Congressional Rep. John Lewis was arrested along with seven other U.S. congressmen as part of a protest supporting comprehensive immigration reform on Oct. 8 2013, reports PBS Newshour. Despite questions by many Americans about the current nature of racism, Lewis views immigration as part of a larger civil rights debate across the nation. Lewis, quoted by The Washington Post, said the immigration debate is among the “scars and stains of racism, deeply embedded in American society..
Earlier this month, the nation observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday celebrating the leader of a civil rights movement 50 years ago. Despite King’s death, many within this movement are still active, including King protege Lewis.
In a 2011 interview with theroot.com, Lewis said, “I would love to see more people… get involved in this whole issue of trying to demonize the Latino population. Too many of our brothers and sisters are being racially profiled because of their background, last name, or the language they may speak.” While Lewis views the movement as part of a struggle against policies influenced by racism, progress on immigration policy has halted in Congress.
Congressional immigration reform stalled in 2013 after an immigration reform bill was negotiated. A bipartisan group of eight senators passed the bill in the Senate by a margin of 68 to 32 on June 17, 2013. Fox News reported Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner refused to call a vote nor negotiate with Senate Democrats on the bill in the lower chamber of Congress.
Lewis’ congressional colleague Rep. Stephen King is the vice-chair of the body’s immigration subcommittee. According to ABC News, he was accused of racism after making the remark that “For every [DREAM Act student] who’s a valedictorian, 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, known for his racially inflammatory remarks, won his last election with 52 percent of the vote.
According to Rep. Gary Miller’s official website, Miller advocates changing the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants, who are derogatorily called “anchor babies”. This would disproportionately deny citizenship to many Latino people born in the U.S. Politifact.com notes in their piece on the issue that children under 21 cannot sponsor their parents for citizenship. Since parents would legally need to leave the U.S. for 10 years before applying for citizenship, undocumented parents would need to wait decades before the possibility of citizenship.
In addition to questions of racially biased congressional practices, intelligence agencies have their own history with civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of surveillance by the FBI, which, according to the 1975 Church Committee Reports by Congress, sought to “…‘neutralize’ him as an effective civil rights leader.”
America’s role in Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment is also less talked about. The Huffington Post reports the CIA is currently resisting requests for information about their role in Mandela’s arrest. For years there have been suspicions about U.S. intelligence helping incarcerate Mandela. Stephen Ellis, historian at the African Studies Institute in the Netherlands, claims South African secret service members and U.S. embassy officials swear the CIA provided information that led to Mandela’s arrest. After Mandela’s death, the Washington Post noted the Reagan administration was reticent to sanction South Africa’s apartheid regime, and viewed Mandela’s political party, the African National Council, as communist sympathizers. The U.S. government included Nelson Mandela on the terrorist watch list until he was removed in 2008.
Beyond politics and intelligence, statistical data suggests racial inequities still exist in America. According to figures from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, despite making up only a quarter of the U.S. population, “African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008.” The same agency goes on to say “5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.”
In a 2011 study conducted by Tuft University and Harvard researchers, the majority of “white” respondents believed that anti-white bias was a bigger issue than the racism that African Americans face. Though civil rights leader Lewis sees discrimination as a major issue, it’s clear significant disagreement among Americans about the extent of racism remains.