Friday, June 10, 2011

Alabama's Brain Drain

The state of Alabama on Thursday passed the strictest illegal immigration legislation imaginable. In November, Republicans took formal control of both the state House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. However, this by itself was not necessarily the determining factor to ensure passage. Until this session, a majority of very conservative Democrats by in large peopled both chambers. But, back then, there were enough voices present who held other ideological views to push back against reactionary bills like this one. Even with the prior legislative balance of power, sentiments like these often found political favor. In an economically poor state desperate to find a scapegoat to explain recent financial woes, it was only a matter of time before migrant Latino workers were targeted. When all else fails, find someone different than you to blame.

If anyone should ask, Why did this happen?, I have at least a partial answer.

I spent my entire childhood, plus a majority of my adult life in the state of Alabama. Two years ago, I was requested to attend my tenth high school reunion. My memories of the time are not especially fond, so I declined. By means of a Facebook page established to confirm who would be present or not present, I discovered that roughly half of my classmates had no intention of attending themselves and now lived elsewhere. Though I have no way of knowing this for certain, I would be very surprised if they ever returned to the state of their birth and upbringing. This is unfortunate for the state and fortunate for whatever region or city they now call home. Alabama might as well be only a breeding ground for everyone else's raw talent.

The Brain Drain is substantial. And it even has historical precedent. Alabama is eager to claim famous people as one of its own, but many of them only lived in the state for short periods of time. In a slightly earlier era, the state was well-known for being the birthplace of many notable African-American athletes, musicians, and entertainers. Many left the South behind altogether, heading for the North in the Great Migration. Seeking the promise of a better life for themselves, they can hardly be blamed for departing. The athletes Joe Louis and Willie Mays and the musician Nat "King" Cole are only three such examples. There are many others. Now the Great Migration has no distinction for race.

Progressive voices rarely stick around any longer than necessary and for similar reasons. I'm one of them, though I stayed long enough to be thoroughly and completely disgusted. The only people willing to run for elective office and to be involved in shaping policy are the same backslapping good old boys (and sometimes gals). And until Alabama can preserve and maintain its own ample reserves of talent, it will always stay behind the curve. I left, after staying consistently sickened by regressive attitudes. My own Great Migration was to a place where people thought like me, for once. I should also note that both of my parents, also natives, actively encouraged me to leave the state should I wish to do so. My mother once confessed to me that she'd stuck around in the hopes that Alabama would reform itself, but knew now, later in life, that she had been wrong.

At the beginning of the Health Care Reform debate, itself nearly two years ago, I went home for a time and attended a Town Hall Meeting. The event was held by my local Republican Congressman, Spencer Bachus. Those of us who were supportive of Health Care Reform were outnumbered roughly 30 or 40 to 1. And after observing the attitudes, fears, and opinions of most people in attendance, I quickly began to realize that Health Care Reform was not necessarily being debated. Participants wanted to talk about Immigration as well, and rope it in to a long list of grievances. Rep. Bachus encouraged a broader discussion because it served his own purposes well. For him, coming down hard against "illegals" was a win-win situation. The de facto minister of this event, this topic allowed him to preach to the choir. It was a particularly nauseating means of harvesting the low hanging fruit. Though no one was yet using the phrase "Tea Party", I was seeing its formation and gestation.

A postcard in a shop on Southside, Birmingham's liberal, bohemian part of town displays a revealing message. "Welcome to Alabama", it says. "Please set your clocks back seven years." Now that I live elsewhere, I appreciate and understand even more this clever bit of snark. If things are to really change, people must be convinced to not fly the coop at the soonest available opportunity. And until that day, keep in mind the determining factors that go into shaping absolutely excessive bills like this one. Simple ignorance knows no bounds. Offensive ideas persist until they are challenged directly, not just by organizations like the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center who always intervene in such instances. But you couldn't pay me enough to return, either. My fate rests elsewhere now.

No comments: