which this was going.)

The problem arose when I used the first-person plural pronoun "we" in attempting to discuss that "we" have certain shared values as Americans and that the LAUSD decision was, in my view, an appropriate attempt to locate the Arizona law on the spectrum of those values. While "we" may disagree about the impact and import of Arizona's approach toward immigration, I believe there is a legitimate conversation to be had about the manner in which that law implicates our conceptions of civil rights and liberties as they have evolved throughout the years. (I think that the implications are grave. Others disagree. Obviously, there is a discussion to be had.)

Mr. O'Reilly took great issue with my use of the term "we"; apparently, according to him, holding a minority view with respect to the Arizona law robs me of any entitlement to describe what I believe "our" shared values as a nation to be. Indeed, I didn't get very far in describing my views of those values as Mr. O'Reilly told me (before I could finish a sentence) that he was not going to let me "get away" with my use of the term "we" since mine was a "minority" perspective with respect to the equity of the Arizona law. (I wasn't particularly surprised by his approach, especially since it comes after my last appearance of several months ago when he told me to "keep quiet" as he described how conservative White men are unable to speak their minds without fear of recrimination. I trust that he's continuing to save space for them on his show.)

There are many among that celebrated group of "We the People" who are opposed to the Arizona law but who nonetheless remain deeply troubled by our broken immigration system. I am one of them and, frankly, I do not need to be lectured about the consequences of illegal immigration by Mr. O'Reilly or anyone else. I would remind him and others that notwithstanding their volume, zeal, and well-perfected soundbites, they hold no monopoly on interpreting the American voice, or on understanding American values, or on interpreting our Constitution, or on being concerned about the problem of illegal immigration. Those of us who disagree with the Arizona law are as much a part of the "we" who will need to resolve this issue as are Mr. O'Reilly and his guest who so lamented the browning up of Los Angeles schools. (I, by contrast, lament the fact that we have ceded so much of the conversation about patriotism, security and immigration to those who bear such views).

As "we" move toward a comprehensive, national immigration reform policy (which hopefully will soon become a national priority), "we" should look to whatever shared values remain among us so as to ensure that any immigration proposal respects the civil rights and liberties that have evolved into core American values. While there may be disagreement about where the Arizona law falls on that spectrum, it is absurd and un-American to engage in such a critical national conversation in a way that entertains only the most acrimonious voices.

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