On the Fallacy of ‘Post-racialism’
Touré: The election of Obama has thrown the discussion of diversity and race into total conflict and there is a large group of people who want to say, 'well, now we've reached the mountain top, now we can stop talking about these issues, because we're in a post-racial or color blind society.' So these meaningless terms have arisen… and as a linguist, they bother me because they don’t mean anything and people use them to mean different things. And we don’t even have a consensus around what they mean as a nation. But there are people saying, 'well, we've reached it, so we can stop talking about this stuff.' And another group of people are saying, 'well, no, that's just him [Obama]. We've always had superstar, successful blacks, you know, even going back to Frederick Douglass. That doesn’t mean that things are happening down here on the ground that have actually changed anything.'
On the 2012 Election
Vargas: In some way the soul of the heterosexual white man is at stake. That is what's at stake.
Touré: Does Romney really represent that?
Vargas: Well, I don’t know. I don't know, Touré. But what I do know is that for everybody in this country for whom America has always been a fight, they're looking at him to whom everything has always been given, and are going 'Okay, do you see yourself? Do you fully and comprehensively see yourself and how you fit in this?'
On the Underreported Stories of Immigrant Life
Vargas: If you think about how people think about illegal immigrants in America, what do we have cemented in our head, that role of people jumping over the fence, right? When people think that—when people think illegal people, that's usually what they have in mind. That's because I think the media—and I’m talking about it broadly here—has failed in representing the reality of the illegal immigration in this country, about the fact that we are integrated. To me, what’s one of the most optimistic things happening is you have churches, you have schools, you have families all standing up and saying, 'Wait up a second. You can't deport that kid. That kid belongs to us. He's an American, right?' Arthur Miller said, 'A good newspaper is a country talking to itself.' I don’t think we have that anymore.
On the Case for Ethnic Studies
Vélez-Ibáñez: Chicano studies and the rest, African-American studies and so on, were necessary because we were left out totally. And the history that was being told was the single prism, the single kind of Eastern (US) prism of the way the world works. If and when the time comes that history departments have integrated—and I’m not talking at the university level—that knowledge base within the departments of history, within the departments of English, or in interdisciplinary departments, then there’s not going to be a need, per se, for programs like the ones I founded.
On Two Americas
Touré: I think that the ability for us to exist as one America is at stake. We are very much two Americas separate and unequal, and [the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer] is bringing it up from under the rug that this is true, that this is happening, that we feel entirely different about this case, that we are angry, that this is happening and continues to happen to our young boys. Not all white people but many white people are saying, 'Why aren't you dealing with black on black crime? Deal with your own problems, why are you so angry about this?' It is a scar on the American soul and an extraordinarily important moment in American history, and some people are not even recognizing that.
On Engaging with America
Touré: Part of what I’m talking about in my book is that Black Americans really need to deal in an emotional relationship with America. So many people say ‘I’m a New Yorker, I’m from Atlanta, New Orleans,' but their emotional relationship with America is very strained. They don't really want to call themselves American. Sometimes we do sort of a strange protest like we don't vote because they think, 'whoa, the system doesn't represent me.' There are all sorts of ways that we distance ourselves from America. And I feel like we need to fully embrace America because otherwise it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that we're rejecting America before it rejects us. And then it rejects us and we say, 'Well, there, that's proof.' But you reacted first.
Vargas: But that comes from a perspective of having to reject something. I found out I didn’t have papers when I was 16 after I went to the DMV. I didn't know when I got there that I didn’t have papers. And ever since then I have wanted to be here. That was what, 15, 16 years ago now? And it's funny because people were asking me, 'why don't you just leave?' I get emails from people—'just go home, you know, go home.' Thankfully, I’m a writer, and the Internet doesn't require a passport. I can be a writer anywhere. But I'm staying here because if there is one commonality, I have to say, I think America has always been a fight. I think this country has always been a fight from the very beginning. And that's why it's fascinating to me.
Williams: The Southwest is an area that I think in some ways is a preview of what’s coming for the rest of America, because the whole notion of the border, of racial identity, ethnic identity is greatly confused and mixed there. Is there one single American identity that you find as people come in to the American experience they adopt? That they immediately say, 'oh, I’m going to check either non white Hispanic on that box?' Or do they check white, do they check black, do they check Indian? What happens?
Vélez-Ibáñez: Depends whether you’re thinking about it internally or whether you're checking a box for the Census Bureau. The notion of being Hispanic was instituted during the Nixon administration, so it's a category from outside the population. The whole region of northwest Mexico and southwest United States has always been a region of multiple identities, not a single identity. People have been crossing back and forth since the 19th century and people have to understand that the United States is only 160 years old there. My father's great-uncle saw the last Mexican flag come down in 1853 in Tucson. So that's a different reality, a different region in which we've always accepted the dynamic of the border region.