The Numbers:13 Project
Then Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them—you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them—and damn them for me from there.” Numbers 23:13
There is no question that some individuals arrive at the border of the United States with malice in their hearts. They may have contraband to smuggle – drugs especially. They may be bringing children or young women to the border with the promise of a better life but the reality of being trafficked. They may have exacted exorbitant sums of money from other people hoping to avoid immigration authorities by crossing illegally.
I wouldn’t defend them, and I won’t defend them. They should be prevented, apprehended and/or prosecuted, as they deserve.
There is no question that some African American, Latinx, Hispanic and Asian individuals (and others) belong to gangs. They may be willing to tolerate or engage in criminal or anti-social activities. They may intimidate neighborhood residents or members of other gangs. They may seek to pressure recruits to join or to turn away from family and friends.
If they cross a legal line, they should be held liable for the consequences, as should anyone.
There is no question that some wealthy business people have gotten rich through illegal or immoral activity. They may have laundered money or concealed it from taxes in offshore accounts. They may have engaged in price gouging, price fixing or bait-and-switch pricing. They may have persuaded people to entrust them with their own money and then violated that trust.
No matter how genteel these crimes are, they should be investigated thoroughly and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The transgressions of any subset of any demographic segment must not be used to typify the population of similar individuals. Politely, we call that stereotyping. Less politely, we call that bigotry. If I suggest that sometimes stereotyping is an understandable reaction, it is not to justify it, but to recognize that when the only thing someone knows about an entire cohort is the actions of a few, extrapolating to the larger population is an understandable (if illegitimate) reaction. And certainly, if culture has not evolved to encourage wiser and more humane response, there is hard work to be done. Native Americans, LGBTQ individuals, immigrant populations from the Irish to the Guatemalan, and, most notably, African Americans have suffered from a proclivity of Americans of privilege to “other-ise” minorities. Education and personal relationships are the most effective correctives to bigotry borne of ignorance.
Sometimes there are people of genuinely bad will who seek to create a frame around others that purposely casts them in the most negative light for the general population. Take Balak, the self-proclaimed enemy of the Israelites who was intent on bringing down a curse on the liberated slaves. He promised a prominent religious figure, Bilaam (often called Balaam in English translations), wealth and access to power if he would attempt to marginalize the Israelites with an imprecation. Bilaam found himself drawn to praise at the wide expanse of the nomadic encampment. Balak suggests the ancient equivalent of cropping a photo, taking Bilaam to a vantage point that obscures most of them and diminishes their presence.
Maybe at that point Balak encouraged Bilaam to see criminals and rapists and drug dealers with calves the size of cantaloupes. Perhaps he called them roving bands of violent criminals roaming our neighborhoods. It could be he suggested that they wanted to bleed his country dry as their financial dealings were the equivalent of getting away with murder. And who knows – maybe from that promontory the visible section of the camp looked sinister and dangerous. Maybe it was a persuasive case to someone otherwise uninformed.
It didn’t work then, and it shouldn’t work now. Embracing those who differ from us does not mean ignoring the shortcomings of those who do not respect the law, just as we ought not overlook those most like us who do the same. And acknowledging the shortcomings of the minority of the minority does not mean generalizing to the majority of the minority.
Any religious figure who is seduced by wealth and power to do what is wrong in the eyes of his or her faith is a fraud. Any public figure who seeks to isolate an entire community by a sweeping judgment on a small subset is a bigot. And anyone who falls for those tactics has chosen ignorance over righteousness.