Elite Insensitives: a new term for people who don't know that calling people "illegals" is pejorative

Elite Insensitives

by digby

I think this may be the more damning thing I've ever read about former New York Times editor Bill Keller. And there have been some doozies. Ironically, it comes from Keller himself. Apparently, he got some blowback from his readers for using the term "illegals" to describe human beings. And he was confused because he simply didn't understand why such a thing would be objectionable.

So, he consulted with an editor at the paper:

I had a feeling you would be hearing from folks on this one.

Yes, while it’s not explicit in the style book, our practice is to avoid “illegals” as well as “illegal aliens,” and on the other hand, to also steer clear of the euphemistic “undocumented workers.”

I do think “illegals” as a shorthand noun has an unnecessarily pejorative tone, and it is routinely used by the anti-immigration side. I think it’s wise to steer clear. We also get push back over “illegal immigrant,” but to me that’s just factual and neutral. However, I also encourage people to follow the lead of Julia Preston [who covers immigration issues for The Times] and look for more explicit descriptions when appropriate in specific cases, both to avoid formulaic repetition and to provide more information: “who overstayed his visa,” “working without a legal permit,” “who entered the country illegally,” etc., etc.

I think the term "illegals" is very specific to Latinos and therefore carries with it an obvious aspect of ethnic bigotry. (I can't imagine anyone referring to a European who overstayed a visa as an "illegal" can you?) It's the modern pejorative for a very old one: "wetback." I honestly can't imagine how anyone who lives in this world and follows this debate wouldn't know instinctively that calling a person an "illegal" is dehumanizing.

Of course people even used to refer to little babies as "illegitimate" so it's not unprecedented. But you'd think a New York Times journalist in 2011 would have developed a little sensitivity. On the other hand, this is a newspaper that can't bring itself to use the word torture for actions that have been defined by that word for centuries, so what do we expect?