Thoughts on Criticism from Tom Barry

By Jerry Kammer on March 23, 2010

Tom Barry is the director of the TransBorder Project at the liberal Center for International Policy in Washington. He works from New Mexico, where for more than 30 years he has done valuable research and writing on public policy issues. I first began learning from his work in the late 1970s, when I was working on a book about a bitter land dispute between the Navajos and Hopis in northeastern Arizona. Peabody Coal and other energy companies insinuated themselves into the inter-tribal fight as it moved to Congress, and Barry's work helped me understand the land dispute's broader regional context.

Barry is a now a student of border and immigration issues. His article for the November/December Boston Review about the emergence of a private immigration-detention industry along the border was recently named a finalist for the prestigious National Magazine Award.

When Tom Barry talks, I listen. I'd rather take criticism from the thoughtful Mr. Barry than praise from anyone on the agitated fringes of the national immigration debate.

Now Barry has presented a pointed criticism of the report we published last week about the campaign in which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Council of La Raza are attempting to smear immigration restrictionist groups, including CIS, as motivated by bigotry and hate.

Barry agrees with the overall premise of the report. He writes: "The ongoing campaign highlights the all-too-common willingness of those who are convinced of the righteousness of their cause to stoop to character assassination and shoddy analysis and research." And he calls the report "a must read for those who closely follow the immigration debate." (And in an earlier post, Barry described the SPLC's "hate group" label for FAIR as "opportunistic" and "unfair.")

But he strongly objects to how I name the National Council of La Raza. He writes: "NCLR is a pro-CIR ["comprehensive immigration reform"] civil rights group that restrictionist institutes and anti-immigrant groups love to criticize because of its controversial name and its history of identity politics. CIS associates itself with that sniping tradition in this report. The report unprofessionally and routinely identifies NCLR not by its name or its initials but simply as La Raza."

Later Barry notes: "NCLR has considered changing its name to avoid the criticism that it is a supremacist or racist group – 'the race' – but instead has tried to avoid the criticism by routinely referring to itself as NCLR."

First, I'd like to point out that by my count the report identifies the organization by its initials 27 times, while calling it "La Raza" 33 times. Second, I would note that a Nexis search shows that "La Raza" is widely used in newspaper accounts. Beyond that, I know from living most of my adult life in and around Arizona, that supporters of the organization have long called it simply "La Raza." (Another minor point is that use of "La Raza" helped reduce the proliferation of initials in a story that was a laden with references to SPLC, FAIR, CIS, and NCLR).

But beyond all that, I'd like to say that if the National Council of La Raza wants the benefits of a more moderate-sounding name, it should adopt one. Initials, after all, stand for something. A name is an expression of identity and often of purpose. Initials should not be used as camouflage.

Finally, I'd like to note that during last week's introduction of our report at the National Press Club, I said that I thought that Janet Murguia, the president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza, is a fine person. I also expressed admiration for her family, which includes a brother, Carlos, who is a federal judge in Kansas, and a sister, Mary, who is a federal judge in Arizona.

I hope that Janet Murguia will turn her organization away from the ugly smear campaign. I hope she will turn it in the direction of the noble sentiment she expressed to the Kansas City Star in 1995, when she was working in the Clinton White House.

Said Murguia: "One basic thing that gets lost in Washington is to just have a common sense of decency when you're treating people. Sometimes it seems like it's a rare commodity in this town. That's one thing I hope I keep from my Kansas upbringing – a lot of it is a Midwestern sort of Latin American upbringing."