I have learned never to underestimate the likelihood that Americans will dip into xenophobia, but I still can be surprised by how quickly the tendency arises. Today's story:
As I went through the security checkpoint at Logan Airport this morning, I heard some loud words. It appeared that a woman had attempted to steal a silver bracelet that a man had taken off and put in one of the bins as he went through the security system. He caught her in the act, yelled at her, and got the bracelet back from her pocket. (Notably, the TSA people said and did nothing.)
Anyway, he was good and angry, and rightfully so. But he couldn't let go of the issue and was talking loudly about it as he walked down the corridor, mentioning it to shopkeepers and others as he headed towards his plane. (The thief, by now, had quietly slinked away.) After some time, his wife -- embarrassed by his outbursts, no doubt -- asked him to let it go and be quiet.
"I will NOT," he said. "She is a thief . . . the foreigner!"
Wow. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn't. She was, indeed, dressed in clothing that was typical of women from the Balkans, or maybe parts of Italy, or maybe Greece. It could have been something like this picture that I nabbed from the web. But, in America, who's to say where she was from? Or whether she was native born or an immigrant or a visitor. And why is that relevant anyway?
She was, quite simply, a thief. What was it about the underlying anger in this man that made him add that descriptor?
When I ran the BIDMC, I used to greet our new employees every Monday morning during their orientation. I would ask them to raise their hands if they were not born in the US, if one or more parent was not born in the US, or if at least one grandparent was not born in the US. In every group, 95% of the people had hands raised by the time the third category was mentioned. That we are a nation (mainly) of immigrants was the point, and our job was to deliver care and treat one another in a way that was respectful of all nationalities, ethnic groups, and religions.
It scares me when I hear comments like that made this morning by this angry man. This is worse than unproductive anger. It is the kind of anger than can be manipulated by unethical politicians and others to lead to a reduction in civil rights and, worse, fascism. We must be on guard against this.