Rep. Steve King is a flag-waving, card-carrying, all-American jerk. In a recent interview with the conservative website Newsmax, the Iowa Republican was discussing the “Dreamers,” young people brought to this country as small children by undocumented parents.
“For every one who’s a valedictorian,” he snarled, “there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
King’s remarks were immediately condemned by fellow Republican and House Speaker John Boehner as “hateful” and “ignorant.” But let’s be honest. The congressman represents an uncomfortable and undeniable streak in our history and our culture.
We are a nation built by immigrants. We are also a nation that has resisted and resented each wave of newcomers as unworthy and un-American.
If the blazing torch of the Statue of Liberty is a national symbol, so are the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan. And King’s reference to overdeveloped leg muscles is hardly new. Xenophobes have long used distorted body parts to disparage foreigners — big noses, small brains, oily hair.
Electing a black president whose father emigrated from Kenya is an important blow to our nativist impulses. But his opponents have repeatedly tried to discredit Barack Obama as an alien, a Muslim socialist with a funny name and floppy ears who wasn’t even born in the United States.
During his first campaign, a woman in Minnesota blurted out what others only whispered: “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him. He’s an Arab.”
Four years later, the Pew Research Center reported that only 49 percent of respondents could correctly identify the president as a Christian, while 17 percent thought he was a Muslim. And they did not mean that as a compliment.
Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank, summed up this tawdry tradition: “This country has a long history of distrust, persecution and exclusion of those seen as having foreign ties and questionable allegiances. Major social movements have been based on the belief that certain ethnic, racial or political groups are by definition disloyal.”
History teaches, however, that those social movements are always wrong. America is enriched, every day, by the vigor and vitality of its immigrants. Obama was right when he said in his first inaugural, “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”
That’s why it’s so important for people of courage to stand up to the haters, to dress them down and call them out. People like Ralph L. Carr.
Carr was born in 1887, the son of a miner, and grew up in small Colorado towns like Cripple Creek. He became a lawyer and in 1938 was elected governor. Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the forcible internment of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them native-born citizens.
Gov. Carr condemned the order and said at the time: “The Japanese are protected by the same constitution that protects us. They have the same rights as we have. ... If you harm them, you must harm me. I was brought up in a small town where I knew the shame and dishonor of race hatred. I grew to despise it because it threatened the happiness of you and you and you.”
Carr suffered for his stance, losing a race for the Senate later that year and disappearing from public life. But today he is hailed as a hero.
Last May, Colorado dedicated a new judicial center named for Carr and a plaque in the state capitol lauds him “as a wise, humane man, not influenced by the hysteria and bigotry directed against the Japanese Americans during World War II.”
Last year, the Japanese American Citizens League created the Gov. Ralph L. Carr Award for Courage. In July, the award went to three men who were instrumental in passing a 1988 bill that awarded $1.6 billion in reparations to those unfairly detained during the war: President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, who signed the legislation; Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, the lead sponsor; and Glenn Roberts, the congressional staffer who drafted the measure.
We were at the awards ceremony because Glenn is Steve’s brother. We watched with great pride as dozens of Japanese-Americans shook his hand, sought his autograph and introduced their children.
If American history is an enduring struggle between light and darkness, between the Ralph Carrs and the Steve Kings, the Carrs will win. They have to win, if America is to live up to its own ideals.