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THE REGULARS: Why does xenophobia have such a tight grip on our national conscience?

November 25, 2018

Of countless blessings in my life, one I dearly cherish is a 40-year correspondence and occasional visit with one of my college instructors, Sister Mary Neill (Order of Preachers), who served as theology department chair at the University of San Francisco while I was there. Her buoyant and outgoing personality never fails to draw me in for what I think will be a humorous and engaging conversation, then she very deliberately drops the gem that sends my mind and heart reeling, trying to catch up and absorb the impact of her message.

One recent example took place two years ago, shortly after the 2016 national election. She accurately anticipated that I was disappointed in the outcome and was searching for answers. The one she gave me was not what I expected. She cautioned me against seeing then President-elect Trump as “other” and to pray that we – as individuals and as a country – not slip into regarding each other as “others.”

Quite honestly, it’s much more difficult than I thought. Difficult, because I want to retreat into a community of like-minded friends, when I hear – with my own ears – inflammatory and belittling remarks made by our elected leaders, particularly President Trump and U.S. Congressman Steve King. The examples are numerous: Trump mocking a journalist with cerebral palsy, or recently calling three black female journalists either stupid, racist or a loser, or his sweeping characterization of Honduran immigrants as terrorists and gang members. Or King’s description of young immigrants as drug smugglers or questioning “... contributions that have been made by these other categories of people ...” (emphasis added).

I worry that when leaders use their national platform to separate us into stratified groups of people, it stokes fears and hatreds that lie behind grievous violent acts such as the recent atrocity at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 worshipers were murdered or the recent attempt by a gunman to enter a predominantly black church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, who, when he was locked out, went into a Kroger grocery store and murdered two African American customers.

I’m left struggling to grasp why xenophobia has such a tight grip on our national conscience. Xenophobia is “an unreasonable fear or hatred for foreigners or strangers, or that which is foreign or strange.” Northwest Iowa, an agriculture-based economy and Rep. King’s district, has seen plenty of changes since the farm crisis of the 1980s. Farms have grown into multi-million-dollar enterprises, run by fewer families, with fewer members staying on the farm; it’s still risky, hard work, but everything is bigger and more expensive now. The rural population has declined while the urban population has grown. In many area communities, Latinos and other immigrants have shown themselves to be hard workers, willing to labor in the packinghouses and the dairy farms so that they can support themselves and their families. It seems to me that demonizing and resisting immigration at a national level flies in the face of addressing our needs for laborers and a thriving community at a local level.

But it isn’t just immigrants who are unjustly targeted. The Native American and African American populations have been marginalized since Europeans arrived on our shores centuries ago. Being perceived as “other” has immeasurable costs, to be sure, but there are quantifiable costs, too, in the form of limited job offers, lower wages, fewer job promotions, higher interest rates, hidden fees – costs that erode earning power over a lifetime and ultimately rob not just individuals, but neighborhoods of taxable income that could lift property values and help support our educational and infrastructure systems. By not recognizing and remedying these inequities, we harm the well-being of our entire nation.

Only when we overcome our fear of strangers and denounce hatred and hateful comments can we see ourselves in each other. Nearly all of us want to work and worship without judgment or fear for our lives, we all want our families to thrive, we share a universal desire to be contributing members of our community. When it comes to forming a civilized society, there are no “somebody else’s babies,” as Rep. King said in a March 2017 tweet.

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded that Jesus was born in a manger, the very height of the margins of society, in the Middle East. Message being, we cannot presume to know from where our salvation comes, but it’s likely from where we least expect it.

Next week: Jim Wharton

Katie Colling is the retired executive director of Women Aware, a private nonprofit agency. She was elected to two consecutive terms on the Woodbury County Extension Council and serves on several civic-organization boards. She and her husband, Ron, live in Sioux City.

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