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Brokenness and Leadership

Jenifer Wolf-Williams, Ed.D., LPC-S

The Word We Dare Not Say

The Word We Dare Not Say

Raising our family in a small Midwestern town was mostly lovely.  The girls could walk to dance class, visit neighbors, ride bikes to church.  Our favorite tea room was a block away, and a fun used bookstore not much farther.  But life was complicated too.

My stomach tightened the first time I heard a teenage friend speak against immigrants.  I pushed back but didn’t realize the power of  the regional sentiment behind his words. 

Later, as a legislative staffer for our Republican U.S Senator, I was stunned by the colder, harsher words of adult constituents.  I pushed back there too.  Hard enough for senior staff to remove me from the immigration assignment.  Hard enough to earn a lecture. 

“Try to put yourself in the place of an older woman who has lived in the same neighborhood all her life,” our advisor explained.  He described the woman’s grief at her changing neighborhood.  Its altered businesses.  Its bilingual signs. 

He didn’t say it, but he didn’t need to.  This hypothetical constituent was White, and her neighborhood was becoming Brown. 

Immigration was code for the word we dared not say. 

I read this constituent in a thousand emails, heard her voice in angry calls.  Saw her face in the actual woman who flew to D.C. to complain.  Her ire became our mandate for silence.


Recently, social scientists from three universities set out to explore the forces behind lawmakers' interactions with immigrant constituents.  They used an experimental design to study state legislators’ responses (or non-responses) to “constituents” who self-identified as U.S born, foreign born, a voter, or ineligible to vote. 

Oh, and the researchers looked at one more variable.  Race.  

They sent randomized emails to a sample of 5,087 legislators from 42 states.  The messages were typical:  “How can I track the progress of a bill?”  “Who can I contact if I have a problem with a state agency?” “How can I get a copy of the state budget?” 

Each email also contained a randomly selected closing that cued the experimental or control conditions:

I hope to hear from you soon.

I vote and hope to hear from you soon.

Even though I don’t vote, I hope to hear from you soon.

Even though I wasn’t born in the US, I hope to hear from you soon.

I was born in the US. I hope to hear from you soon.

Even though I wasn’t born in the US, I vote and I hope to hear from you soon.

I wasn’t born in the US. Even though I don’t vote, I hope to hear from you soon.

I was born in the US. I vote and I hope to hear from you soon.

I was born in the US. Even though I don’t vote, I hope to hear from you soon.

Finally, to create a racial identity for each “constituent,” the researchers followed an established scientific design using common names.  Josh Wilson represented a White constituent, Jamal Wilkerson a Black constituent, Juan Gonzales an Hispanic constituent, and Jian Wu an Asian constituent. 

Surprisingly, the likelihood of legislators’ responses did not correlate with voting eligibility or birthplace in the ways researchers expected.   

Legislators were only slightly more likely to respond to emails that mentioned voting, and this difference was similar whether the “constituent” identified as a voter or non-voter. 

Legislators were slightly less likely to respond to constituents who noted birthplace, whether this was the United States or elsewhere. 

The only experimental variable that strongly predicted whether a legislator would respond was race.  

Requests from apparently White constituents received the best response rate at 41.8 percent.  Black constituents received a slightly lower percentage of responses at 39.4 percent.  (Similar studies comparing these two groups have found larger differences.) 

But the strongest discrepancies in response rates were for requests that appeared to come from Hispanic and Asian constituents.  “Juan Gonzales” received responses only 34.7 percent of the time.  For “Jian Wu”, the response rate was 32.6 percent.

It may be worth noting that the low response rate for Jian Wu was spread evenly among Republican and Democrat legislators.  Juan Gonzales stood a much greater chance to hear back when he wrote to Democrats. 

The researchers summarized their findings this way: 

By experimentally manipulating the traits of a hypothetical constituent, we sought to determine whether state legislators were motivated by self-interest or bias in responding to requests for constituent services. The results appear to strongly favor the second of these two mechanisms (pp. 527-528).

In other words, race mattered.  It mattered more than voting.  It mattered more than immigration status.  It mattered more than anything. 

And before we point fingers at our legislators, we need to look at their driving force -- ourselves. 

Racially based immigration practices are our social heritage.  As I detailed in an earlier essay, the United States didn’t even try to hide this until the Civil Rights Era.  We openly espoused laws that declared citizenship was reserved for Whites only.  We operated Ellis Island for White European newcomers and Angel Island prison camp for those arriving from Asian countries. 

Growing up White, Midwestern, and Protestant, I understood these bits of history as relics from an unenlightened past.  I didn’t ask why most of my neighbors looked like me. But I’m asking now.  And still learning.  Slowly. 

I can only do my best to walk a different road.  To see my blind spots.  To touch oppression.  To recognize that much of what I once saw as normal, was intentionally “normalized” so I wouldn’t see my racism.  So I would be okay with walls and family separations and border militia and travesties of justice.

But love does not exclude.  Love does not fear.  And love does not hide from its own painful truths. 

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