Leah Perry is an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at SUNY Empire State College. Her work examines gender and sexuality, American Studies, immigration, race and ethnicity, as well as media and popular culture. Dr. Perry holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University.
We discussed her first book The Cultural Politics of U.S. Immigration: Gender, Race, and Media (New York University Press, 2016).
What inspired you to go into this field?
I was drawn to American Studies because I wanted to understand and combat the core of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia – the violences of inequality that are endemic to American culture and history. American Studies is especially well-situated to provide that challenge given its interdisciplinarity nature (oppression does not occur in neat academic divisions nor should our study of it). I was also interested in the field’s analysis and situation of popular culture within larger social, historical, and economic contexts, as well as the political commitment to social justice and often activism; what I consider to be the strongest work in the field is both rigorous and useful “on the ground,” in the real world, to real people.
This white queer woman was also galvanized by the intersectional work of women of color feminists, and consequently I bring an insistently intersectional feminist lens to my study of American culture. The scholarship of bell hooks, which I first encountered as a freshman in college, was especially influential. Her work first taught me that “universal” feminism is inevitably white, and as such reiterates and bolsters white supremacy and renders invisible the ways that racism and sexism fuel and support one another. Her work allowed me to understand how race and other aspects of social identity are fundamentally intertwined with gender and that popular culture and media are part of the systemic violence waged against women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and others with minority identities. hooks also showed me a sphere in which that violence can be challenged. In short, hooks first opened my eyes to the fact that intersectionality is a lived truth, that intersectional feminism is a practice, and that representation matters. From that initial transformative encounter with black feminist thought, I was later drawn to the foundational works of women of color feminists such as Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua, to their intersectional study of American culture, and to their political commitment to social justice.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to understand the contradictions surrounding immigration in the United States, and especially the “nation of immigrants” narrative that has so much ideological power despite the simultaneous prevalence of xenophobia: Where did it come from? What kind of political work does the narrative accomplish? Why? Who benefits from it? Who is harmed? How and why has it changed over time? Why was it so prevalent in American culture in the 1980s, in the Reagan era?
My interest was personal as well as political, of course. As a child, I was steeped in the 1980s version of “nation of immigrants” rhetoric. My father is the first-born American son to Italian and Portuguese immigrants, and my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Italy in the early twentieth century. According to family lore, they all worked assiduously, in the midst of discrimination toward Eastern and Southern European immigrants, to provide the next generation with a better life. The “nation of immigrants” storyline was also prevalent in the popular culture that I consumed growing up. It surfaced in popular sitcoms and films that romanticized white ethnic European immigration such as Perfect Strangers, Golden Girls, and Who’s the Boss? That 1980s “nation of immigrants” narrative, which rebranded white supremacy and sexism in the wake of the civil rights and “second-wave” feminist movements, idealizes ostensibly self-sufficient white ethnic immigrant heteropatriarchal families, families much like my own. It has proven to be flexible enough to incorporate some immigrants of color as “model minorities,” and it is entirely predicated on the erasure of the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the acknowledgement of the US as a settler colonial nation. As the story goes, many immigrants themselves became "settlers."
But it is incredibly hard to see all of the ways in which the “nation of immigrants” narrative perpetuates inequality, oppression, and violence when American popular and political culture is permeated with salutary representations of the “nation of immigrants,” and when those representations appear to be evermore diverse and multicultural, tokenizing people and especially women of color. Such discourses suggest that America’s capitalist democracy is equitable and accessible to all those who work hard enough. It has been incredibly useful to neoliberalism in that it makes a system predicated on racial and gender inequality and violence appear to be inclusive. And the liberalism underscoring the “nation of immigrants” narrative is prevalent in progressive activist discourses as well.
DREAM Act rhetoric asserts that immigrants deserve a path to legalization because they are law-abiding, especially hard working members of heteronormative families, students, or have served in the military. We can also see the “nation of immigrants” idea surfacing right now in opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban with the “Immigrants Make America Great” slogan, recourse to the Statue of Liberty as the welcoming “mother of exiles,” the framing of welcoming immigrants as a national value, and the focus on the separation of families as an especially urgent reason to end the ban. Although well meaning, with these narratives, the field for valuable immigrant life is therefore restricted to immigrants who contribute to the economy and are part of a heteropatriarchal family, and this country’s history of settler colonialism and slavery is once again erased.
Additionally, this romanticized neoliberal rebranding of white supremacist heteropatriarchy cohered as increased Latin American and especially Mexican undocumented immigration was framed as a crisis in relation to Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” welfare, and Mexican immigrant women’s alleged fecundity; the term “illegal alien,” affixed to Mexicans in the 1970s, connotes future crime and turns human beings into things. This “immigration emergency” discourse rationalizes overt violence and inequality in the name of protecting “Americans” from dangerous immigrants. For instance, Scarface (1983) makes a strong case for restricting and harshly punishing “criminal” refugees, though the film has little relationship to the truth of Marielitos’s harrowing experiences, or the truth in general. In the 1980s, this “immigration emergency” narrative was just as prevalent as the “nation of immigrants” narrative, and sometimes they were entwined. I wanted to know why: why these two imaginings of immigration, why then, in the 1980s and into the early 2000s?
Tell us more about the ways in which the "1980s immigration discourses are a crucial but understudied aspect of neoliberalism."
My book is about how the nexus of gender, race, and immigration structure neoliberalism; the neoliberal project was solidified and furthered in/through these discourses in policy and media, though immigration is rarely considered as a foundational part of neoliberalism. The book traces the “nation of immigrants” and “immigration emergency” discourses in order to show how both conceal the racialized and gendered violence of neoliberalism.
To provide some historical context: in the 1980s as immigration from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia increased, the language and common imagery of immigration debates shifted. Reagan’s America seemed to be more inclusive, reflecting democratic gains made by racial minorities and women with the civil rights and second wave feminist movements, and that new inclusivity was visible and a part of Americans’ daily lives via TV shows, films, and popular news media. Yet that allegedly multicultural and feminist inclusivity was circumscribed by gendered and race-based discourses so that immigrants were either feared and censured or welcomed only as laborers or “model minorities.”
In policy debate, nativists and organized labor wanted to establish an undocumented immigration crisis that was attributable to Mexico and an increase of women from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean (but immigration had NOT increased much). At the same time, free market economists like Reagan wanted cheap immigrant labor (amnesty), and some pundits supported the idea of America as a multicultural “nation of immigrants.” The policy response to these varied stances on immigration, passed after five years of heated bipartisan debate, was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, the first comprehensive immigration reform since 1965. IRCA combined welfare cuts, sanctions for the employers of undocumented immigrants, increased border militarization, and an amnesty program that was lauded as a humanitarian victory, but which actually secured a pool of hyperexploitable male Mexican laborers, and excluded women.
I argue that IRCA, designed to resolve these tensions over immigration in the context of shifting social paradigms, established the model for neoliberal immigration. On the heels of the civil rights movement and second wave feminism, even conservative politicians had to at least pay lip service to gender and racial equality (recall that Reagan tokenized women and people of color, as with his Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor and his inclusion of Clarence Thomas in his administration, to prove that he embraced feminism and multiculturalism). Backlash came in opposition to the ERA, abortion, gay rights, as well as attacks on affirmative action and welfare. The neoconservative trumpeting of “family values” was one narrative that covered all of these bases: America was supposedly in moral decline, epitomized by the “breakdown” of the traditional family. Women’s rights and civil rights were challenged vis-à-vis “family values.” For instance, as with the 1965 Moynihan Report, poverty was framed as a moral and economic personal failure and thereby superficially disconnected from race and gender, from racism and sexism. This rearticulation of racism and sexism translated seamlessly into the way immigration was talked about, legislated, and represented.
On one hand, salutary representations of immigration proliferated as part of the mainstreaming of multiculturalism and feminism and were, incidentally, crucial to the US's appearance as a humanitarian haven in the context of the Cold War (as in the film Moscow on the Hudson , for instance). But when immigrants deviated from the dominant value system – like ostensibly fecund, teenaged welfare-abusing Mexican American mothers in the film Mi Vida Loca (1994) or criminally inclined Cuban refugees, like the hyperviolent Tony Montana, antihero of Scarface (1983) – they were rendered undeserving of everything from social services to residence in the US to even life itself. Recurring stories about immigration on the congressional floor and in popular media indicated that punitive legal action (like border militarization, welfare cuts, deportation) for these moral and economic personal failures was not racist or sexist, but necessary to protect the economy and citizens.
What emerged was a discordant combination of gatekeeping and welcoming that made immigration crucial to neoliberalism. The two conceptions of immigration that I mentioned above – “nation of immigrants” and “immigration emergency” – surfaced repeatedly in relation to Latina/os, Asians, and white ethnics beginning in the Reagan years and continued to be the dominant modes of thought and expression about immigration until September 11, 2001, brought “terror” and Islamophobia to the forefront of immigration politics. In comparing how Latina/os, Asians, and white ethnics were represented in relation to immigration in lawmaking and in pop culture, I show that even while “multicultural” immigrants were embraced in some ways, they were disciplined through gendered discourses of respectability that became part and parcel of neoliberal ideology, policy, and policing.
How does the election of Donald Trump intersect with your book?
My book makes the point that America is far more racist and (hetero)sexist than it seems. I show how 1980s immigration narratives go a long way to cover that up. An overtly racist, xenophobic misogynist, who has sexually assaulted multiple women and is driven by greed and corporate interest, with little to no regard for much of human life, is president of the United States, the allegedly exceptionally inclusive capitalist democracy.
He took up the “immigration emergency” trope with horrifying success, first in his verbal attacks on undocumented Mexican immigrants as “murderers” and “rapists” while campaigning. It was the theme of his “big” immigration speech on August 30, 2016, when he brought out family members of citizens killed by “criminal aliens” to emphasize his desire to protect “Americans”…with a massive wall that Mexico would finance, aggressive removal and punishment, and an end to amnesty. In the first few days of his presidency, he issued executive orders banning refugees from Muslim-dominant nations and implementing his plan to build a wall at the Mexico border. He has also threatened to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities. I fear what else he will do by the time this interview is published. All of this draconian immigration policy is in the name of public safety.
While in some ways the first two weeks of his presidency is unlike anything the US has seen, Trump’s racist, sexist, violent anti-immigration rhetoric and action is nothing new. Racist xenophobia is a consistent part of American history, and Trump’s version of it is part of the legacy of 1980s immigration discourse, which is built on previous iterations of white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia in immigration law and in the culture at large, but the neoliberal version concealed that fact with cosmetic “diversity” and/or “colorblind” appeals to safety.
Trump is the karmic fruit of a nation built on the dispossession of indigenous people, slavery, and heteropatriarchy. It’s not that his election is indicative of the erosion of American democracy, as some pundits have claimed; rather, it’s that American-style democracy, designed to protect the property of wealthy white men, is working as it was meant to, and that neoliberalism has furthered that “cause.” This is not to say that there is not value in the movement on the Left to not normalize his authoritarian and fascist actions, like silencing and discrediting the press when it is critical of him, or his “alternative fact” nonsense. This is terrifying, and not something we should accept. But his anti-immigration stance and now action is part of a continuum, a long American history of xenophobia, racism, heterosexism, and settler colonialism. I think it’s crucial to understand that history and the precedents he is building on, in order to effectively mobilize and resist him.
Reagan and his politics figure prominently in your text. Why is he so important?
Many celebrate the Reagan era as a “great” time when America was prosperous and abundant. In truth, neoliberalism – and its inherent gender and racial violences – solidified in the 1980s with the Reaganite dismantling of the welfare state. Neoliberalism’s simultaneous appropriation of multicultural and feminist discourses and deployment of ostensibly color- and gender-blind appeals to protect (certain) citizens from crime and criminals either concealed or rationalized those violences, and that was accomplished in large part through immigration discourse. Reagan himself simultaneously supported amnesty and regularly used “nation of immigrants” rhetoric to make a Cold War case for America’s exceptional inclusivity, and he criminalized immigrants and supported restrictionist policies such as the border militarization and welfare restriction included in IRCA. Reaganite politics were key to the establishment of the paradigm for neoliberal immigration, which includes all of these threads.
Why do you consider the 1980 Mariel Boatlift a pivotal moment?
Mariel established the neoliberal version of the “immigration emergency” narrative that was passed into law with IRCA. Media coverage initially framed President Carter’s welcoming of Cuban refugees as an example of America’s exceptionally benevolent generosity in stark contrast to the cruelty of a Communist regime. But when news broke that the Mariel Boatlift included refugees who had been released from Castro’s prisons and mental health facilities – and as refugee numbers swelled – the media spectacle became alarmist. News media and popular culture, as in Scarface, made it clear that the US was under siege in an “immigrant emergency” that originated south of the border, manifested itself in gendered ways, and necessitated action such as the proposed Immigrant Emergency Powers Act (IEP) of 1982. The law, which did not pass, would have given the president unilateral powers in the face of a vaguely defined “immigration emergency.” The proposed IEP bears a striking resemblance to the emergency law that allowed Hitler to seize power, and, along with a history of US nation-based exclusions beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, IEP provided a policy precedent for Trump’s ban on refugees from Muslim-dominant nations. Proponents of the IEP claimed that increasing the president’s power to shut down the borders was a necessary response to the immigration threat so clearly embodied in the influx of criminals from the Mariel Boatlift and also in the deluge of poor Haitian “boat people.” Alarm over undocumented Mexican “criminal aliens” was quickly folded into the discussion as well. The “immigration emergency” trope – strengthened in popular media and backed by the “nation of immigrants” trope (the latter was the thing that needed to be protected) – made depriving immigrants and citizens of rights seem like “common sense.” As we can see with Trump’s election, this racist, xenophobic epistemology is alive and well.
How do American television shows and films intersect with your argument?
In short, culture is politics by other means.
My understanding of the dialectic between politics and popular culture is part of a Cultural Studies project of understanding that law creates and diffuses forms of power that shape social life and that culture impacts policy and legal discourse. In terms of immigration in the US, pluralism is celebrated as a national value, but the diversity that immigrants bring over the border is often perceived as a threat to the complexion, economy, and unity of the nation. From the political cartoons and plays of the late nineteenth century to the blockbuster films, viral blogs, and tweets of today, these tensions over immigration and American identity have been hashed out in popular culture as well as on the congressional floor. I look at how and why what counted as American “common sense” about immigration was reframed in 1980s policy and culture, which was rather fitting during the tenure of a president who first achieved national prominence as a film star. I think attention to the dialectic between policy and media will continue to be important under the tenure of a new president who was and perhaps still views himself as a reality TV star and who is deeply committed to his Twitter account. I trace recurring tropes, narratives, and images about immigration (or images coded as such) in order to evaluate the development of mainstream cultural scripts through which questions of immigration, American identity, and labor are explored in relation to rising US neoliberalism.
You argue songs and music videos also display issues related to gender, race, and immigration. How so?
Like mainstream film and television, songs and music videos function as politics by other means, containing political messages, conveying ways of knowing about race, gender, sexuality, and immigration that tend to reaffirm rather than challenge extant power structures, given that they are produced by corporations for a profit. For instance, I open the book with an analysis of Madonna’s 1984 “Borderline” music video. She pushes the standards of Reagan-era gendered and racialized respectability by choosing the world of a young, urban, working-class Latino lover over a wealthy white photographer. “Borderline” was significant not only because its then-controversial representation of an interracial relationship and female sexual assertiveness, but because the video played out – and played with – the struggles over immigration, gender roles, and multiculturalism that were at the forefront of American politics in the 1980s. This video was produced when lawmakers were debating the second round of IRCA; tensions over the “immigration emergency” that came from Mexico and Latin America were colliding and at times entwined with “nation of immigrants” rhetoric. The video encapsulates those tensions and emblematizes the way that the “nation of immigrants” narrative supports rather than transgresses extant power relations and especially white supremacy. In this video and other texts like the sitcom Golden Girls, the racist limits of white feminism are quite clear: Madonna’s choice to consume and appropriate multiculturalism through her Latino lover and his urban working-class world is cast as female empowerment.
What's the most important message you hope readers takes from your book?
I want readers to understand that America is and has been far more racist, sexist, and xenophobic than it seems to many. Close analysis of immigration history, and especially recent immigration history, is one thing that makes this point very clear. Trump’s victory is often framed as a break in more recent American history, rather than as the logical, monstrous product of neoliberalism and a nation built on slavery and the dispossession of indigenous people. Lest anyone (white people) forget, I think it’s especially important right now, as the few and flawed protections we have in place for vulnerable populations are stripped away, that we recognize the US is built on racism, sexism, and settler colonialism. The very structures that are being mourned – democracy, free speech, etc. – are part of that oppressive and violent system that allowed for the election of Trump and for a limited view of which immigrant lives are valued – the “hard working,” self-supporting immigrants with proper “family values.” Even as the political field becomes further constrained, the system itself still needs to change; as Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I hope I make the case that immigrant lives – rather than cheap labor, a racist, sexist notion of “safety,” heteropatriarchal “family values,” contribution to the economy via hard work, ratings and box office hits, or cosmetic diversity – should be at the center of immigration debates.
What are you working on now?
My current project brings indigenous scholars’ work on indigeneity and settler colonialism into dialogue with the 1980s “nation of immigrants” discourse given its foundational importance to neoliberalism. Indigenous scholars remind us that the US is a settler nation; immigrants came later and, in fact, also became settlers. And while Trump’s election disrupted the inclusive façade of “nation of immigrants” liberalism, the ongoing erasure of Native Americans that the “nation of immigrants” mythos relies on is predictably absent in mainstream culture, even after the #NoDAPL movement brought indigenous rights and people into the mainstream media. I think that consideration of indigeneity could help to challenge the ongoing erasure of indigenous people and the structure of settler colonialism by continuing to move us away from the allure of the “nation of immigrants” storyline and the multiple exclusions underscoring it. I am also interested in the possibilities that emerge if we examine the production of illegality/deportability in relation to the criminalization of Native Americans, most recently in the criminalization of water protectors, and the ways in which the very concepts of rights, borders, and transnationality are altered and expanded when consideration of indigeneity and settler colonialism are a foundational part of intersectional analysis.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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