Why Race and Class are our Social Rope

America is a story of communities divided.

Divided by race, class and religion, we are hard pressed to leave our comfort zones. The last thing we want to do is talk to someone we may not agree with, someone who may not believe what we do, look or sound like we do.

And, these days, our differences are maximized by leaders seeking power and influence.

For better or worse, this is our story.

America is also a country of constant change not well understood by our toxic (intoxicating?) political bubbles.

Strangely, things may not be as bad as we assume.

Last week, LifeWay Research released a new survey of 1,000 evangelicals across the country finding, “When it comes to immigration reform, American evangelicals want it all.”

At a time when it is easier to find Bigfoot than a Republican in Congress who supports legalization of the undocumented, 60% of evangelicals support a path to legal status or citizenship for those here illegally (more than two-thirds (68 percent) favor both).

LifeWay researchers also found, “More than two-thirds (68 percent) of evangelicals say it is important for Congress to take action on immigration reform this year. And half (50 percent) are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports border security and citizenship.”

This is good news from a highly respected evangelical institution about a community very skeptical of immigration reform.

Peel back the numbers and it gets more interesting.

On the plus side, evangelicals see immigrants and immigration as a net plus to our culture and society. Which is proven by the survey finding that the top three factors that most influenced evangelicals’ beliefs about immigration were relationships with immigrants, friends and family and, third, the media.

But, for nearly half of respondents to see immigrants as a “drain on economic resources” highlights the ongoing challenge we face: Immigration is a pocketbook issue as much as it is a values issue.

This is not a debate we win by throwing more economic data at the problem. The numbers contribute to an important foundation of understanding, but an individual’s self-interest is not served by seemingly abstract data.

Self-interest is served by, well, self-interest. Economic and social.

To address this challenge — and it isn’t one of messaging as much as it is about empathy — we need to understand the challenges people face and how they deal with them.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, provides a helpful framework.

In an effort to understand how liberals and conservatives think — and think past each other — Haidt proposes a framework that overlaps a person’s moral framework and political leanings.

Self-interest for one who would identify as conservative is not fairness for the newcomer. Rather, to greatly oversimplify, self-interest is based on the rule of law that minimizes (economic or social) harm to their family.

Individual liberty and compassion are part of the equation, but they are on equal footing to the above.

Meanwhile, Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, clarifies the pressures Americans face in a changing economy.

After meeting with Putnam to discuss the book’s findings, Congressman Paul Ryan told the Washington Post, “Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation, too.”

And, as Putnam wrote in a memo to President Obama, “’Deeply troubling racial gaps remain, of course, but this opportunity gap is about class, not race, and it is growing.’”

If the people moving into our neighborhoods don’t look or sound like us, suspicion deepens the isolation.

The fact is the immigration debate braids race and class to create a social rope stretched taut between political poles.

A rope never eliminated (issues of race and class will always be with us). Rather, a rope slackened by a combination of issue-based data and dialogue — facilitated by religious values — that creates windows for policy change.

The relationships between immigrants and native-born Americans the LifeWay research found can be brought into stark relief with the simple question, “Do you want to deport 11 million people?”

Or, “Do you want your tax dollar spent to deport the immigrant family in your church, your child’s school or in your grocery store?”

To those who say yes, the conservative think tank American Action Forum provides a pocketbook answer:

The federal government would have to spend roughly $400 billion to $600 billion to address the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants and prevent future unlawful entry into the United States. In order to remove all undocumented immigrants, each immigrant would have to be apprehended, detained, legally processed, and transported to his or her home country. In turn, this would shrink the labor force by 11 million workers and reduce real GDP by $1.6 trillion.

Those are real number behind the idea of deporting millions of people and their families.

The fact is today’s demographic and economic shifts are challenging what we assume to be our self-interest. A combination of geography, jobs and youth are forcing us out of our comfort zones.

While our history is divided by race, class and religion, there is a future that cuts across these factors to create points of mutual self-interest.

Which means we tie our social rope to issues where tension creates mutual economic and social self-interests; not political poles where the tension minimizes consensus.

Originally published at ali-noorani.com on March 16, 2015.

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum and America is Better, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, host of the podcast, Only in America.

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