BY FRANK BATAVICK
It’s gets personal for me. Perhaps that’s because at various times in my life I have felt the sting of prejudice and even anti-Semitism. Though of Croatian/Slovak/German/Irish stock, the Croatian genes are dominant, gifting me with Adriatic features topped with thick black hair. (You’ll have to imagine the hair part when you look at my photo.) I also have a last name that is tough for some to categorize ethnically.
As a result, when I was in my early twenties I twice felt the sting of bias in the workplace. In one summer job, a supervisor repeatedly singled me out for the most menial tasks. He finally admitted in an angry outburst that it was because I was Jewish. Perversely, his behavior miraculously changed when I corrected him by noting my family background and 16 years of Catholic education. Another supervisor at another job was always a bit unfriendly and stand-offish. On my last day there, he told me that he guessed I was OK… for a Puerto Rican. He wasn’t kidding.
One carries experiences like these around like a suitcase full of anvils. Even though the events happened far in the past, the discrimination still weighs heavy. That’s why I grew angry when I heard that social media erupted with racial insults when the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee crowned its co-champions. As in 2014 and other recent years, these winners were of Indian ancestry. It so happens that Indian-American children have dominated the National Spelling Bee for the last 15 years, and this doesn’t sit well with some folks. Before the final round, the director of the bee, Paige Kimble, was asked by one critic if any “Americans” had made it to the finals. To her credit, Kimble responded, “Yes, they’re all Americans.” Of the two co-champions, one is from Olathe, Kansas and the other from Chesterfield, Missouri. You can’t get more “Murican” than that. I wonder what might have set off the alarms regarding the brown-hued Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam?
Back in 2013 the twitter universe exploded with hate before game 3 of the NBA finals in San Antonio. An 11-year-old boy of Mexican heritage and wearing a Mariachi outfit sang the National Anthem. Though he performed beautifully, messages like "Why they got a Mexican kid singing the national anthem” and "How you singing the national anthem looking like an illegal immigrant" filled the Twittersphere. On what should have been the proudest day of his young life, Sebastien De La Cruz was mercilessly attacked. He responded to his critics on CNN, “I'm a proud American and live in a free country. It's not hurting me. It's just your opinion."
My half-century old experiences and what happened at the spelling bee and NBA final represent nothing less than raw bigotry. Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist and founder of the far-right Eagle Forum, contributed comments this past May which help to explain these hostile sentiments and echo the nativist movement that once washed over our land. Beginning in the 1800s, nativists espoused beliefs and practices that were protective of established residents and distrustful and prejudicial of immigrants. Nativists primarily feared the immigrants’ continued allegiance to foreign powers and a failure to assimilate into American culture. Papists, better known as Catholics, were at the top of their list.
In a radio address, Schlafly chided, “The problem is that the immigrants coming into our country today are not the same sort as the immigrants who contributed so much to building our great country. The immigrants who came to America in the 1920s and ‘30s were different – with very different motives.”
I believe that Vanya, Gokul, and Sebastien put the lie to the motives part of Schlafly’s statement. They have proven themselves as strivers and achievers in the best American tradition. But Schlafly is right about these newcomers being different from those of the 1920s and ‘30s. On God’s color wheel they happen to be a few shades darker than those who came from across Europe and that’s… well, that’s not the America she prefers.
The funny thing about these present-day nativists is that they love America, but they just can’t bring themselves to love all Americans.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.