This article first appeared in the Standard-Speaker.
by Jamie Longazel
When the New England Patriots visited the White House in February after winning the Super Bowl, there was mutual respect. Their owner and star quarterback both have longstanding relationships with President Trump. Contrast that to the Golden State Warriors, who, after winning the NBA Championship this summer, conscientiously declined a White House visit.
Against these precedents, the Chicago Cubs encore visit to the White House on June 28 understandably attracted controversy. Many were surprised, even disappointed, that the Cubs would so willingly communicate to the public an eagerness to appear with this President.
The significance of the visit is amplified in Hazleton, where so many of us have come to embrace Cubs manager Joe Maddon as a leader willing to take a stand for his hometown.
To be fair, Maddon emphasized that he was just doing what his boss wanted: the Cubs owner holds the President in high regard and donated massive sums of money the Republican Party during last year’s election. “Whatever Mr. Ricketts would like me to do, I’m going to do,” Maddon told reporters.
But this was not simply a case of following orders. Maddon also paid homage to an old friend during his team’s trip to Washington. Congressman Lou Barletta reportedly invited him to a luncheon, where he agreed to address a group of Young Republicans. “Maybe something else will be in the making after that,” Maddon initially said of the visit, “But for right now, the one thing I got in my back pocket is Louie.”
It might seem petty, but the purpose of symbolic events like these is to send a message to the public. The message I received was of a man who has done so much for the people of Hazleton – particularly marginalized youth, who have benefited tremendously from his Hazleton Integration Project – lending legitimacy to Donald Trump and Lou Barletta’s politics.
Trump and Barletta have both built their political careers on scapegoating Latinos (who now comprise over 50% of Hazleton’s population) while at the same time advocating for policies that inflict great harm on all working class people. Consider, for example, the legislation now under consideration that would strip millions of us of our access to affordable healthcare.
This is bigger than party, dialogue with people who hold different views, or friendship in spite of differences. Sometimes, morality needs to take priority over those noble sentiments. When it comes to racism, we need to draw a line in the sand.
Barletta spent the morning before the Cubs’ visit doing interviews with radio hosts from around the country who were in town for the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s (FAIR) annual rally. FAIR, it turns out, is a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, with a lengthy record of working with white nationalists and defending racism. Their founder, John Tanton once remarked, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
Maddon smiling and shaking hands with Barletta, who proudly calls himself a FAIR “regular,” subtly implies to the rest of us that this sort of behavior is no big deal. But it is. Harsh and excessively punitive anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric lead to increases in violence, hate crimes, discrimination, and harassment. You will never hear scapegoating politicians admit it, but real people suffer from their efforts to score political points.
Maybe Maddon did not know about Barletta’s connection to anti-immigrant groups when he agreed to his requests to appear with him. All of us with Hazleton ties, however, should be very familiar with Lou Barletta’s politics. As I chronicle in my book, Undocumented Fears, he rose to power by stirring racial resentment, making us think that undocumented criminality was running rampant, even though it was not. In the process, he coaxed so many of us into wrongly believing that immigrants are the source of our economic problems, rather than economic policies that favor the rich and demonize the government spending that improves our communities.
He continues to do this in Congress. While the Cubs were in town, he was also busy building support for a pair of bills he co-sponsored, each of which rest on the racist assumption that undocumented immigrants are inherently crime-prone. In a statement, he revisited the 2006 murder of Derek Kichline (which he repeatedly used to justify Hazleton’s Illegal Immigration Relief Act), claiming that it was an “illegal immigrant” who committed the murder, even though the men charged with that crime were never convicted. His selective application of “innocent until proven guilty” should frighten us all.
Do not get me wrong: I still have great respect for all Joe Maddon has done for Hazleton and will continue to support his efforts. My point is that we need to hold him, like all of our leaders, accountable for all that they do, both good and bad – especially in Luzerne County, where powerful people always seem to be doing favors for one another, regardless of the moral implications.
But let’s also remember that public figures are not our saviors. We need to save ourselves by building power from the bottom up, rather than assuming those at the top will do the right thing. Our collective task is to identify a set of shared morals and values and honor them, even if that means ruffling some feathers – not morals based on what the Democrats or Republicans say, but on universally shared commitments: prioritizing equality over disparity, liberty over oppression and love over hate.
Jamie Longazel, a Hazleton native, is the author of Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
Photo from Associated Press.