México ¿Cómo vamos?
American Racism: An Obstacle For Mexico's Growth

By: Jorge Suárez-Vélez (@jorgesuarezv)

02 de Noviembre del 2016


Spanish version available at Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica.

American Racism: An Obstacle For Mexico's Growth

(Ñ) Jorge Suárez-Vélez
Collaboration of México, ¿Cómo Vamos?
October, 2016

Between 2000 and 2015, Mexico’s economy grew less than its Latin American neighbors, ranking second worst in the region, only above Venezuela. Mexico needs the United States to grow. Regions in Mexico that have successfully integrated into North America have grown at rates that Southeast Asian countries would have envied even in their best moments. One of the biggest obstacles to this integration is the rise of nativist and racist movements in the U.S.  

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the massive migration of African Americans from south to north provoked a racist backlash that also affected Hispanic immigrants. Today the racist discourse partly stems from the 2008 financial crisis, comparable in scale to the 1929 crash. While the 2008 crisis did not lead to a Great Depression or a world war, its repercussions still linger 8 years later. 

Two effects of the recent crisis stand out. First, there is growing hostility worldwide towards elites. Globalization and the technological revolution that began at the end of the 20th century have been widely unpopular because they accelerated the polarization of income and resulted in relatively ubiquitous benefits. But their losers are clearly identifiable and grew following the recent economic downturn in industrialized countries. Second, in attempt to pinpoint a scapegoat, populist and isolationist movements with racists and fascist undertones have emerged in countries such as Germany, Finland, France, Greece, and even the United States. Ironically, immigrants not only built the U.S. but they also gave the country its celebrated entrepreneurial spirit. As the astute conservative political commentator George Will put it, “to migrate is the ultimate form of entrepreneurship”.

In order to speed up its integration into North America, Mexico should take advantage of its natural allies who cast their votes north of the border. It is imperative to support Mexican immigrant communities in the U.S., foster their civic engagement, and help them to stay in touch with their Mexican roots and identity. These policies, while not obvious or easy to achieve, would place Mexican immigrants on the front line to defend Mexico’s interests and unify lobbying efforts. Such initiatives would result in a positive social, political and also economic impact. 

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy opened a Pandora’s box that will reverberate in the future global economic outlook. The successful integration of Mexican Americans into American society through the U.S.’s social safety net is now at risk. It could fall victim to the same factors that stunted the progress of the African American community, which has still not achieved complete integration more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery.

As the 13th - an extraordinary documentary by Ava DuVernay – reminds us, freeing the 4 million slaves who sustained the South’s economy presented a financial dilemma after the Civil War. In response, states criminalized minor offenses such as loitering and littering in order to “reenslave” African Americans and thus recuperate their cheap labor to reconstruct the devastated South for next to nothing. DuVernay’s documentary also highlights the historical importance of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, the first motion picture screened at the White House under former president Woodrow Wilson. This silent film depicts the Ku Klux Klan as a force of good with integrity, and the dangerous stereotype of an ignorant black man, a potential “rapist of whites”.

It is no coincidence that today Donald Trump resorts to a similar discourse that represents Mexicans as “rapists and criminals”, even though it has been statistically disproven that Hispanic immigrants commit more crimes than whites or African Americans. Alarmingly, racist politicians thrive in the current political landscape. Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona who was accused of racial profiling received more then $12 million in campaign donations, a shockingly large sum for the reelection of a man who served for 24 years in the same relatively low-profile position.

Similar to the mid 20th century when the incarceration rates of African Americans spiked, collective distrust of immigrants has heighted political pressure to take a heavy-handed approach and establish minimum prison sentences. Senators Ted Cruz from Texas and Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania recently sponsored the Stop Illegal Reentry Act to deter deported migrants from returning to the U.S. The bill (that fortunately Congress did not pass) established a mandatory 5-year sentence for migrants convicted of a crime, deported migrants, and migrants trying to reenter the country illegally after one or multiple deportations.

A country that makes up 5 percent of the global population imprisons one in four of the world’s inmates, giving rise to its booming private prison industry. This industry aggressively lobbies Washington to pass laws that will supply a growing population of “clients”.  Estimates place the annual average cost per prisoner at $31,286, but in New York State, for example, the average totals $60,000. Powerful economic interests motivate this enigma. Establishing such a punitive legal system benefits corporations such as the Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tennessee, and the GEO Group based in Boca Raton, Florida. Both companies generate annual revenues of more than $1 billion through managing prison facilities.  

Current legislation proposals targeting Hispanics replicate the asymmetric and excessive punishment that has plagued the black population for decades. The sentence for the possession of crack, a drug commonly used in African American communities, for example, is 100 times greater than the punishment for cocaine possession, a drug most popular amongst whites. The massive incarceration of African American men has had a devastating effect on their social mobility and family structure, and this trend could extend to Hispanics in the future. More than 72 percent of African American children are born to single mothers, and two-thirds live with only one parent (compared to 42 percent of Hispanic children and 25 percent of white children).  Entire generations will be politically underrepresented.  Around 1.4 million African Americans are ineligible to vote because they served time in prison. Nine states impose this voting restriction for life on former prisoners. In Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Virginia, roughly 30 percent of African American men cannot participate in their political systems.

In the years to come it will be necessary to adapt to the global economic downturn, and an industrial revolution that in the short term will displace many unskilled workers from their traditional jobs. Immigrants, especially Mexicans (“thanks” to Donald Trump), will continue to face racist attacks. It will become increasingly important for governments such as Mexico to support their citizens and proportionally increase representation in the U.S. to the size of the population, to serve as an effective counterweight.

For the past twenty years, Mexico has integrated its economy with Canada and the United States. Its future now depends on accelerating this process, passing comprehensive immigration reform that permits the temporary legal migration of workers between the three countries, and increasing investment in infrastructure. Moreover, Mexico must focus on strengthening its rule of law, and can even serve as a bridge to incorporate Central American economies in the region’s progress. The political and social undercurrents in the U.S. pose a threat. The failed presidential candidacy of a populist serves as a warning; the status quo is unsustainable. Mexico can either move forward, speeding up regional integration, or run the risk of a setback that could become permanent.

JORGE SUÁREZ-VÉLEZ is a financial analyst with a degree in Economics from ITAM. He is author of The Upcoming Downturn of the World Economy and Now or Never: Mexico’s Opportunity for Growth. Follow Jorge on Twitter at @jorgesuarezv.

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