Professor Robert Smith is a professor of Sociology at Baruch College and at The Graduate Center. He was trained as a political scientist at Columbia University and describes himself as an ethnographer who likes numbers and masquerades as a sociologist. His book Mexican New York is based on 18 years of ethnographic research and makes a practical contribution to the lives of immigrants. His research interests arose when he taught English at a labor camp in college and most workers were Mexican. In his talk at the Advanced Research Collaborative, he shared with us some of the findings for a book he is writing with Andy Beveridge titled This is Still America! Voting Rights and Immigration.
His ethnographic research takes place in the 100-Acre Wood Community, a pseudonym for a small, suburban town. Professor Smith’s involvement in the town began when he received an e-mail from the U.S. Department of Justice to serve as an ethnographer and expert witness in a case involving voting rights. The 100-Acre Wood Community is small town that used at-large voting. This meant that there were no voting districts. Conflicts began to arise when the Latino population of the town grew outnumbering African Americans who have moved out because of the lack of opportunities. The at-large voting meant that all voters cast their ballots for all candidates in the town (NAACPLDF, 2016). These circumstances made it impossible for minority candidates to be elected. As minority populations all over the U.S. grow, jurisdictions with at-large voting rules are faced with the challenge of fairly representing their communities. Conflict in the town intensified after the voting rights act trial began and public hearings were held to decide whether to continue with at-large voting or have districts.
Professor Smith has been in the field in the 100-Acre Wood Community since 2006. As part of his research, he interviewed and recorded participants, attended school board meetings and church seminars about immigration, and joined Facebook groups. While conducting his interviews of people’s experiences in the town as voters and political candidates, Professor Smith found that Latinos were continually seen by the majority white gaze as illegal, not eligible to vote, immoral, and illegitimate. Illegality makes immigrants into a moral point. The logic of illegality allows those who believe they do not break the law to position themselves on a moral high ground compared to those who are perceived as breaking the law by entering the U.S. without proper documentation. This led Professor Smith to ask how the discriminatory narratives about race and voters are enacted. In interviews with poll workers and in public speeches by leaders in the town, people expressed moral panic about immigration in the U.S. and a feeling of white dispossession. This was part of a discourse that stigmatized Latinos as illegal and framed them as not enjoying moral righteousness. In this discourse, Hispanics are not in the same moral category of worth as others and are dehumanized. When the issue of taking out a bond to pay for education in the town came up, people expressed a sentiment that illegal children should not be entitled to education, and the bond was voted down. Even if they are immigrants themselves, the participants interviewed feel a moral hierarchy and think that Latinos are all illegal.
The U.S. Department of Justice eventually won the voting rights lawsuit. The 100-Acre Wood Community became a town at war with itself and incidents were reported in the press. This led Professor Smith to conduct 153 doorstep interviews. He found that about a quarter of those interviewed believed that illegal voters would vote. Older, retired white people who have a difficult time paying taxes, white people who live in places that used to be mostly white and are now Latino, and very white districts reported feeling dispossessed.
In town council and community school board meetings, Latinos constantly had their U.S. citizenship brought into question and hence their right to participate in the democratic process. Latinos were even called “illegal” by some of the other attendees at these meetings. When they went to vote, those asking for a Spanish interpreter or perceived as speaking English with an accent reported being asked to present identification –which is an outright violation of voting law– and were told that they either were not in the right district or that their name was not in the voter registry. These incidents occurred even though the town does a full day of training for poll workers. Did Hispanic voters not know their rights? Professor Smith ended his talk by suggesting that there should be implicit bias training for voting place poll workers. In addition to this, explicitly requiring poll workers to record every request for identification would make a difference in the bureaucratic process.
Despite these experiences of discrimination, the Hispanic and non-Hispanic participants Professor Smith interviewed were still reluctant to categorize anyone as racist. Yet, how is it that a town does not want to see Latinos elected to office? I have always ideologically imagined the U.S. as a racist place because of my own experiences of discrimination and racism. Is this not the case everywhere in the U.S.?
~Luis Guzman Valerio
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (2016). At-large voting frequently asked questions. Retrieved from http://www.naacpldf.org/files/case_issue/At-Large%20Voting%20Frequently%20Asked%20Questions.pdf