Carol Swain’s Presentation on Immigration at Kent State

Dr. Carol Swain, professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University, gave a talk this afternoon at the Kent State University library on, “Immigration, Identity Politics, and the Decline of America: A Challenge for President Obama.”  I was interested in hearing Dr. Swain speak, because I thought her ideas, which are in large part diametrically opposed to my own, might instigate some new ideas of my own regarding immigrants and their Othered status in the United States.

At the beginning of her talk, she described herself as “an accidental college professor.”  Consider some of Dr. Swain’s bits of personal information:  one of 12 children, didn’t graduate from high school (completed her GED), married by age 16, had 2 children while she was in community college, an African immigrant from Sierra Leone encouraged her to go to community college, she chose to pursue criminal justice because it had the most lax math requirement, she was told by her professors that she had a moral duty to teach in the university due to a “critical shortage of role models,” and she said that she “had come so far from where I started, I didn’t consider failure a possibility.”

She began her presentation by saying that “she doesn’t want to start trouble.”  However, she adds, “but if someone doesn’t say something, then I feel I have to.”  The trouble that she doesn’t want to start has to do with what she terms “the immigration problem.”  In her largely impromptu and very lucid presentation, she aligned a more open borders approach to immigration to an “elite” position (elite in her sense has to do with business and I think the academic left as well), and a “rank and file” position (the average American voter divorced from race).  She went on to argue that the average American citizen, especially low wage earners without a high school diploma, are hurt by legal and illegal immigration wage depression.  Furthermore, she argues that voting initiatives, such as the English-only amendment in Nashville, reveal that people are threatened by immigration and want to take action.  However, the real problem for Dr. Swain lies in the federal government’s lack of enforcement of existing laws, and the creation of new law to deal with immigrants.  

As if that weren’t provocative enough, she rounded out her presentation with a brief critique of identity politics and the decline of America.  As Dr. Swain sees it, there is growing tension between white identity, and racial and ethnic diversity.  She noted that the founding fathers lost the battle for an Anglo-America, and now there is a growing fear among whites about the expanding minority demographics.

For Dr. Swain, the solution is assimilation, which she considers a good word.  She believes that we (US citizens) should see ourselves as Americans and nothing else. Instead of separate identity groups vying for a small piece of the pie (power?), we should give up some of that identity and have a single, unified American identity.  Denouncing cultural relativism, she invoked a few anecdotal examples of immigrants breaking US laws (violently).  Sure, these things may happen among a few, but to classify all immigrants as law breaking cultural snobs is a logical fallacy.  Furthermore, her saying “they have to come up to our level” implies a cultural superiority over other peoples, which is not something that I can do except in the most extreme circumstances of crimes against the person (e.g., female circumcision).  Even in those cases, I do not consider it an American standard, but a rational argument against the harming of the minds and bodies of others.  

Her conservative provocativeness reminds me of the right wing academic Monty Kipps from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.  However, I don’t think Kipps would have ended his presentation in the same way as Dr. Swain when she said, “And as Forrest Gump would say, ‘That’s all I have to say about that.'”

An afterthought:  As Professor Babacar M’Baye and I were talking about after class, we must talk about race without fear.  It is only through talking about race and the other things that we can move forward.  To be fair to Dr. Swain, I do heartily agree with her about the necessity and importance of talking about immigration, race, and identity in the open.  Also, it is vital that a variety of opinions be invited to share in the conversation.  Ignoring these issues and what these things mean to people will not some how make them go away.