O'Reilly: Amnesty demands a frank talk about paternalism

The notion that there are two Americas --

The notion that there are two Americas -- one inescapably poor -- is a cancer that has to be excised from the national mindset. (Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Michael Osbun)

William F. B. O'Reilly

Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28, William F. B. O'Reilly

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Amnesty is coming.

Both Republicans and Democrats say so.

For the estimated 11 million mostly Hispanic immigrants now living illegally in the United States -- let's not mince terms -- immigration reform should be a life-changer.

But will it be?

If you listen to the way Latinos, documented and undocumented, are routinely categorized in this country, the answer may be no, and that would be a tragedy. Because there is no group more aspirational or hardworking in today's America than those of Hispanic descent.

So why are Latinos -- who have been here since Columbus -- marginalized as ineluctable members of some permanent American underclass, as blacks have unfairly been for decades? Why is a group 52 million strong and growing referred to as a "minority" in need of special considerations? It's a cruel and counterproductive moniker that separates "minorities" from the rest of Americans.

Ask African-Americans whether institutional sympathy has done anything to advance the standard of living in black communities, or whether it's perpetuated a paternalistic attitude among elites toward African-Americans -- which has to have taken a toll on the collective black psyche. Well-meaning not-for-profits enter inner city communities like missionaries. Their work may be noble, but it's inherently insulting. I wonder how long it takes young African-Americans in this country to notice that they're treated as though they have some handicap -- to begin feeling, as President George W. Bush called it, "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Amnesty and the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the 1965 Voting Rights Act provide an opportunity in this country to reassess the notion of race and ethnicity and how we all fit into the American fabric. Amnesty will remove any legal barriers to opportunity for millions; the Voting Rights Act decision reflects the plain truth that African-Americans are as capable of competing for and running things in this country as anyone else. Yes, there are obstacles for those growing up in poor communities -- there always have been -- but paternalism, however well intentioned, has arguably become one of them.

This is, no doubt, a difficult conversation to have. No one wants to talk about race; there are minefields everywhere. But the notion that there are two Americas -- one inescapably poor -- is a cancer that has to be excised from the national mindset.

African-Americans have a different history in America than any other ethnic group. Slavery was among the greatest moral crimes in history; the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow laws were similarly pernicious. All warranted government intervention. But rather than phasing out that interventional stance over time, the U.S. government is extending it into other cultures that did not suffer the history African-Americans did. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is beginning to include Asian-Americans in its protected class status now. Women get looped in there, too, with "women-and-minority-owned business" perks. All totaled, that confers "minority" status at times on 68 percent of the country. It's, well, categorically absurd.

Politics, of course, is what feeds this notion. Winning elections has long been a game of divide and conquer in this country, particularly among Democrats. Rich are played off against poor; black against white; women against men. (And Republicans against everybody.) But no constituency has been more effectively isolated than the "minority." That categorization may help produce a reliable vote, but the label, ultimately, is a scourge, a millstone around the neck.

Forty percent of minority-owned businesses in America today are owned by Hispanics. In another 30 years, 40 percent of all American businesses may be, providing that Latinos are left alone to thrive or fail the way other ethnic groups in America have. That's the American promise -- the American dream. But that dream will only be fully realized when every American is free to pursue his or her own ambitions -- or not -- without interference from the politickers and missionaries.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.