Pulling up the Welcome Mat
by Amanda Cantrell Roche

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
- George Santayana

The rhetoric on immigration in middle Tennessee’s primary elections was stunning. I found myself asking, “Do I really live in a state in which these are viable candidates?” Just down the road from Nashville, my home town of Murfreesboro was making international news in June for the vehement opposition to an Islamic Center there. Residents, fueled by the words of candidates such as Lou Ann Zelenik, protested in mass against what many claimed was a terrorist training camp. Their reasoning:  Well, aren’t all Muslims potential terrorists? According to Zelenik, if the members of this religious community will not openly denounce extremists who share their belief in Islam, they must be counted, apparently along with the approximately one and a half billion Muslims in this world, among the Jihadists.

I wonder what Zelenik, who is openly Christian, would say to someone demanding she denounce abortion clinic murderers, or else be labeled as a terrorist merely by shared religious association.

One gubernatorial candidate, Ron Ramsey, even questioned if Islam was a religion:  “Now you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult,” he said while jaws dropped, and some of us cringed at the thought of this figure being the public face of Tennessee.

Thankfully, neither of these candidates won in the primary, but the number of people who voted for each was, disturbingly, in the thousands.

Muslims are but one target. Our Latino brothers and sisters, willing to do hard labor for less money than most, bear the brunt of anger and frustration of large numbers of un and underemployed in a struggling economy. And politicians capitalized on that vexation to vie for votes, adding antagonism, but little understanding, to the situation.

Racial profiling is an issue in Nashville as well. Yes, the color of your skin is, amazingly, still a potential risk factor for traffic stops in 2010. In June a racial profiling hearing was held at Nashville’s Scarritt Bennett Center to review accounts of immigrants and minorities willing to speak out, while a week later Tennessee politicians traveled to Arizona to learn how to implement tough, perhaps even unconstitutional, immigration reform laws here.

In this climate, it is no wonder that members of Nashville’s Mexican, Kurdish, Egyptian, Sudanese, Burmese and Iranian communities, along with many other international residents we are fortunate to host, are often reluctant to speak out when their rights are violated, when their homes are robbed, their children threatened. They silently endure crimes because they are more afraid of law enforcement than their perpetrators. When one’s skin, religion, language and culture raise alarm and distrust rather than welcome and engagement, it is best to stay out of the way, to stay hidden, to keep as mute as Anne Frank’s attic.

But while a vocal minority fumes, there is progress. Nashville for All of Us, a community coalition supported by Mayor Karl Dean, helped defeat an “English Only” referendum in January 2009 which would have required nearly all local government communications to be conducted only in English. And there were equally as many people at a Religious Freedom Rally to support the Islamic Center as there were protesters.

It is enough to offer at least a ray of hope;  A hope that we can embrace that we are a city, a nation of immigrants, and will continue to be. A hope that education will crack the wall of anger fueled by mistrust and ignorance, and open a window of understanding and communication. A hope for realization that to live in a safe place and have enough to eat is the right of anyone, no matter what flag under which one was born. A hope that we have witnessed enough persecution because of skin color or homeland or religion to step back and comprehend the absurdity of it all. A hope that Santayana’s words still resonate, and we have learned the harsh lessons of the Holocaust, of segregation, that the scars are still etched on our collective skin, and this time, the path towards justice and tolerance will not bear the bloody stains of our turbulent past.




Disclaimer:  These organizations are in no way affiliated with Nashville Skyline, and the views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of these groups.

Scarritt Bennet Center: Diversity in Dialogue:  Dialogues on Immigration


TIRRC: Tennessee Immigrate and Refugee Rights Coalition


Nashville for All of Us




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