YK’s Corona Chronicles: Teaching Intolerance on TV in Tennessee

June 2020

I’ve been deeply disturbed by two ads recently appearing on local television here in Middle Tennessee, home to Nashville. One promotes a local business; one promotes a candidate for public office. Both include a Fifties-style American family: working dad, pretty mom, healthy-looking children.

Ad 1’s Tennessee family features a brown-haired well-fed dad, blonde mom, and four adorable tow-headed children who seem to be of pre-school through elementary school ages. In this ad, the dad, a personal injury lawyer, and his family, including the children, mock law firms from out of state that do business in Tennessee. They save their greatest mockery, that of California, for the youngest child, who imitates Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting, “The Scream.”

McElhaney vs Munch

It’s clearly intended to seem tongue-in-cheek, with cute kids in a happy family, cheerfully promoting a local business, but it’s often such everyday tongue-in-cheek “jokes” that really serve as microaggressions of the “Can’t you take a joke?” or “C’mon, stop being so politically correct” type. Plus, the ad language reminds me of the reaction of Alabama clergy to Martin Luther King back in 1963. The Birmingham clergymen referred to King as an “outsider” and stressed the need for “locals” to fix problems they had not been able to fix since 1871 when Birmingham was founded.

I remember King’s multilayered, but always courteous, response to the clergymen. He reminded them he had been invited to the city by local citizens, so he was a guest; he reminded them of Birmingham’s violent heritage of bombings; he reminded them of the history of failed negotiations among “locals.” But more important in the case of this ad, was this response:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.

BTW: The Ad 1 lawyer practices nationally, which includes states outside of Tennessee.

Ad 2’s Tennessee family might be thought of as a case for progress. It has a distinguished looking working dad, pretty mom, and healthy-looking children, this time an Indian American family of immigrants. The dad, an Ivy League-educated surgeon, is running for a Senate seat on a Tr*mp platform of misleading information against public health “injustices” during the pandemic and “illegal” immigrants.

His belligerent ads show him to be plus royaliste que le roi, which refers to a “true believer” who is more committed to the cause than the leader of the cause. In true plus royaliste style, he goes all-out white supremacist. He denounces those who call him racist, while demonizing Black Lives Matter protesters et al, as violent looters, and complaining that religious people are being discriminated against.

Concerning Covid-19, he makes no distinction between mask-free, stationary, jam-packed indoor church services with mostly elderly, and therefore most virus-vulnerable, parishioners, as opposed to mostly-masked, outdoor, constantly moving, jam-packed outdoor protests with mostly young, and therefore less virus-vulnerable, participants.

He’s a doctor. Of medicine. Yet, he doesn’t seem to know that Covid-19 spread has already been tied directly to indoor church services in Alabama (due south border of TN), Arkansas (southwest border of TN), Georgia (southeast border of TN), Kentucky (due north border of TN), Missouri (northwest border of TN), not to mention California, Oregon, and Wisconsin. But outdoor protests have not produced spikes, so far, despite several weeks of activity.

He points to his parents, both doctors, who entered this country “legally.” While this may seem to be a valid argument on its face, he seems to be ignorant of both American immigration history and current events, despite a Harvard education.

But more than that, he doesn’t acknowledge that there have been laws throughout history that have been unjust. As Martin Luther King explained:

An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

King also reminds us that much of what Hitler did was legal.

Many white immigrants to the USA came when borders were almost completely open. During the times when the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” could leave potato famines, religious persecution, and political unrest, poor people with dreams could come with nothing and work their way up.

In the 1920s, when some of these immigrant families eventually gained power and were able to make it to Congress, that all-white, virtually all-male body voted in restrictive immigration laws intended to limit the number of minorities in this country based on national quotas that excluded all of Asia.

BTW: Ad 2 family’s origins are in India, which is in Asia.

Currently, immigration laws favor the talented, like this candidate’s parents, while at the same time, practices blocking legitimate entry keep people seeking to “breathe free” of poverty, gender and sexual orientation persecution, and political unrest in their native lands, are trapped in an “undocumented” condition that represents something not much better than neo-slavery. As long as they have no “legal” status, they can be paid less, given fewer rights, treated abusively, and subject to ongoing fear of deportation.

The candidate also ignores the current administration’s practices blocking legal immigration and legal asylum seekers and refugees. He ignores caging babies with the expressed intent to traumatize them so their parents won’t seek the same American dream the candidate’s parents did. Just because the laws worked for this candidate doesn’t mean the current laws and practices are just.

We can produce talented doctors right here at home. However. We need people to pick crops, to do construction work, to do front-line jobs, like work in grocery stores and in janitorial services. These are the same jobs that poor immigrants have historically done and jobs that most Americans don’t want to do. Because these jobs are already being done by some of “illegal” status, we obviously need them, so why not have a way to reward them for their contributions to our society. If this pandemic has shown us nothing else, it shows us that these low-wage workers are essential in a way stockbrokers are not.

I can understand, or should I say, accept, a clueless white family of privilege using that old Red-state/Blue-state dog whistle. But why is a family of color racing so far out to the edge of civility and minority rights?

I’m Black American and a few of my relatives, mostly light-skinned ones, voted for P-45. A long-time friend of mine is Filipino American and a few of his relatives, all immigrants, voted for P-45. What we posited is an interesting variant on Stockholm Syndrome, where certain minorities firmly accept white supremacy as unalterable fact. In order to succeed in their manifestation of the American Dream, they feel the need to declare their loyalty to “the man” hoping to avoid the pepper bombs of racism. My sense is that as long as they can keep somebody else on the bottom, they think they won’t be there themselves.

The candidate is also astonishingly ignorant of how racism works. He obviously thinks that a person of color can’t be racist. This is ludicrous. I’ve met Indian Americans darker than I, who were clearly biased against me because of my race. That Denzel movie, Mississippi Masala, addresses this very issue.

I’ve been refused a better-paid job by a black woman because it might “look funny” if she appointed me. She admitted she wanted me in the position and knew I’d do the job well, but . . . I return to the prior term, plus royaliste que le roi. She thought she could earn points with the powers-that-be by trashing me.

Another aspect of this “voting against their own self interest” is a sense of having few cards to play. When they hear P-45 talk about revoking naturalized citizenship, plus royaliste supporters often think “he’s not talking about me,” which is exactly what Indiana-native Helen Beristain thought about the “bad hombres” meme that swept up her “undocumented” Mexican husband, Roberto. She thought he was a “good hombre” because he came here poor, taking a job as a dishwasher, then worked his way up to owning a successful business, contributing actively to the community. Didn’t matter. He’s in Mexico.

Unlike the Ad 1 dad, the Ad 2 dad doesn’t use his children to speak. Instead, his mother speaks his message in a separate ad. Oy vey. They claim to be Christian.

Campaign ad for Dr. Manny Sethi

Both families live in Tennessee. Both want to keep others out. Neither questions the status quo, except to demonize the “Other,” whether lightheartedly or seriously, whether citizens or immigrants with dreams.

Tennessee is part of the United States of America. It hasn’t always been, but it is now. That’s why it saddens me to see parents publicly teaching their innocent children to mock people who are different, who live in other parts of a nation that depends on both diversity and unity. Not that this is new.

Georgia 1992: Toddler in Klan Robes. Photo by Todd Robertson

It saddens me to see immigrant families seeking to deny the “blessings of liberty” to others. It’s fine to promote local businesses; they’re vital threads of the economic fabric we weave to survive. It’s fine to promote law and order; many dead black people would have loved to have been protected and served. But we are all part of the same great country, so I wish these Tennesseans would avoid increasing the already debilitating divisiveness we are currently suffering. E pluribus unum.

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